Six months after its release, I still don’t know anyone who’s actually read President Obama’s memoir, “A Promised Land” (though I do have one friend who sheepishly admitted to listening to it on audiobook — but only, she claimed, to have Obama’s soothing, dulcet tones accompany her on long quarantine walks). Even as its sales numbers quickly skyrocketed into the millions, I couldn’t muster even a mild interest. As a form of political narrative, the Team of Rivals, room-where-it-happened genre of American political storytelling has never been my thing (yes, I’m looking at you, Aaron Sorkin). Plus, it’s over 700 pages long — and that’s just the first of two volumes.
A quick Google skim of early Internet buzz around the book failed to arouse my interest. Conservatives, ravenous for some Obama chum after four years of the former president’s relative public silence, trotted out whiny, tired critiques of Obama’s putative divisiveness and “ingratitude.” Misty-eyed liberals, exhausted after four years of Trump’s garbled verbal slurry, waxed poetic over Obama’s “gorgeous” prose (though many reviews were, I must admit, more measured than reverent). Judging by the state of my Twitter feed, the reaction on the Left, long having shed any rose-tinted illusions of Obama’s transformational power, was a mix of careful dissections of the former-President’s slippery, self-exculpatory historical memory and mirthless amusement at his fumbling attempts to score dates in college by quoting Marx and Foucault.
So far, so predictable.
But then I came across something that made me angry. In an adapted excerpt published in The Atlantic, Obama explained that he had written the memoir primarily with the intention of inspiring young people “to once again remake the world, and to bring about, through hard work, determination, and a big dose of imagination, an America that finally aligns with all that is best in us.”
But if Obama really cares about or even understands the young people he claims to be writing for, he sure hasn’t been acting like it. While historians and political scientists will of course debate for decades whether the Obama administration’s failure to deliver on most of its vaunted promises can be chalked up to Obama’s personal flaws or to the constraints of his time, what cannot be disputed is what he’s done since leaving office.
He’s bragged about expanding American oil production. He’s issued tone-deaf, sweeping denunciations of cancel culture and youth activism that earned him plaudits from right-wing culture warrior ghouls Tomi Lahren and Ann Coulter. As whispers of a general strike began to spread throughout the notoriously oligarchic and racist NBA at the end of the summer, he encouraged the players to get back on the court. He’s assuaged rich Democratic donors that fundamental system transformation is just not in America’s cards, and privately vowed to step in to keep Bernie Sanders — the candidate most favored by young Democratic voters — from winning the 2020 Democratic nomination.
For many young people, of course, Obama’s election likely marked the dawn of an incipient political consciousness. Only the youngest of current Yale students might be too young to remember the night of November 4, 2008. If you’re anything like me, that night will forever be etched in your memory, and not just from the thrill of getting to stay up past bedtime on a school night. Who can forget the excitement of that moment, that cathartic feeling of national renewal and expanding historical possibility, a moment when the normally-sedate New York Times could declare, in a fit of journalistic swagger that now appears laughably naïve in the grim light of Trumpian hindsight, that Obama’s election had swept “away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease”? Hope, indeed.
Though Obama flirted with radical rhetoric throughout the 2008 campaign trail — remember when his “Yes we can” speech conjured the spirit of “slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights”? — the tenor of his presidency was, like the policies he ultimately enacted, significantly more muted. As his administration failed to reduce inequality, did little to arrest global warming, and dragged on the country’s forever wars, Obama resorted to a combination of abstract paeans to “the idea” and “the promise” of America and vacant appeals to the evanescent “arc of history.”
In addition to these empty rhetorical crutches, political theorist Corey Robin argues that Obama’s “moral minimalism” was reflected most acutely in his constant avowals of the “slight but simple truth of children being safe,” which became a “recurring theme of Obama’s presidency, arguably its epistemological ground.” In a speech following Sandy Hook, for example, Obama claimed that the “one thing we can be sure of” is “the love that we have for our children.”
It’s a theme Obama continues to return to: “People who you are fighting may love their kids,” he lectured in a 2019 interview in which he chided young people for their “wokeness” and “call-out-culture.” (Ok Boomer, I sighed as I Googled “Dictators who loved their kids.”). This kind of rhetoric was always relatively weak political fare, but it’s especially thin gruel for my peers, who live in a world of stagnating wages and skyrocketing childcare costs and for whom, as the Australian climate scientist Sophie Lewis puts it, “the pitter-patter of tiny feet is inevitably the pitter-patter of giant carbon footprints.”
“Politics, in wealthy countries,” the late anthropologist and former Yale professor David Graeber wrote in February 2019, “is increasingly becoming a war between the generations.” Obama is 59, just a couple years older than my parents, and the more I think about his politics the more I realize the degree to which they are, well, dated. The political common sense of Obama’s generation was that “there is no alternative” to the present order of things: liberal capitalism, presided over by the (seemingly, but usually anything but) benevolent hand of American military might. If the political rhythm of our parents’ generation was the rousing pulse of liberal triumphalism, buoyed by the naïve belief that America was entering an age of post-racial harmony at home and unchallenged hegemony abroad, ours is surely the opposite: a steady drumbeat of slow decline, punctuated by sudden crescendos of calamity — a mass shooting, an environmental calamity, a global depression, a once-in-a-century pandemic.
In his memoir, Obama judges the success of his presidency in terms of the “absence of catastrophe” and “the preservation of normalcy,” and professes to have seen his job as “upholding for everyone the fiction that we live in a safe and orderly world.” My generation knows these to be the hollow consolations of a parent who can’t accept how catastrophically bad things have gotten. To do what Obama couldn’t requires that my generation engages in politics not to anoint another savior, but rather so that we might ourselves become different people, and in so doing make a world better than the messed up one that made us.
Jack McCordick | firstname.lastname@example.org