Throughout, Obama casts his presidency as comprised of hard choices, sometimes made more difficult by internal disputes, mismanagement by the previous administration and obstructionism by Republicans, which he suggests was rooted in an attempt to appeal to anxieties about the first Black president.
Yet he also acknowledges his own shortcomings on a range of topics, like calling his failure to pass immigration reform “a bitter pill to swallow” and acknowledging that the economy “stank” as he headed into the 2010 midterms, where Republicans reclaimed the House of Representatives on the back of the Tea Party movement.
“As far as I was concerned, the election didn’t prove our agenda had been wrong,” Obama writes of 2010. “It just proved that… I’d failed to rally the nation, as FDR had once done, behind what I knew to be right. Which to me was just as damning.”
The timeliest reflections, however, come when Obama delves into the politics of Washington, particularly the work he put into negotiations with Republicans like Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell and then House Speaker John Boehner. But that introspection also offers a window into how Obama saw the opposing party change from his 2008 campaign to when he handed over the White House to Trump in 2017.
Obama writes that he “wonder(s) sometimes” about whether 2008 Republican nominee John McCain would still have picked Palin if he had known “her spectacular rise and her validation as a candidate would provide a template for future politicians, shifting his party’s center and the country’s politics overall in a direction he abhorred.”
“I’d like to think that given the chance to do it over again, he might have chosen differently,” Obama writes. “I believe he really did put his country first.”
“We’re better than this”
Trump’s antics were seen initially in the White House as a joke. But Obama writes he came to regard Trump’s media ubiquity and characteristic shamelessness as merely an exaggerated version of the Republican Party’s attempts to appeal to White Americans’ anxieties about the first Black president — a sentiment he said “had migrated from the fringe of GOP politics to the center — an emotional, almost visceral, reaction to my presidency, distinct from any differences in policy or ideology.
Trump, who Obama said phoned the White House in 2010 to offer his assistance helping plug an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (he was turned down), had determined that saying or behaving in ways previously seen as distasteful or unacceptable now earned him constant media attention.
“In that sense, there wasn’t much difference between Trump and Boehner or McConnell. They, too, understood that it didn’t matter whether what they said was true,” he writes, adding: “In fact, the only difference between Trump’s style of politics and theirs was Trump’s lack of inhibition.”
‘I could trust him. I wouldn’t be disappointed’
Domestically, too, Obama writes that the more confrontational Republican Party impacted some of the day-to-day decisions he made as president, especially when it came to dispatching then vice president Joe Biden, now the President-elect, to Capitol Hill to negotiate on his behalf.
“One of the reasons I’d chosen Joe to act as an intermediary — in addition to his Senate experience and legislative acumen — was my awareness that in McConnell’s mind, negotiations with the vice president didn’t inflame the Republican base in quite the same way that any appearance of cooperation with (Black, Muslim socialist) Obama was bound to do,” Obama writes.
The Obama tome has been a long time coming, the length confounding even close aides who marveled as the former president wrote — freehand — on scores of yellow legal pads. Obama himself admits that the writing process “didn’t go exactly was planned,” evident by the fact that the book has been separated in two volumes and that it was delayed.
This is Obama’s third memoir — the first was “Dream from My Father” in 1995 and his second was “The Audacity of Hope” in 2006. Michelle Obama released her own memoir, “Becoming,” in 2018, selling millions of copies in under a year.
The Obamas together were reportedly paid a $65 million advance for their memoirs by Penguin Random House.
Despite writing the book before the 2020 election, there are clear echoes between the moments Obama describes and this current moment of political upheaval, especially when the former president describes his interactions with Biden, the President-elect.
Obama recalls how Biden would offer differing opinions to many of his advisers, like when he was skeptical about the United States War in Afghanistan, leading other members of the Cabinet, like Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to consider Biden a naysayer. And how Biden would raise questions about how actions at the White House could impact Democrats in Congress.
The most detailed recollections of the Obama-Biden relationship came when the former president described picking Biden as his running mate.
“I liked the fact that Joe would be more than ready to serve as president if something happened to me — and that it might reassure those who still worried I was too young,” Obama wrote. “What mattered most, though, was what my gut told me — that Joe was decent, honest, and loyal. I believed that he cared about ordinary people, and that when things got tough, I could trust him. I wouldn’t be disappointed.”
The memoir also details Obama’s relationship with his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, who welcomed him during the presidential transition despite the fact that Obama ran, in part, on a rejection of the Republican president during his 2008 campaign. The book’s release comes as Trump is fighting the results of the 2020 election and making the transition difficult for Biden, his successor.
“Whether because of his respect for the institution, lessons from his father, bad memories of his own transition… or just basic decency, President Bush would end up doing all he could to make the 11 weeks between my election and his departure go smoothly,” Obama wrote, including noting that the Bush daughters, Barbara and Jenna, “rearranged their schedules to give Malia and Sasha their own tour.”
“I promised myself that when the time came, I would treat my successor the same way,” Obama said, a nod to his transition with Trump.
“Friends as well as lovers”
While the book spends considerable time on some of the heaviest moments of Obama’s presidency, it also delves into lighter moments like Obama’s childhood — he describes himself as an “incessant, dedicated partyer” — and his early love life, like how he used intellectual curiosity to impress the “various women I was attempting to get to know.”
“As a strategy for picking up girls, my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless,” he writes. “I found myself in a series of affectionate but chaste friendships.”
He writes, somewhat lightheartedly, about how the stress of the White House led to his bad tendencies, like smoking, noting that he would sometimes smoke eight or nine or ten cigarettes a day and look for a “discreet location to grab an evening smoke.” He said he quit smoking by “ceaselessly” chewing nicotine gum after his daughter Malia “frowned” after “smelling a cigarette on my breath.”
Obama explores his marriage to Michelle Obama throughout the book, recalling when they “became friends as well as lovers” and describing her as an “original.”
But there are passages throughout the book that exemplify the toll a life in politics, especially in the White House, can take on a marriage.
“And yet, despite Michelle’s success and popularity, I continued to sense an undercurrent of tension in her, subtle but constant, like the faint thrum of a hidden machine,” Obama writes about his marriage. “It was as if, confined as we were within the walls of the White House, all her previous sources of frustration became more concentrated, more vivid, whether it was my round the clock absorption with work, or the way politics exposed our family to scrutiny and attacks, or the tendency of even friends and family members to treat her role as secondary in importance.”
Obama adds that there were nights “lying next to Michelle in the dark, I’d think about those days when everything between us felt lighter, when her smile was more constant and our love less encumbered, and my heart would suddenly tighten at the thought that those days might not return.”
‘They’re scared of you’
The most personal and powerful recollections come, however, when race intersects with Obama’s reflections, particularly when the former president recalls how, in high school, he would ask why “Blacks play professional basketball but not coach it” and what it meant when “that girl from school mean when she said she didn’t think of me as Black.”
It wasn’t until his time in Chicago as a community organizer that he “resolved the lingering questions of my racial identity,” Obama writes, adding that the years under Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, that made him “think for the first time that I wanted to someday run for public office.”
But even in Chicago, Obama writes, questions about his race would linger. When he unsuccessfully ran against Rep. Bobby Rush in 2000, Obama notes that some asked the question, “Is he even black?”
The most powerful self-examinations about race come during Obama’s years in the White House, though.
“The reaction to my comments on Gates surprised us all,” Obama writes. “It was my first indicator of how the issue of Black folks and the police was more polarizing than just about any other subject in American life.”
Those feelings just continued during the rise of Palin and the Tea Party, Obama writes, recalling how Michelle Obama “caught a glimpse of a Tea Party rally on TV.”
“She seized the remote and turned off the set, her expression hovering somewhere between rage and resignation,” Obama writes. “‘It’s a trip, isn’t it?’ she said. … ‘That they’re scared of you. Scared of us.'”