Obama replied, “Well, I don’t have those thoughts. Because I don’t expect that to happen.”
Trump wasn’t yet his party’s official nominee, and even after he was, a lot of folks didn’t expect that to happen. And then, of course, it did.
Trump hangs over Obama’s moving, beautifully written memoir of his first three years in office like an onrushing train that both the reader and author know is hurtling down the tracks to collide with what Obama hoped to achieve. In Obama’s own words, he was striving to “see if we can actually live up to the meaning of our creed” and to continue the work-in-progress of making a more perfect, racially equitable “promised land” that has already produced “Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers…Jackie Robinson…Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, Billie Holliday…Lincoln at Gettysburg.”
Obama describes Sarah Palin, McCain’s 2008 running mate, as a sort of proto-Trump who publicly accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” Meanwhile, Palin presented herself as a “real American” yet “on just about every subject relevant to governing the country she had absolutely no idea what she was talking about…like a kid trying to bluff her way through a test for which she had failed to study.” Obama goes on to note that Palin’s “incoherence didn’t matter to the vast majority of Republicans…a sign of things to come.”
Indeed. It was, of course, Trump who put into play repeatedly the lie — concocted to try to invalidate Obama’s presidency — that he wasn’t American, wasn’t born in the US (and might even be a secret Muslim). As Obama explains of Trump, “For millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House, he promised an elixir for their racial anxiety.”
The cost of politics
Obama is clear-eyed about the toll that his political career has taken on his family. His mother died of cancer in 1995 and he was not at her bedside in Hawaii because he was running for Illinois state senate. Obama writes, “me not there, so busy with my grand pursuits. I know could never get that moment back. On top of my sorrow, I felt great shame.”
His love story with and marriage to his wife Michelle gets “strained” by the demands of his career and the arrival of their two children, Sasha and Malia. When Obama lost his race for a US House seat in Illinois in a landslide in 2000 Michelle asked him, “Is it worth it?’ Obama writes, “I couldn’t admit to her I was no longer sure.”
“Osama bin Laden dead, General Motors Alive”
Obama the wartime President
Obama ran on the idea that Iraq was a distraction from the “good war” being fought in Afghanistan. When he came into office the Taliban were resurging dramatically and so the first major national security decision he had to make was what to do about the Afghan War.
An additional 30,000 troops in Afghanistan
The new US commander in Afghanistan was Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal who had turned Joint Special Operations Command into a superlative warfighting machine. Obama — who draws wonderful, quick portraits of the characters in this book — writes of McChrystal, “the man was all muscle, sinew and bone, with a long angular face and piercing avian gaze.”
McChrystal and his team compiled a secret assessment of the war which made the point that the war was going badly and asserted that this could only be remedied by a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy that would require at least 40,000 more US troops on top of the more than 50,000 troops already in country.
As is the Washington way, the assessment quickly leaked to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post who wrote a story headlined “McChrystal: More Forces or ‘Mission Failure.'”
Obama was furious, summoning Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, for a dressing down in the Oval Office, telling them he wanted “to stop having my military advisers telling me what I have to do on the front page of the morning paper.”
In the end Obama authorized an additional 30,000 troops but set “a timetable of eighteen months to start bringing them home,” a policy that Obama announced at West Point on December 1, 2009.
Frayed relations with the US military
The announcement of the withdrawal date was too clever by half since it undercut the Afghan government and also morale among many Afghan who interpreted it as an American rush to the exits, while it bolstered the Taliban and those in Pakistan’s security apparatus who were supporting them.
After 24 hours of deliberation, Obama decided that he couldn’t keep McChrystal on because in his view the episode underlined the “air of impunity that seemed to have taken hold among some of the military’s top ranks during the Bush years; a sense that when the war began, those who fought it shouldn’t be questioned.” For Obama this undercut the bedrock principle of civilian control of the military; after all he was the commander in chief.
The decision that could have cost Obama a second term
And it was to Joint Special Operations Command, which McChrystal had transformed from doing a few raids a month to hundreds of raids a month during the five years that he commanded the secretive unit, that Obama turned the following year when he made the riskiest play of his presidency: the operation to bring bin Laden to justice. Obama writes, “I was likely to end up a one-term president if I got it wrong.”
Obama heard out his war cabinet and went to his residence to make the final decision. Obama had great confidence in Bill McRaven, McChrystal’s successor as the commander of Joint Special Operations Command, who was overseeing the operation, and ultimately, the fact that it was a 50-50 call if bin Laden was even at the compound in Pakistan still made it the best bet to find al-Qaeda’s leader since he had disappeared in the months after 9/11.
Of course, the operation was a success. This is where Obama leaves us at the end of his first of two planned volumes about his presidency.
That will surely be another very compelling book, Mr. President.