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Barack Obama's memoir is a desperate attempt to seal a legacy. It fails

Carefully choreographed memoir turns a tidy phrase but cannot hide what an ordinary American president he turned out to be
Former US President Barack Obama (Illustration Mohamad Elaasar)

In his historic lecture in Cairo in June 2009, then US President Barack Obama, announced to an adoring crowd of young and enthusiastic Egyptians that he had come to "seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition".

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But when he left office eight years later, little had changed in the Middle East; as the wars dragged on, the killing sprees and the militia groups multiplied and the feverish instability only appeared to deepen.

Obama would be forced to reflect on failing to live up to the ideals of his Cairo appeal. "I was tempted to answer, of course - to point out that I'd be the first to say that no single speech would solve the region’s long-standing challenges," he writes in his new memoir A Promised Land, which was published in November.

"That we'd pushed hard on every initiative I mentioned that day, whether large (a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians), or small (the creation of training programmes for would-be entrepreneurs); that the arguments I made in Cairo were ones I'd still make."

Reality v rhetoric 

But just when you think Obama is done explaining why reality never matched up to his words, he goes on:

Obama's gentle words were always going to turn into spent tear-gas canisters, bullet casings and political detainees

"But in the end, the facts of what happened are the facts, and I'm left with the same set of questions I first wrestled with as a young organiser. How useful is it to describe the world as it should be when efforts to achieve that world are bound to fall short? Was Vaclav Havel [the Czech writer and dissident] correct in suggesting that by raising expectations, I was doomed to disappoint them?"

"Was it possible that abstract principles and high-minded ideals were and always would be nothing more than a pretence, a palliative, a way to beat back despair, but no match for the more primal urges that really moved us, so that no matter what we said or did, history was sure to run along its predetermined course, an endless cycle of fear, hunger and conflict, dominance and weakness?" Obama asks with a flourish of rhetoric.

As tidy as the turn of phrase may appear to be, there is a far simpler way to understand Obama's failures to live up to so-called promises of his speech to the so-called Muslim world back in 2009. Obama had come a Trojan horse. His gentle words were always going to turn into spent tear-gas canisters, bullet casings and political detainees.

 Nothing changed because everything was exactly how it was meant to be.

Seeking a legacy

A Promised Land is the first of a two-volume memoir by the 44th president. In it, Obama traces his early life and work as a community organiser, before turning to politics that would lead him to the White House.

Obama makes it clear from the get-go that even though he came guns-blazing, touting 'change' as a presidential candidate, he never truly believed in any of that

The book twists and turns, between nostalgia for lost family time and easier times with Michelle and his daughters, Sasha and Malia, and an almost banal and insufferable documentation of the enormous obstacles faced in Congress and the Senate. It ends, just as his first term did, with the killing of Osama bin Laden.

It is a painstakingly detailed account in which Obama stakes a claim at cementing an authorised legacy for himself and, it appears, the promise of America.

To do so, he celebrates the wins and humbles himself before the losses. He critiques the shortfalls of the American dream and mourns its many imperfections as a work-in-progress. He admires his witty one-liner exchanges with subordinates, presenting himself as self-deprecating but sharp, and ever willing to take the punches.

US President Barack Obama delivers his landmark address to the Muslim world on 4 June, 2009 in the Grand Hall of Cairo University in Cairo (AFP)
US President Barack Obama delivers his landmark address to the Muslim world on 4 June 2009 in the Grand Hall of Cairo University, Egypt (AFP)

But nothing is ever really his fault. No compromise is ever made due to personal want, but rather circumstance determines that he "marries passion with reason", as his beloved grandmother, Toot, taught him. In fact, Obama makes it clear from the get-go that even though he came guns-blazing, touting "change" as a presidential candidate, he never truly believed in any of that. At heart, and at his core, he has always been a reformer.

He was raised that way.

Always a reformer

To drive home this early lesson, he explains how Toot worked hard her entire life, suffered misogyny at the workplace but endured to finally retire comfortably later on. He cites her work ethic as the beating heart of the American dream. And he does so, without acknowledging that the post World War Two US economy was designed for white Americans, like his grandmother, often at the expense of Black Americans who were still being lynched, who still couldn't vote and were fundamentally still second-class citizens. 

Even as a mixed-race outsider, Obama's closeness to the status quo allowed him to grow up believing in the fundamental goodness of the system and hope in the idea of America

In other words, even as a mixed-race outsider, Obama's closeness to the status quo allowed him to grow up believing in the fundamental goodness of the system and hope in the idea of America.

This substandard lesson, that accounts for his firm belief in "moderation" over all else, sets the tone for 768 pages that oscillate between diary entries, entire Congressional and legislative jargon (of how policies worked or failed) and State Department briefings (when discussing foreign policy or nations) that often read like a B-grade Cold War spy novella. His willingness to turn a blind eye to foundational rot is not merely opportunistic, it explains his successful rise to the top.

For instance, when he is running to become a presidential nominee, he is approached to sign a petition (organised by ice cream magnates and progressives - except when it comes to Palestine - Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry's) which calls on candidates to commit to reducing the military budget. Obama refuses to sign. "I couldn't as president be hamstrung by any pledge I'd made when it came to our national security," he explains in the book.

But Obama knows the real reason is that signing it would have ruled him out as a future commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. How else would he, as a Black man, with a so-called Muslim name, be able to walk among them if he didn't become one of them?

Later, when he becomes the presidential nominee, his opponent John McCain chooses Sarah Palin as his running mate, Obama reflects: "I wonder sometimes whether with the benefit of hindsight McCain would still have chosen Palin - knowing how her spectacular rise and her validation as a candidate would provide a template for future politicians, shifting his party's centre and the country's politics overall in a direction he abhorred.

"I like to think that, given the chance to do it over again, he might have chosen differently."

But McCain is dead. Nothing Obama can say or do now will ever extricate Palin, who the Chicago Tribune described as "the political mother of Donald Trump", from McCain's legacy as his running mate.

Obama's memoir is scheduled to become the best selling presidential memoir in US history (Azad Essa/MEE)
Obama's memoir is scheduled to become the best-selling presidential memoir in US history (Azad Essa/MEE)

That Obama would apply a special generosity for McCain, as an individual, for having helped mainstream Palin's views, when the entire Republican Party would later coalesce around an openly racist, xenophobic, sexist Donald Trump, is an extraordinary feat of subterfuge towards those whose lives were upturned by the country's endorsement of Trump.

Even in hindsight, Obama refuses to accept the election of Trump in 2016 as more than a blip in the road to the "promised land". And even if he does, he refuses to be seen as "an angry Black man" invoking the spectre of the heavy hand of racism as a fundamental staple of American culture. "What I can say for certain is that I'm not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America - not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all of humankind," Obama writes.

Rehabilitating Bush

Reflecting on the aftermath of a presidential debate in 2008, in which he took the "bold" step of articulating the value of diplomacy and the need to talk to American adversaries (and was subsequently attacked by the right-wing for appearing "soft"), he explains: "As far as I was concerned, it was this disregard for diplomacy that had led Hillary [Clinton] and the rest - not to mention the mainstream press - to follow George W Bush into [the Iraq] war."

Both Michelle and Barack Obama do more than show allegiance to the office of the president over illegal invasions and dead brown people elsewhere. They would come to lead the charge in rehabilitating Bush's public persona

Even if that may be true, and it isn't, for the invasion had little to do with diplomacy and more to do with US empire-building, Obama would go on to select the same Hillary for secretary of state, the most important position after the vice-president and the de facto head of diplomacy. He also kept Bush's appointee as secretary of defence.

Both Michelle and Barack Obama would go on to do more than show allegiance to the office of the president over illegal invasions and dead brown people elsewhere. They would come to lead the charge in rehabilitating Bush's public persona.

Obama writes that while driving with Bush to his inauguration ceremony in early 2009, he saw protesters on the sides of the street carrying signs that read "INDICT BUSH" and "WAR CRIMINAL", in reference to his role in the US invasion of Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of people, resulted in endless violence and left a country in ruin. 

He admits he became "angry on [Bush's] behalf". "To protest [against] a man in the final hour of his presidency seemed graceless and unnecessary. More generally, I was troubled by what these last-minute protests said about the divisions that were churning across the country - and the weakening of whatever boundaries of decorum had once regulated politics," he writes.

Never mind the appalling characterisations of anti-war protesters, Obama appears to feign introspection by adding his annoyance was "probably in self-interest". The annoyance is of course entirely based on self-interest. And like much of the book, Obama thinks readers will forgive him on the mere account of being transparent about his vanity. We don't.

Writing about the Obamas' rehabilitation of Bush in 2019, Lucy Diavolo describes the phenomenon as a type of "class solidarity". "The idea that Michelle Obama shares values with George W Bush is evidence of how power unites the powerful, even if, as she said, they have disagreements on policy issues. (Though her husband's record on deportations and drone strikes has plenty of overlap with Bush's),"Diavolo wrote.

American brutality

But there are more egregious thoughts to come. In describing the extent of American brutality in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama again feigns introspection when framing whether America's use of torture, black sites, surveillance and waterboarding had "led people inside and outside the United States to question our nation’s commitment to the rule of law," as if this was a matter of debate.

The American government has participated in state-led acts of terror for decades … but, according to Obama, the moment he got into office he realised these were merely perspectives of those who didn't know better

The American government has participated in state-led acts of terror for decades, toppling governments, expanding its sphere of influence, expanding its ideological borders in its bid to build and maintain the empire. But, according to Obama, the moment he got into office he realised these were merely perspectives of those who didn't know better.

"I'd put forward what I considered to be clear positions on all these issues during the campaign. But that had been from the cheap seats, before I had hundreds of thousands of troops and a sprawling national security infrastructure under my command. Any terrorist attack would now happen on my watch. Any American lives lost or compromised, at home or abroad, would weigh uniquely on my conscience. These were my wars now.

"I had run to rebuild the American people's trust - not just in the government but in one another. If we trusted one another, democracy worked. If we trusted one another, the social compact held and we could solve big problems like wage stagnation and declining retirement security."

By his own admission, Obama was still a novice in politics by the time he chose to run for president. He was neither a veteran community organiser nor an established lawmaker. His stint in the Senate was paper-thin. Apart from a spectacular speech at the Democratic National Congress (DNC) in 2004, he had little but pretty words to show. He came at a time when Americans were reeling from the-then stupidity of the Bush years, which had seen America embroiled in the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Face of change

Obama and his team carefully marketed his entry as the face of change the Democrats so desperately needed. He came like a Gap or Benetton commercial, looking slick, calm and sophisticated. A pop video America could jive to. He was Black but choreographed to be in no way offensive. 

Obama came at a time when Americans were reeling from the-then stupidity of the Bush years, which had seen America embroiled in the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

His shortage of experience was made up by strong endorsements from political elites such as the Kennedy family. His opposition to the Iraq war was countered with a special trip weeks before the elections to visit troops abroad (his team made sure he was captured with Aviators in a helicopter). 

But the lack of political grounding meant that while he understood colonialism, racism and structural inequality, and would invoke them in speeches, none of it would fundamentally move him to undercut his personal ambition. And it showed.

Obama's detailing of the euphoria entering the White House for the first time is really the extension of the fulfilment of the American promise and not the exceptionalism of his circumstances. He takes in the stylish rooms and gilded ceilings and the showy paintings as if he had taken his ancestors and all disenfranchised people to the table of power; the catharsis is not taking the cause of Black people forward, it is in him being the White House itself.

He absorbs the tears of African-American staff at the White House, who tell him how thrilled they feel to have him in the Oval Office. Obama makes a conscious choice not to make anyone uncomfortable, not to even come across as too invested in elevating Black voices or the project of racial justice. Instead he makes tidy baskets.

He is deliberate in choosing not to take the discussion forward, deliberate in positioning himself as a burdened pragmatist. Instead he focuses on performing as the people’s president; he is photographed running between offices with his friend Joe Biden; he references hip hop and fist bumps kids on school outings.

The Obama-administration delivered the largest military aid package in history to Israel in 2016  (Azad Essa/MEE)
The Obama administration delivered the largest military aid package in history to Israel in 2016 (Azad Essa/MEE)

He is Captain Cool. The liberal media laps it up. Obama would go on to instrumentalise his Blackness and offer a reprieve for millions of Black people long under the boot, while allaying the fears of white Americans by always "looking presidential", beating bad guys abroad and staying clear of radical ideas that would have them fearing emasculation.

He would accept the call to be the Old Testament's Joshua, but would go on to weaponise the cultural power of Blackness to mute expedited calls for racial and economic justice.

Why else would he have chosen the Iraq-war-endorsing, segregationist-supporting, social-security-undermining Biden as a chaperone other than to avail the fears of white voters? 

The common touch

In his memoir, Obama makes an effort to name the gardeners, the butlers and those who sent memorable letters to the White House. He detests formality and pretension to the point of the performative. "It would take us months of coaxing before the butlers were willing to swap their tuxedos for khakis and polo shirts when serving us meals," Obama writes.

Instead of repeating the sacrifices of his wife and daughters as they lost their privacy to the madness of his presidential quest, Obama would have done better to reflect on the cost of American empire on the children who lost their parents to American weapons

It is meant to elucidate the common touch of the man, these again are only tokens in a presidency that ultimately left ordinary drivers and landscapers none the better by the end of his second term. The type of administration that found no shame in cosying up to the world's richest man Jeff Bezos and his Amazon empire, so much so that Jay Carney, Obama's former press secretary (2011-2014) would become the head of public relations and public policy at Amazon.

Obama surely cannot be held responsible for the decisions of his ex-staff, but their choices tell us plenty about who they are.

And even if Obama's attention to the details of names and faces is remotely genuine, and not part of a template to appear people-centric (which he admits his speechwriter Ben Rhodes actually joked about), he would have done better to name at least one civilian killed by way of the wars he inherited and, in his own words, then led. He doesn't.

Instead of repeating the sacrifices of his wife and daughters as they lost their privacy to the madness of his presidential quest, he would have done better to reflect on the cost of American empire on the children who lost their parents to American weapons or American-backed authoritarian regimes propping up American interests.

"But the actual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq hadn't involved the indiscriminate bombing or deliberate targeting of civilians that had been a routine part of even 'good' wars like World War Two; and with glaring exceptions like Abu Ghraib, our troops in theatre had displayed a remarkable level of discipline and professionalism," he reasons.

He continues: "As I saw it, then, my job was to fix those aspects of our CT [counter terror] effort that needed fixing, rather than tearing it out root and branch to start over."

A manufactured history

Instead of toasting America's dedication to democracy worldwide, he would have done better to reflect on the absolute mess his administration midwifed into existence. But South Sudan doesn't even get a mention in his memoir. Nor do the child soldiers his administration's money helped perpetuate. 

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Likewise, instead of narrating a "gangster-like" intervention at a key climate conference in 2009, where he walked in unannounced to a meeting with the heads of states of China, Brazil, South Africa and India, and walked out with their signatures in what would become the Copenhagen Accord, he would have done better to explain why the US military is the biggest polluter on the planet. 

"I did feel pretty good. On the biggest of stages, on an issue that mattered and with the clock ticking, I’d pulled a rabbit out of a hat," Obama writes. At times the admiration for self is obnoxious. At times the endless vomit reads like arresting compensation by a proud man who just cannot face up to the image of his own manufacture.

Together, the long passages read like the delirium of a man hoping that one of the explanations will salvage a legacy. Neither the stirring descriptions nor the clever spin can hide the fact that A Promised Land is no different to Lady Macbeth hysterically washing her hands.

Obama might have been America's first Black president. He might count as the most charming and silver-tongued; with Aviators, the most photogenic of commander-in-chiefs on Instagram. But when the fog lifts, and the hagiographies shrivel, history will pick through the popular incarnations of his manufactured history to reveal what an ordinary American president he turned out to be.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition. 

Azad Essa | Senior Reporter
Azad Essa is a senior reporter for Middle East Eye based in New York City. He worked for Al Jazeera English between 2010-2018 covering southern and central Africa for the network. He has written for the Washington Post, Foreign Policy and others. He is the author of the 'The Moslems are Coming' (Harper Collins India) and 'Zuma's Bastard' (Two Dogs Books). He was a visiting Nieman Fellow in 2019.