An American Tragedy
A Promised Land, the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoir is an endlessly fascinating — and unsurprisingly literary — look inside a modern presidency. The former president always fancied himself a writer and his command of language, storytelling, and scene setting is on full-display on every page of the book. There’s some legacy burnishing, as expected, and some post-rational attempts at explanations for unpopular political decisions, but I was less interested in that part of the book as I was in the day-to-day chronicles — the process, the productivity, the stories that go deep on how governments are run. (Give me a whole book about his meetings, how he thought about organizing a team, or developed tools to process information. The ‘boring’ stuff. Administration.)
I’m less interested in the legacy — the defenses, justifications, and explanations — I think, because this is a story we’ve heard before. Much like Obama’s first memoir, the 1994 Dreams of my Father, he deftly uses his personal story to extrapolate larger questions about America. In Dreams, he does this through the lens of race, charting his own upbringing and awakening, making for a powerful portrait of how race influences so much of this country. And the portrait painted in A Promised Land is also one of a man and his country, yet this is a story of both continually falling short of their ideals. In many ways, I couldn’t help but read A Promised Land as a tragedy.
Obama campaigned — and won — on the promise of change we can believe in. His election was supposed to usher in a post-racial, post-partisan politics. (Believing this was our — collectively, as a country — first mistake.) His presidency would be high-minded, ignoring the partisan mudslinging that consumes Washington and cable news. He was leading us in a new progressive era — one that would end wars, make advances towards correcting climate change, and provide health care to everyone. The expectations were too high, of course. He was set up to let us down. He tried, I really believe, but at times this book reads as a series of compromises, of missed opportunities, of giving into Mitch McConnell and his GOP goons. This doesn’t even account for the last four years, which Obama (and, admittedly, many of us) seemingly failed to see coming. The narrative arc of “A Promised Land” is one from idealist to pragmatist, revolution to evolution, hope to cynicism.
But is this not the narrative arc of America? This country was built on an idealistic vision of what democracy could look like by men, who very much like Obama, had big ideas about how to change the world and yet from the very beginning, fell short of their own ideals. They simultaneously wrote ‘all men are created equal’ while owning slaves. They demanded freedom from the monarchy while enslaving a new population of people. They too made justifications, defenses, and excuses for slavery, for the patriarchy, for colonizing. This country, right from the beginning, fell short. The American story is of overpromising and under-delivering.
While reading A Promised Land, I kept thinking about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Hailed as an Obama-era work of art: Miranda reimagines the story of America’s founding as a rock opera blending rap, hiphop, jazz, and pop music. By recasting the founding fathers as people of color, Hamilton attempts to show us the best this country can be. In many ways, it felt like a realization of everything the Obama era was supposed to represent. It’s a beautiful show — I’ve lost track of how often I’ve played the soundtrack — but like A Promised Land, Hamilton also can be read as tragedy.
Alexander Hamilton, like Barack Obama, had big ideas and wanted to be remembered, to be known for something. Hamilton sings “There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait.” And Obama writes, in a painfully revealing moment as he considers running for president: “If one of the qualifications of running for the most powerful office in the world was megalomania, it appeared I was passing the test.” Like Obama, Hamilton continually falls short. This, in the end, is the American story. It will always let you down.
But hope should not be lost. There’s another story too, hidden between the compromises and the justifications, another lesson to be learned from these two American stories: Change only happens when we attempt it. The promised land, paradoxically, is not promised. It’s an ideal but it’s something we have to work towards. “Whatever you do will never be enough,” Obama writes to himself early in the book, after a series of compromises, “Keep trying.” Or, in other words: I’m not throwing away my shot.