Whatever 2020 has shown us about ourselves, it revealed how the stubborn presence of racism and partisanship is reducing the reality of this American dream for so many. Obama’s memoir is yet another testament to how legacy hatreds and habits, amplified by modern media, make reforming obsolete institutions extremely difficult. As Obama’s popularity increased, resistance to who he is and what he stood for grew, as well as obstructing his efforts to pass meaningful legislation. Opponents called his proposals “socialism” and demagogues questioned the fact of his birth in the United States. “My very presence in the White House,” says Obama, “triggered a deep panic, the feeling that the natural order had been disturbed.”
Other presidents had already felt the spur of partisanship and some had found temporary unity in the use of force abroad. But that is not enough, especially now, when our country faces so many serious political challenges. “A Promised Land” reminds readers of what we can be as a humane and democratic society, and also explains how a president cannot do it alone. The leader of the free world has the power to affect many lives, for better or for worse, but he has relatively little ability to reform our decaying institutions and harmful behaviors without the cooperation of lawmakers and fuller participation. citizens.
Obama has led an exciting campaign on restoring fairness and opportunity for Americans, but he has spent most of his difficult presidency holding one disaster after another. His memories of his first term are filled with repeated frustrations and regrets, born of the crises that have caused him to derail several times. He inherited an economy plagued by depression, rapidly deteriorating national infrastructure, failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and aggressive adversaries in Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.
So much for a powerful and transformative US presidency. Obama’s memoirs show how difficult it is for a reformist president to do anything. He strengthened recovery and affordable care laws through Congress, bailing out large segments of the economy and creating the first option of public health insurance for all citizens, with much needed legislative assistance from the President of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Obama also signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which limited financial institutions’ risk-taking and created a federal body to monitor predatory lending. These were important and lasting achievements.
Nonetheless, Obama recounts how even these achievements have turned into half measures due to organized opposition from industries, vested interests, and most importantly, congressional Republicans determined to oppose anything that comes out of the White House.
Many of the most crucial political issues were complex, requiring careful attention to details that did not match partisan assumptions or media sound bites. Designing financial and environmental regulations, for example, requires an appreciation of both markets and the role of government in protecting the public good, rather than an instinctive defense of one position over another. Although Obama assembled a team of talented advisers to penetrate these complexities, he could not find enough partners in Congress or explanations in the media.
No reader will be surprised that the former president is largely directing his anger against Republicans. Obama doesn’t deny that Democrats were partisan too, but he does maintain that his party followed the rules, embraced the truth, and tried to improve the country. He admits to many blind spots and limitations, and he criticizes the excesses of his own supporters who were eager to change immediately.
Obama explains that Republicans have taken another dangerous step to wage a self-declared war against a black president they simply could not accept. Writing about Donald Trump’s ‘birther’ attacks, the former president’s anger jumps off the page: “It was clear that Trump did not care about the consequences of spreading conspiracy theories he almost certainly knew to be false. , provided that it achieves its objectives; and he understood that all the guardrails which had once defined the limits of acceptable political discourse had long since been pulled down. ”
Obama is not targeting Trump alone; he sees a larger group of Republican enablers, determined to undermine his presidency at all costs: “There wasn’t much difference between Trump and [House Speaker John] Boehner or [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell. They too understood that it didn’t matter whether what they said was true. They didn’t have to believe that I was bankrupting the country or that Obamacare was promoting euthanasia. In fact, the only difference between Trump’s political style and theirs was Trump’s lack of inhibition. ”
These internal difficulties have followed Obama abroad, complicating nuclear negotiations with Russia, peace efforts around Israel, and American responses to the Arab Spring. The book’s foreign policy chapters reveal Obama’s own uncertainty over how best to pursue US national interests abroad, but they also show little help from the other side of the aisle.
Obama was a liberal internationalist by inclination, dedicated to multilateralism and the building of cooperative global institutions. It has supported international climate negotiations, it has pursued free trade agreements, and it has sought Allied support for the use of military force. He refers at least three times to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War as models of how American power could encourage change through trust and cooperation, not militant unilateralism.
Obama’s internationalism has left a mixed record on foreign policy, as he himself admits, and this has motivated Republicans to abandon their own long-standing internationalism in order to display their anti-Obama credentials. Former Republican internationalists, such as Senators Lindsay Graham and John Cornyn, quickly turned into “America First” advocates in an attempt to bring down the president. Foreign policy has exacerbated divisions in the country.
Her portrayal of this moment, and the collective response it elicited from the audience, feels far removed from the American present. We don’t need to abandon our parties, but we need to prioritize serving our country. Obama offers a compelling account of his own heartfelt service to improve the American nation he loves. He asks how we can summon a return to the broader public good and a rejection of narrowness among all of our leaders. Perhaps we can begin by highlighting models of service above selfishness, starting with our newly elected president.
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