Saturday, December 19, 2020

when he was President

Barack Obama, A Promised Land (Crown)

This 700-page memoir was my Hanukkah present from B., and I read it in a week by just keeping it at the kitchen table and reading over meals and whenever else I was there. It's an oddly-shaped narrative, including not much more than the first two years of his presidency, concluding with the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in May 2011. It's intended as a quietly triumphal ending, though I find it hard to feel joyful at an execution, no matter whose. However, Obama also covers the entire personal history of his political aspirations from childhood on, and his presidential inauguration - which passes almost unnoticed; Obama is not very interested in the ceremonial part of his office - only occurs a third of the way through the book.

Throughout his political rise, Obama finds himself tormented with the question of whether, rather than honestly pursuing avenues for political change, he's instead just feeding his ego. But the fact that he keeps asking this question suggests that the answer is "no". He's also always concerned with the effect of his career on his wife and children. Unlike the early astronauts, whose memoirs I've also been reading, who were all career-first at the time and rueful about it afterwards, Obama is at least rueful at the time, even if the disruption to his family life never slows his career. At least there are compensations in the form of helpful staff and fun family trips, and the presidency does have the advantage over earlier offices that he can always run upstairs and be home for dinner. He doesn't mention his daughters in the acknowledgments, but I hope he ran the relevant parts past them, though by now they've probably matured past the stage where descriptions of your earlier childhood antics are exquisitely embarrassing.

Especially once he becomes President, Obama is concerned about not just what he did in office, but in how he felt about it and how he behaved. The accoutrements of the presidency were sometimes disconcerting and sometimes a nuisance, but he's never fazed by the responsibility of the job, and he remarks at how others were surprised by how much he takes things in stride. (An informality of approach is suggested by his quoting his aides calling him "boss" as often as "sir" or "Mr. President.") He does worry about taking bad decisions and making gaffes, and about his tendency to be professorial and bore people. The professor shows up untamed in this book, with extensive background lessons on every major issue that comes up, domestic or foreign. But these are lucidly presented, and whether the reader's eyes will glaze over will depend on your level of interest in the particular subject.

In keeping with Obama's laid-back attitude, he finds Republican obstructionism to be more quizzical than actively aggravating, which perhaps accounts for his policy of not doing very much about it. He doesn't seem entirely aware of how dismaying this was to his supporters. For folding over the ACA in a completely unsuccessful attempt to get some Republican votes he blames Max Baucus, the chair of the Senate Finance committee, who kept on being sure he could do it. But it collapses in this meeting with Chuck Grassley, who kept on coming up with objections to each new version of the bill:
"Let me ask you a question, Chuck," I said finally. "If Max took every one of your latest suggestions, could you support the bill?"
"Well ..."
"Are there any changes - any at all - that would get us your vote?"
There was an awkward silence before Grassley looked up and met my gaze.
"I guess not, Mr. President."
And that, I think, is the obituary of the Obama administration right there.

But you don't read a lengthy memoir like this for the downers and the clashes. You read it for the one truly delicious anecdote that's required to be buried in there somewhere. Here it is:
Around six in the morning on October 9, 2009, the White House operator jolted me from sleep to say that Robert Gibbs was on the line. Calls that early from my staff were rare, and my heart froze. Was it a terrorist attack? A natural disaster?
"You were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize," Gibbs said.
"What do you mean?"
"They just announced it a few minutes ago."
"For what?"
Gibbs tactfully ignored the question. Favs would be waiting outside the Oval to work with me on whatever statement I wanted to make, he said. After I hung up, Michelle asked what the call was about.
"I'm getting the Nobel Peace Prize."
"That's wonderful, honey," she said, then rolled over to get a little more shut-eye.

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