27 January 2021

A Promised Land

Barack Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land, was published in November last year, barely a week after Joe Biden won the US presidential election. This is the first of two volumes, and covers most of Obama’s first term as President, ending with the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. As Obama explains, the book was intended to cover both terms of office in under 500 words, though this first volume alone is more than 700 pages long: “It’s fair to say that the writing process didn’t go exactly as I’d planned. Despite my best intentions, the book kept growing in length and scope—the reason why I eventually decided to break it into two volumes.”

Obama’s literary talents were evident long before his presidency, having already written two best-selling and highly acclaimed memoirs. So, as expected, A Promised Land is a remarkable book. One chapter, for example, ends with Obama musing on the fates of the letters he wrote: “Eventually the letter would fall into a drawer somewhere, forgotten under the acculumation of the new joys and pains that make up a life.” What other presidential memoir could describe correspondence in such poetic terms? (Certainly not George W. Bush’s Decision Points.)

It comes as no surprise that Obama distrusts Vladimir Putin, describing him as “the leader of what resembled a criminal syndicate as much as it did a traditional government”. As for Donald Trump and his disgraceful ‘birtherism’ lie, Obama is refreshingly direct: “the conspiracy theory he was promoting was racist.” A Promised Land is a reminder of the total contrast between Obama and his successor, a man not even fit to shine Obama’s shoes, let alone to fill them.

14 May 2016

The Black Presidency

The Black Presidency
The Black Presidency: Barack Obama & The Politics Of Race In America is Michael Eric Dyson's assessment of attitudes towards race since 2008. Dyson claims that this issue is at the heart of Obama's presidency: "Race is the defining feature of our forty-fourth president's two terms in office."

However, while Obama's race was central to his identity as a young man (as David Maraniss argues in Barack Obama: The Story), as President he "has often been slow to command the rostrum to address race." Arguably, his presidency has instead been dominated by his response to the economic crisis and his healthcare policy. (Dyson covers the 'Black Lives Matter' movement, perhaps the most significant racial issue of Obama's presidency, in only a single chapter.)

Dyson was able to interview Obama in the Oval Office, though only after some persuasion: "I'd had a tough time getting on his schedule, since race was not a subject the Obama White House had been eager to embrace. I'd used all my influence to talk to the president, reminding his trusted adviser Valerie Jarrett that I had... known him for nearly twenty years. After I'd politely declined an offer to speak to the president for ten minutes, I eventually negotiated a twenty-minute interview that turned into half an hour."

25 April 2016

Inside Obama's White House

Inside Obama's White House, a series of four hour-long documentaries examining the Barack Obama presidency, was broadcast on BBC2 recently. It began with Obama's economic stimulus and his bailouts of the banking and automotive industries following the global economic crisis.

The Affordable Care Act, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the consequences of the Arab Spring were also covered. The final episode dealt with major social issues such as gun control and race relations (the latter of which is the subject of Michael Eric Dyson's new book, The Black Presidency).

Obama's economic negotiations with the Republicans and his Afghan policy were not included, perhaps because they have been previously documented elsewhere (in two books by Bob Woodward). Similarly, his relations with Vladimir Putin were not discussed, though they were the subject of an earlier series by the same production company (Putin, Russia & The West).

The programmes were remarkable for their level of access to almost all of the key White House and Senate figures (with the exception of Vice President Joe Biden). Excerpts from two recent interview sessions with Obama himself were included throughout.

The four episodes are: 100 Days (broadast on 15th March), Obamacare (22nd March), Don't Screw It Up! (29th March; a milder form of Obama's foreign policy "don't do stupid shit"), and The Arc Of History (5th April). The episodes were directed by Paul Mitchell, Sarah Wallis, Delphine Jaudeau, and Mick Gold.

20 November 2013

Double Down

Double Down
Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, who covered the 2008 US presidential election in Game Change, have written a sequel, Double Down: Game Change 2012, about President Obama's re-election last year. Its UK subtitle is The Explosive Inside Account Of The 2012 Presidential Election.

2008 was an extraordinary contest, thanks to the rivalry between Obama and Hillary Clinton, the ridiculous Sarah Palin, and Obama's historic victory. 2012, when Obama defeated the bland Mitt Romney, was a more pedestrian election, though Double Down is still a fascinating account.

Halperin and Heilemann are both heavyweight political journalists, perhaps the only contemporary writers who can match Bob Woodward's level of access and influence. (Woodward's latest books are Obama's Wars and The Price Of Politics; he tends to focus on policies, whereas Halperin and Heilemann emphasise the personalities involved.)

Just as Game Change did in 2010, the revelations in Double Down have been making headlines, especially the book's claim that Obama's campaign team seriously considered replacing Joe Biden as Vice President with Hillary Clinton. The authors explain that "Biden didn't credit the speculation for a minute", though Clinton's own reaction is not included; presumably, she was one of the few key players who refused to be interviewed. Halperin and Heilemann spoke to practically everyone else, including Obama, Biden, Romney, and Bill Clinton (all on 'deep background', i.e. unattributed), though Hillary is conspicuous by her absence.

Double Down notes Obama's reaction to a previous book about his administration: he apparently complained that Ron Suskind's Confidence Men was "largely a piece of fiction". The anecdote is certainly credible, as Double Down's sources are second to none, though it also feels like schadenfreude from the authors towards one of their fellow political writers.

Halperin and Heilemann themselves became part of the narrative when Obama's election strategy was leaked to them: "two authors writing a book on the 2012 campaign knew all about the extraordinary session six weeks earlier; they had the whole roster of Obama's regrets in copious detail. "How could someone do this to me?" Obama asked". This leads to one of the book's most dramatic moments, with Obama storming out of a discussion with his most senior advisers, exasperated at the leak yet meeting another author that same afternoon: "At 2:55pm he had a meeting in the Oval Office. The meeting was with David Maraniss. For a fucking book interview". (The book was Barack Obama: The Story.)

Double Down is at its most captivating when analysing Obama's relationship with Bill Clinton, which develops from wary tolerance to mutual admiration. The book also provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of Obama's intense preparations for the presidential debates.

The midsection, with chapters devoted to the various Republican nominee contenders (Chris Christie, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, et al.), is less interesting, because Romney was clearly Obama's only serious rival. The other contenders were insignificant even in 2012, and should be only minor footnotes today.

01 October 2012

The Price Of Politics

The Price Of Politics
The Price Of Politics, by Bob Woodward, details last year's tortuous negotiations between President Obama and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner over the rise in America's debt ceiling. Woodward reconstructs the meetings between the two sides in considerable detail, supplemented by interviews with Obama and Boehner. (Woodward also interviewed Obama for his last book, Obama's Wars.)

The exhaustive detail limits the book's scope: the negotiations are covered in depth, but this sidelines any coverage of wider economic issues. (Ron Suskind's Confidence Men had a broader scope.) Also, Obama and Boehner's disputes are already familiar, and their bargaining and quibbling don't exactly make for a riveting read.

26 June 2012

Barack Obama: The Story

Barack Obama: The Story
Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss, is a biography of Obama's heritage and youth, covering roughly the same period as Obama's autobiography Dreams From My Father. It was published in the UK with a different subtitle: The Making Of The Man.

The book is over 600 pages long, and involved research trips to Kenya and Indonesia. It's hard to imagine a more thorough account of Obama's formative years. The level of background detail is sometimes excessive, with the first 200 pages devoted to Obama's parents and grandparents. Obama is not even born until page 165, and he starts university at the book's midpoint.

Maraniss characterises the young Obama as a man struggling with his sense of identity, growing up as a mixed-race child and viewed as an Oreo (black on the outside; white on the inside) by some of his college peers. Embracing his black identity became more of a conscious calculation that a natural progression: Maraniss quotes one friend's description of Obama as "the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity".

The narrative of Obama's memoir Dreams From My Father was central to this identity-construction. In his introduction (which Obama read before publication), Maraniss says that Obama's book "falls into the realm of literature": it presents autobiographical events, though each account is selected "to advance a theme, another thread in his musings about race". In his book, Obama admitted that "some of the characters that appear are composites of people I've known, and some events appear out of precise chronology", though Maraniss reveals the full extent of this artistic licence.

Genevieve Cook, a former girlfriend of Obama's, is one of Maraniss's most revealing sources, and Maraniss quotes extensively from her diary. Genevieve dismisses several of the anecdotes in Obama's book, and Maraniss later discussed the discrepancies with Obama himself: "Obama acknowledged that the scene did not happen with Genevieve. "It is an incident that happened," he said. But not with her". (Obama gave Maraniss an interview at the White House, as he had done for Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars and Ron Suskind's Confidence Men.)

Alongside the issue of racial identity, Maraniss portrays cool detachment as Obama's defining characteristic. He quotes one of Obama's former colleagues describing "that calm, rational, let's think this through demeanor, let's find a common ground. He's had that all along and that's helped shape him. Sometimes I wish he would pound his fists on the table".

06 October 2011

Confidence Men

Confidence Men
Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, & The Education Of A President, by Ron Suskind, reveals how Barack Obama's advisors dealt with the aftermath of the recent global economic crisis. It could have been called All The President's Men, but that title has already been taken by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Like Woodward (Obama's Wars), Suskind had top-level access, including an Oval Office interview with Obama; also like Woodward (and Game Change), Suskind's sources are mostly quoted anonymously.

Suskind depicts Obama as over-reliant on his aides, who take the opportunity to manipulate and even disregard the President. National Economic Council director Larry Summers, for example, is quoted complaining that "There's no adult in charge". Suskind's biggest scoop is his allegation that, after Obama instructed his economics team to find a way to restructure Citibank in 2009, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel ridiculed the idea and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner simply ignored it. (Geithner denies the allegation, and in his Suskind interview Obama side-steps the issue of Geithner's potential insubordination.)

01 October 2010

Obama's Wars

Obama's Wars
Obama's Wars (published in Britain with the subtitle The Inside Story), by Bob Woodward, is an account of Barack Obama's policies regarding the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Woodward, one of the world's most famous investigative reporters following his exposure of the Watergate scandal, has interviewed many of Obama's senior staff, though most of them are quoted anonymously. (Woodward employed the same 'deep background' reporting style for his books about Obama's predecessor, as did John Heilemann and Mark Halperin for Game Change.) Woodward was granted an hour-long Oval Office interview with Obama, as well as interviews with the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

23 February 2010

Game Change

Game Change
Game Change: Obama & The Clintons, McCain & Palin, & The Race Of A Lifetime (also published with the more manageable title Race Of A Lifetime: How Obama Won The White House), by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, is a journalistic account of the 2008 American presidential election campaign. Like Andrew Rawnsley's The End Of The Party (which covers contemporary UK politics), Game Change benefits from hundreds of senior yet unattributed sources.

The book's overall tone is rather gossipy, though it contains numerous revelations. While Barack Obama is certainly an infinitely better President than John McCain would have been, McCain was an amusing presidential candidate during the campaign (with hilarious appearances at the Al Smith Dinner and on Saturday Night Live). Game Change shows that McCain is privately much less entertaining, quoting angry outbursts directed at his wife. Hillary Clinton's aggressive plans to challenge Obama are also discussed, and Sarah Palin is revealed to be even more ignorant than we first thought.