I’ve read Barack Obama’s two other books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, so I knew his latest one, The Promised Land, would be well-written and interesting, and it was.
What I wondered about after receiving it as a gift from a loved one in my family was how honestly he would assess his administration’s failures.
There’s no question that, compared to the Trumpist hell that came after Obama’s eight years in the White House, the Obama/Biden administration was close to heavenly. But that isn’t the way a lot of progressives—climate activists, especially fracktivists, those fighting for immigrant rights, supporters of Medicare for All, economic justice advocates critical of Wall Street’s dominance of the economy, peace activists, others—felt during those eight years. For me personally, as a person who has prioritized the climate crisis since 2003, it was maddening to watch Obama consistently, uncritically and publicly support oil and gas fracking all throughout his eight years. To do so while doing some good things on climate and speaking about the climate issue as an existential crisis was very problematic and very hypocritical.
The Promised Land is very long, 701 pages, and it ends in the Spring of 2011, with most of those pages devoted to his first Presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008 and the first two-plus years of his Presidency between 2009-2011. There’s 78 pages at the beginning briefly reviewing his life up to the announcement of his Presidential campaign in February of 2007 in Springfield, Illinois.
As I got into reading Promised Land, I found myself looking for what he had to say about Joe Biden. He didn’t say very much, but when he did our current President comes across looking pretty good, from a progressive perspective. Biden and his “able chief of staff Ron Klain” are commended for their good work administering the 2009 economic Recovery Act’s “billions of dollars in infrastructure projects.” (p. 302) The two of them did “an excellent job, with Joe often devoting chunks of his day to picking up the phone and barking at state or local officials whose projects were behind schedule.” (P. 521)
Biden, “among the principals” discussing what to do about the Afghanistan war, was the only one who “voiced his misgivings. I knew Joe still felt burned by having supported the Iraq invasion years earlier.” (P. 318) He maintained this approach in several internal battles over what to do.
When it came to whether the US should intervene militarily to help overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, “Joe considered it foolish to get involved in yet another war abroad.” (P. 657)
This was all good to learn about.
How honest was Obama in assessing not just the accomplishments and the frustrations of his time in the White House but what many progressives saw as his weaknesses? Here, I found myself reminded of a review I did of The Audacity of Hope one month before the February, 2007 Springfield, Il. Presidential candidate announcement. After delineating the good and problematic things he wrote, here’s how I concluded it:
“Last week I happened to see an article which compared Hillary Clinton’s voting record in the U.S. Senate with Obama’s. I remember the numbers: 82.5 vs. 79.8. The numbers placed them on a most conservative (1) to most liberal (100) scale in relationship to others in the Senate. (Keep in mind that 55 members of the U.S. Senate last year were Republicans, and it’s not exactly a progressive institution.) As African American author and activist Kevin Gray has written, there should be no doubt about it: Obama is cut from similar cloth as Bill and Hillary. He’s a Democratic Leadership Council man. Progressives beware.”
Obama in Promised Land acknowledges and somewhat addresses the criticisms of progressives on a range of issues, so that is a good thing. When he reflects on his handling of the 2008 Great Recession, for example, he “wonders whether I should have been bolder in those early months” taking on the Wall Streeters and financial speculators responsible for it. But after reflecting on it for a couple of paragraphs he reports that if given a do-over, “I can’t say that I would make different choices.” (pps. 304-305)
He writes more about this issue later in the book. He lays out the differences between the corporate-friendly “moderates” in the Democratic Party and “many on the left” who believed that his administration’s weak approach toward those responsible for the economic crisis “would merely put off a long-overdue reckoning with a system that failed to serve the interests of ordinary Americans.” (p. 547) Obama indicates that he agrees with that view of the reality of the “system” but goes on to rationalize and defend his incrementalist approach.
There is one huge topic that comes up nowhere in the book: the responsibility of a President who understands the systemic problems we are facing to speak truth to power and to mobilize the 99% to take on the 1%. Indeed, Obama was criticized at the time by many on the left for making very little effort, if any, to use the very big email list he compiled during his campaign, or even to use the bully pulpit of the Presidency, to mobilize support for strong policy proposals. His was not a movement-building Presidency, not at all. Indeed, after he was elected, many progressives took their cues from Obama, wishing him well and demobilizing as he and his chosen team tried to do the right things within the confines of the unjust system and the halls of power in Washington.
Clearly, Obama’s former Vice-President just cannot do the same thing. The progressive movement cannot allow him to do the same thing. We need to do what FDR is said to have told civil rights leaders after a meeting at the White House in 1941: “make me do it,” in reference to their demands.
There are signs, based upon what has happened in the two weeks since Joe and Jill Biden moved into the White House, that President Biden has his ear at least somewhat to the ground when it comes to what he is prepared to fight for. Let’s take hope from that but understand that continued movement-building and grassroots organizing and the coming together of our movements into a powerful progressive force continues to be, under Biden as under Trump, an essential component if we are to bring about the urgently-needed change this world and its ecosystems and peoples so desperately need.
Ted Glick is the author of the recently-published “Burglar for Peace: Lessons Learned in the Catholic Left’s Resistance to the Vietnam War.” More information can be found at https://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jtglick.