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When I was a toddler, the grownups read Time Magazine so they could sound smart at cocktail parties. They didn’t read the books reviewed there or dig into The Times for deeper reporting. They didn’t have to. After a few minutes on any topic, every gleaned tidbit had been shared and the conversation would move on.
Barack Obama’s book fills 768 pages. It weighs 2.4 pounds. It opens on the bestseller list at #1. The publisher printed 3.4 million copies for the U.S. and Canada, another 2.5 million for international sales — such an enormous number that 1.5 million had to be printed in Germany. It’s been translated into 19 languages. It’s the biggest book of the year. [Michelle Obama’s book sold 1.4 million copies in the first week, became the year’s biggest selling book a week later, and went on to sell 14 million copies.] I tell you all this because you are certain to find yourself in a conversation about the book — love Obama or hate him, no way are you going to avoid it. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the audiobook, read by Barack Obama, click here.]
This is not a Guest Butler review. It’s not a descendant of a Time Magazine cheatsheet. It’s the New York Times review. [If you’d prefer to read it on the Times site, click here.] It’s long: 4,600 words. It is masterful — it’s worth reading as a great piece of writing. The reviewer is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the novels “Purple Hibiscus,” “Half of a Yellow Sun” and “Americanah,” and a short-story collection, “The Thing Around Your Neck.’ A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she divides her time between the United States and Nigeria.
Barack Obama is as fine a writer as they come. It is not merely that this book avoids being ponderous, as might be expected, even forgiven, of a hefty memoir, but that it is nearly always pleasurable to read, sentence by sentence, the prose gorgeous in places, the detail granular and vivid. From Southeast Asia to a forgotten school in South Carolina, he evokes the sense of place with a light but sure hand. This is the first of two volumes, and it starts early in his life, charting his initial political campaigns, and ends with a meeting in Kentucky where he is introduced to the SEAL team involved in the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
His focus is more political than personal, but when he does write about his family it is with a beauty close to nostalgia. Wriggling Malia into her first ballet tights. Baby Sasha’s laugh as he nibbles her feet. Michelle’s breath slowing as she falls asleep against his shoulder. His mother sucking ice cubes, her glands destroyed by cancer. The narrative is rooted in a storytelling tradition, with the accompanying tropes, as with the depiction of a staffer in his campaign for the Illinois State Senate, “taking a drag from her cigarette and blowing a thin plume of smoke to the ceiling.” The dramatic tension in the story of his gate-crashing, with Hillary Clinton by his side, to force a meeting with China at a climate summit is as enjoyable as noir fiction; no wonder his personal aide Reggie Love tells him afterward that it was some “gangster shit.” His language is unafraid of its own imaginative richness. He is given a cross by a nun with a face as “grooved as a peach pit.” The White House groundskeepers are “the quiet priests of a good and solemn order.” He questions whether his is a “blind ambition wrapped in the gauzy language of service.” There is a romanticism, a current of almost-melancholy in his literary vision. In Oslo, he looks outside to see a crowd of people holding candles, the flames flickering in the dark night, and one senses that this moves him more than the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony itself.
And what of that Nobel? He is incredulous when he hears he has been awarded the prize.
“For what?” he asks. It makes him wary of the gap between expectation and reality. He considers his public image overinflated; he pushes pins into his own hype balloons.
Obama’s thoughtfulness is obvious to anyone who has observed his political career, but in this book he lays himself open to self-questioning. And what savage self-questioning. He considers whether his first wanting to run for office was not so much about serving as about his ego or his self-indulgence or his envy of those more successful. He writes that his motives for giving up community organizing and going to Harvard Law are “open to interpretation,” as though his ambition were inherently suspect. He wonders if he perhaps has a fundamental laziness. He acknowledges his shortcomings as a husband, he mourns his mistakes and broods still on his choice of words during the first Democratic primaries. It is fair to say this: not for Barack Obama the unexamined life. But how much of this is a defensive crouch, a bid to put himself down before others can? Even this he contemplates when he writes about having “a deep self-consciousness. A sensitivity to rejection or looking stupid.”
His reluctance to glory in any of his achievements has a particular texture, the modesty of the Brilliant American Liberal, which is not so much false as it is familiar, like a much-practiced pose. It brings an urge to say, in response, “Look, take some credit already!”
The rare moment when he does take credit, arguing that his recovery act made the American financial system bounce back faster than any nation’s in history with a similar substantial shock, has a dissonant echo for being so unusual. His self-assessment is harsh even about his first stirring of social awareness in his teenage years. He passes an adult judgment on his navel-gazing politics, labeling it self-righteous and earnest and humorless. But of course it was; it always is at that age.
This tendency, darker than self-awareness but not as dark as self-loathing, seems to have fed in him something charitable, a wholesome humanity, a deep generosity; it is as though he is both freed and ennobled by having dealt himself the severest hand. And so he is lavish with forgiveness and with praise, giving the benefit of the doubt even to those barely deserving. He makes heroes of people: Claire McCaskill voting her conscience for the Dream Act, Tim Geithner’s grace during the upheavals of the financial crash, Chuck Hagel’s principled support of his foreign policy. His affection for his first-term inner circle — Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs, Rahm Emanuel — is moving, as is the work culture he creates, of not looking for scapegoats when things go wrong. He makes a point of regularly reading the letters of ordinary Americans not just to keep abreast of the concerns of the electorate but to lift his own spirits and suppress his own doubts. On George W. Bush’s last day in the White House, Obama is angry to see protesters, thinking it “graceless and unnecessary” to protest a man in the final hours of his presidency. A lovely human response. But this being Barack Obama, self-indicter extraordinaire, he is quick to add that there is surely an element of self-interest in his position since he is now about to become president.
And yet for all his ruthless self-assessment, there is very little of what the best memoirs bring: true self-revelation. So much is still at a polished remove. It is as if, because he is leery of exaggerated emotion, emotion itself is tamped down. He writes exhaustively about the nuts and bolts of passing his landmark Affordable Care Act, but with an absence of any interiority. “I love that woman,” he says of Nancy Pelosi, after a phone conversation about the only way to bypass a Republican filibuster in the Senate — by passing the Senate version of the bill in the House. But we do not get anywhere near a measure of what emotional or even intellectual price he has paid for the many malicious Republican roadblocks which made that phone conversation necessary in the first place. “If I sometimes grew despondent, even angry, over the amount of misinformation that had flooded the airwaves, I was grateful for my team’s willingness to push harder and not give up,” he writes. And one immediately thinks: if?
The determined and deliberate Republican opposition to Obama feels astonishingly reckless in retrospect — members of Congress oppose bills they haven’t fully read, merely because they are Obama’s bills. It does not matter to them what the consequences might be for the country. One cannot help wondering if Obama imagines what his administration would have been without the Republican rancor. What if the billionaire conservative ideologues David and Charles Koch had not convened their sinister-sounding conclave of some of America’s richest conservatives with the singular goal of strategizing how to fight Obama? What if the Republican hostility had not shaped the way the media, and consequently the public, viewed his administration? That Obama himself uses the term “Obamacare” — which at first was a derisive term used by the right for the Affordable Care Act — is revealing in how much the right set the agenda during his administration. When he writes about realizing that it was not merely his policies that the Tea Party had demonized, but him personally, his sentences are edged with an elusive quality, something detached and impenetrable.
With foreign policy, he is less guarded. He even manages a kind of poetic jingoism, where nearly every criticism of the United States is mere preface to an elegant and spirited defense. In this sense Barack Obama defies the stereotype of the American Liberal for whom American failure on the world stage is not the starter course but the main. He is a true disciple of American exceptionalism. That America is not merely feared but also respected is, he argues, proof that it has done something right even in its imperfectness. “Those who complained about America’s role in the world still relied on us to keep the system afloat,” he writes, a reactionary position, as if it were innately contradictory to question America’s outsize role and also expect America to do well at the job it chose to give itself.
The highlight of the political memoir is the gossipy bit, the small detail that surprises or upends what we imagine we know. That rousing rallying cry of the Obama campaign, “Yes We Can”? It was Axelrod’s idea, which Obama thought corny, until Michelle said it wasn’t corny at all. Think of the iconic image of Jesse Jackson crying on the night Obama won the presidency. Here, we learn that Jackson’s support for Obama’s presidential campaign was “more grudging” than the enthusiastic support of his son Jesse Jackson Jr. And how odd, that the first family pays out of pocket for food and toilet paper. Who would have thought that it would be generals rather than civilians who counseled Obama for more restraint in the use of force throughout the eight years of his presidency? Or that he is actually a slow walker, with what Michelle called a Hawaiian walk, after so many images of him nimbly bounding up plane steps, striding across the White House lawn? Or, given his image of tireless discipline, that he is “messy” in that childlike absent-minded way that only men manage to be, knowing that someone will see to the mess. Someone usually a woman.
His loving friendship with Michelle sparkles in its solidity. He acknowledges the sacrifices she has made for him, and the pressures his political life thrust on her. When they first meet, she is “tailored and crisp, focused on her career and doing things the way they’re supposed to be done, with no time for nonsense.” She is also, briefly, his mentor. She is perhaps the reason, along with his grandmother and mother, remarkable and unusual women both, that he seems so genuinely alert to misogyny. He articulates the burdens women face, the double standards and unfairness, the contradictory impulses of a sexist world, with a fluidity and fluency that can oddly lead to a kind of resentment. It is like a beleaguered new mother in middle-class America, overwhelmed and leaking milk, who looks at her patient, helpful husband and feels a burst of rage because what she wants is not his empathy but a new world in which his empathy is redundant. Here at last is a man who gets it, and yet that he so perfectly gets it feels like an affront. Is it a clever metaphorical take on gender role reversal that he frequently describes the physical looks of men and not of women? We are told of the handsomeness of men like Charlie Crist and Rahm Emanuel, but not the beauty of women, except for one or two instances, as in the case of Sonia Gandhi.
More practically, he hires women and intervenes decisively when female staffers complain of misogynistic behavior from male staffers, but because of his history with Hillary Rodham Clinton, one cannot help scouring his portrayal of her for larger lessons on his view of women as equal political actors. His respect for Clinton rings true. In his early Senate days, his team looked to her as guide and inspiration. Their goal was to be, as she was, a “workhorse and not a showhorse.” He writes that her crying in New Hampshire, so unfairly mocked in the media, was a “rare and genuine show of emotion.” He clarifies his statement during their debate — “you’re likable enough” — which was meant to show his disdain for the question itself, how women are expected to be nice in ways that men never are. And just as this exegesis is about to end satisfactorily, he writes that he considered Clinton as his running mate but decided it would be too complicated. One can imagine perfectly sensible reasons for this complication, but the one we are given? The awkwardness of a former president roaming the West Wing without a clear portfolio. She doesn’t get offered the job because of her husband.
And then there are his biographical sketches, masterful in their brevity and insight and humor. Of the stone-faced Emily, a staffer on the Iowa campaign: “My charm and wit invariably crashed on the rocks of her steady, unblinking gaze, and I settled on trying to do exactly what she told me.” Vladimir Putin reminds him of the tough, street-smart ward bosses who used to run the Chicago machine. Also on Putin: “Physically, he was unremarkable.” Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh both come across as having a kind of impassive integrity. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has the manner of “someone who’s burned away frivolity and distractions from his life.” Rahul Gandhi has “a nervous, unformed quality about him, as if he were a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject.” Joe Biden is a decent, honest, loyal man who Obama senses “might get prickly if he thought he wasn’t given his due — a quality that might flare up when dealing with a much younger boss.” Chuck Grassley would “hem and haw about this or that problem he had with the bill without telling us what exactly it would take to get him to yes.” Sarah Palin had “no idea what the hell she was talking about” on the subject of governance. What Mitch McConnell “lacked in charisma or interest in policy he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness and shamelessness — all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power.” Nicolas Sarkozy, bold and opportunistic, has “his chest thrust out like a bantam cock’s.”
In a private meeting, Hu Jintao reads from stacks of prepared papers, so monotonous that Obama considers suggesting “that we could save each other time by just exchanging papers and reading them at our leisure.” Lindsey Graham is the guy in the spy thriller or heist movie “who double-crosses everyone to save his own skin.” Harry Reid is brusque and decent and honest. “You can win,” he tells a startled Obama long before Obama thought he could. And with characteristic Camelot charisma, Ted Kennedy tells him, “You don’t choose the time. The time chooses you.”
If Kennedy’s words suggest a sense of destiny, it isn’t clear how much Obama himself wants it. He is a conflicted and sometimes reluctant participant in politics, a man who feels increasingly lonely as the size of his crowds swells, an unlikely leader with both a bohemian distrust of established politics and a realist’s resignation to it. And how unlikely his political ascent. He attended the Democratic National Convention in 2000, invited by a friend, his fortune in tatters, unable to rent a car because his credit card was maxed out, barred from the convention floor because his credential was too low-rank. And then four years later he gave the keynote speech that ultimately propelled him to the presidency.
There is, from the beginning, a sense that he is above the muck of politics. In the Illinois State Senate, a colleague doesn’t pressure Obama to support a less-than-ethical deal, because “Barack’s different, he’s going places.”
Obama risks a lot to run for the U.S. Senate — Michelle objects because she likes their privacy, and because they have little savings which would further shrink if he stopped practicing law — and puts in much effort, and yet there is a sense that were he to lose, he would not be crushed. “I don’t think you’ll be unhappy if you never become president,” Axe tells him during the campaign. Perhaps it is that he wants to be president but does not need to be, that he is interested in power not for power’s sake but for what he might achieve with it, and that he would take any route that might bring about change, even if it did not involve accruing personal power.
This might be why, after eight years as president, he still comes across as a kind of outsider, writing about the political process as though he were not participating in it but merely looking in. His jaded description of the State of the Union address — the ritualized drama of it, no bipartisan clapping except for any mention of troops overseas — has an undercurrent of ironic humor, but one with a broken heart at its center. He wishes things were different. He wishes that Senate confirmations were not made difficult merely to embarrass the administration in power, that issues important to ordinary citizens were not overlooked because they do not have expensive lobbyists roaming the halls of Congress on their behalf, that senators were not bullied into voting a certain way, as Olympia Snowe was by Mitch McConnell, when he threatened to strip her of her committee ranking post unless she backed away from supporting Obama’s bill.
So obvious is Obama’s longing for a different way, that he admires the friendship across party lines of the old bulls of the Senate — Kennedy, Orrin Hatch, John Warner — which is lacking in the younger generation of senators whom he describes as having the “sharper ideological edge that had come to characterize the House of Representatives after the Gingrich era.” Bipartisanship is important to him — he wanted Bob Gates in his administration, to help push against his own biases — and there is a lingering sense that he thinks as much, if not more, of those he has not won over as of those he has.
Some progressives are disappointed in Obama for not delivering what he never promised to deliver, and he seems keen to address them, writing that the image of him as “starry-eyed idealist” was not quite accurate. His is instead a pragmatic idealism, influenced by his grandmother. “She was the reason why, even in my most revolutionary moments as a young man, I could admire a well-run business and read the financial pages, and why I felt compelled to disregard overly broad claims about the need to tear things up and remake society from whole cloth.”
It is also why, as president, he is cleareyed about the reality of governance. “I didn’t like the deal. But in what was becoming a pattern, the alternatives were worse,” he writes, words that might apply to almost every major decision he makes. It says something about Obama and about the complicated nature of his presidency that he is sometimes called anti-business by Wall Street and a friend of Wall Street by progressives. And in case anybody was wondering, he admires the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush for managing the end of the gulf war. He did not support the Iraq war but considers Afghanistan a war of necessity.
He writes that Republicans are better at fighting to win, and there is a wistfulness to his unstated longing for a similar sense of tribal loyalty on the left. When the public option was stripped from the A.C.A. bill because it would not pass otherwise, many Democrats were understandably furious. Obama expected that they would share his pragmatism, that they would understand that he had no choice if he wanted the bill to pass. He makes a convincing argument here for accepting the imperfect A.C.A., because social welfare policies like the Civil Rights Act and New Deal started off imperfect and were built upon. Why did he not, publicly and consistently, make this argument then?
But it is on the subject of race that I wish he had more to say now. He writes about race as though overly aware that it will be read by a person keen to take offense. Instances of racism are always preceded by other examples that ostensibly show the absence of racism. And so, while we hear an Iowan supporter say, “I’m thinking about voting for the nigger,” we see many nice Iowans who just care about the issues. The racist incident is never allowed to be and breathe, fully aired out, unmuddied by that notion of “complexity.” Of course racism is always complex, but complexity as an idea too often serves as an evasive device, a means of keeping the conversation comfortable, never taking the full contours of racism to avoid alienating white Americans.
Obama recognizes, during his run for president, that while special-interest politics — by ethnic groups, farmers, gun-control enthusiasts — is the norm in America, it is only Black Americans who practice it at their peril. To focus too much on “Black issues” like civil rights or police misconduct is to risk the backlash of whites. During the Iowa caucus, Gibbs tells Obama, “Trust me, whatever else they know about you, people have noticed that you don’t look like the first 42 presidents.” In other words: We don’t need to remind them that you’re Black. What goes unsaid is that were Blackness politically benign, then it should make no difference if voters were reminded of it. There is something so unfair about this and yet one realizes that the approach was probably the most pragmatic, the only way to win, much as pragmatic brings with it a foul smell.
About the Black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who was arrested by a white officer as he tried to break into his own home, Obama considers his view as “more particular, more human, than the simple black-and-white morality tale.” He argues that the police overreacted in arresting Gates, just as the professor overreacted to their arrival at his home, which feels like the kind of facile equating that is usually the forte of the racially naïve. Both sides were bad, as though both sides are equal in power. (And yet he learns from internal polling that the single incident that caused the biggest drop in support among white voters throughout his entire presidency was the Gates incident.)
There is a similar loftiness, if not a mild condescension, on the subject of Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of the church the Obamas sporadically attended in Chicago, whose fiery sermon criticizing American racism became a scandal during Obama’s campaign. Obama writes of his “rants that were usually grounded in fact but bereft of context,” and suggests that anger about racism was out of place in a congregation of wealthy successful Black people, as though class in America somehow cancels race. Of course Obama has a fine-toothed understanding of American racism but perhaps because of his unique parentage and history, he has cast himself as the conciliatory middle child, preferring to leave unsaid truths that might inflame, and insulating those said in various layers of cant.
He is brooding still about his infamous description of the rural white working class — “They get bitter, they cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations” — because he hates to be misunderstood, which is reasonable enough. He has empathy for the white working class and was after all raised by a grandfather with working-class roots. But in clarifying his position he writes, “Throughout American history, politicians have redirected white frustration about their economic or social circumstances toward Black and brown people.” It is a strange act of abdication of responsibility. Is white working-class racism merely the result of evil politicians hoodwinking hapless white people?
And so when he writes that John McCain never displayed the “race-tinged nativism” common in other Republican politicians, one wishes that there were more fully-fleshed examples of those, in a book that sometimes seems to conflate a sophisticated take on race and a dismissive one.
To reset the debate on the health care bill, Obama addresses a joint session of Congress. As he corrects the falsehood that the bill would cover undocumented immigrants, a little-known congressman named Joe Wilson, red with fury (racist fury, in my opinion), shouts “You lie!,” and in that moment he is partaking in that age-worn American tradition of a white man disrespecting a Black man even if that Black man is of a higher class. Obama writes that he was “tempted to exit my perch, make my way down the aisle, and smack the guy in the head.” His downplaying of the matter at the time is understandable — he is a Black man who cannot afford anger — but now, in this recounting, that he writes of his reaction using the childlike language of a hypothetical smack is bewildering. What does it mean to be publicly insulted, the first time such a thing has happened to a president of the United States addressing a joint session of Congress?
Yes, his assumed foreignness, his unusual parentage and name, played a role in the reception he got, but if his were a white foreignness, if his father were Scandinavian or Irish or Eastern European, and if his middle name were Olaf or even Vladimir, the demonizing would not be quite so dark. If he were not Black he would not have gotten so many death threats that he was given Secret Service protection very early in the primaries; long before he even knew he would win he already had bulletproof barriers in his bedroom.
And what does the “protective pessimism” of so many Black Americans, people convinced he would be killed for daring to run for president, say about America’s imaginative poverty on the subject of Black people? Why does Obama feel lucky to be in the White House with a middle name like Hussein? Why were we crying when he won?
During Obama’s presidency, I would often say, accusingly, to my friend and argument-partner Chinaku, “You’re doing an Obama. Take a damn stand.” Doing an Obama meant that Chinaku saw 73 sides of every issue, and he aired them and detailed them and it felt to me like subterfuge, a watery considering of so many sides that resulted in no side at all. Often, in this book, Barack Obama does an Obama. He is a man watching himself watch himself, curiously puritanical in his skepticism, turning to see every angle and possibly dissatisfied with all, and genetically incapable of being an ideologue. Early in their relationship Michelle asks why he always chooses the hard way. Later she tells him, “It’s like you have a hole to fill. That’s why you can’t slow down.” Indeed. Here, then, is an overwhelmingly decent man giving an honest account of himself. It is now normal to preface any praise of a public figure with the word “flawed,” but who isn’t flawed? As a convention it feels like an ungracious hedge, a churlish reluctance to commend the powerful or famous no matter how well deserved. The story will continue in the second volume, but Barack Obama has already illuminated a pivotal moment in American history, and how America changed while also remaining unchanged.