The Contradiction of President Obama’s “A Promised Land

Art by Obey Giant, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

President Obama’s A Promised Land holds two central theses that are in stark opposition to one another. On one hand, President Obama argues that America is not an idea worth giving up on. I tend to agree that America is capable of systematic change. However, Obama also argues that he faced insurmountable limits on his drive to enact change. These two arguments are inherently contradictory. If Obama is correct that America is only capable of accomplishing a small modicum of change every few decades, then there is little chance that the nation can be saved. The alternative hypothesis — that America can be something we are all eventually proud of — necessitates acknowledging that Obama failed to use adequately the substantial power he held. To believe that America can become the “city on the hill” Obama cherishes, we must accept that we can do much better than his presidency.

A Promised Land would be a lot more satisfying if it were fiction. The writing is exceptional — President Obama clearly wrote the entire book himself. The stories of Obama’s cabinet meetings and personal interactions are fascinating. He gives a genuine look at how he approached decision-making during his presidency. Obama detailed the experience of raising children in the White House, the challenges he faced as a husband, and the difficulties of dealing with staff that may have had difficulty toning down their sexism (cue: Rahm Emanuel).

Reading A Promised Land is a little like watching your favorite protagonist walk into countless thorny situations in a television show. You know things are about to go badly for them — their cheating spouse is behind the door or maybe they are about to lose their job — and you want to scream at the television to save them from the incoming conflict. After the grand climax, you might come away from the TV show with a satisfying conclusion or a lesson learned. Sure, maybe it did not go exactly like you hoped, but you can turn off the television and get back to your life. You might even write a review about how great the show was — detailing its deep and provocative characters, its nail-biting drama, and the important lessons to take away.

A Promised Land is a little like that. Except, unlike your favorite serial drama, A Promised Land is not fiction. The stories are not the product of some wide-eyed 40-year-old West Wing lover, but a frustrating page-by-page account of President Obama’s inability to give the country what he promised: hope and change.

“DREAM Act Protesters for President Obama’s Visit to Austin” by Todd Dwyer is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Copy

Toward the end of the first volume, Obama recounts the 2010 vote on the DREAM Act. The Democrats had just lost over 60 seats in the House of Representatives and had just two months left of the lame-duck session to pass through any remaining legislation before they lost control of the House. The DREAM Act picked up 55 votes in the Senate. While theoretically 55 votes should be enough to get legislation enacted in a democracy, the bill was five votes short of overcoming the 60-vote filibuster. Instead of any willingness to nuke the filibuster (something Senate Democrats eventually did get rid of for judicial appointments), the bill died. Writing about this failure — the latest in a string of unmet pledges — President Obama points out how much of an accomplishment it was to have so many senators vote in favor of immigration reform. Though it failed, Obama said, it still got 55 votes. That had to mean something! Even Claire McCaskill, a moderate senator from Missouri, was willing to risk her seat to vote yes. Coming off this legislative “win,” Obama proceeded to deport more undocumented immigrants than any other president ever (yes, including you-know-who).

Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight. We know what happened after Obama caved to Republicans by renewing Bush-era tax cuts. We know what happened after Obama appointed conservative Bob Gates to Secretary of Defense. We know what happened after Obama tried to get Obamacare passed with bipartisan support. The end result is a frustrating read, one where I dreaded turning the page. Each page I turned revealed a new broken promise or an unmet expectation. Instead of an honest and introspective account of what went wrong, Obama spends each page detailing a new explanation of why he was unable to meet the lofty expectations set for his presidency. Obama details institutional constraints on his presidential power that seemingly no other American executive faced. Surely, not his successor.

Like President Obama, I think America can eventually become a country that we can be proud of. I do not think a revolution is in our near future, and my only hope is that our country can eventually drag itself into the 21st century. In that respect, I agree with the President that the country can do better. However, Obama argues that while he may have made some choices differently in hindsight, on the whole, he had institutional constraints that saddled him virtually everywhere. He was constrained because he only had 60 or 59 Democrats in the Senate (Democrats, of course, will be lucky if they ever have even 50 seats again). He was constrained because he had to listen to his generals, who could not function without a hundred-thousand troops in Afghanistan. He was constrained because it just takes time to produce change in the US. If we are to accept President Obama’s account, then there is actually very little hope left for America.

“Change We Can Believe In” by GNIKRJ is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

If Obama truly believed that his 2008 election victory was incapable of delivering systematic change for the American people, he might find some company in leftist internet groups. Many of these individuals believe systematic change is impossible under the systems that exist and that America is irredeemable. However, President Obama argues that there is still hope despite writing 700 pages on how it is impossible to drive systematic change with overwhelming majorities in government. He holds two views that are fundamentally at odds with one another: that systematic change is both impossible due to institutional constraints, and that America can still be saved.

I tend to accept the alternative argument. I too believe that there is hope left for America. However, that view is only compatible with the truth that President Obama failed to adequately wield the power he held as the most powerful man on the planet. If you believe that America can still be a “city upon a hill,” you must reject Obama’s claim that his power was substantially constrained, especially during the first two years of his presidency. If Obama is our peak, and we still lag behind every other developed nation by virtually every metric that matters, then maybe it is time to pack it up and go home. However, I am not ready to give up on the idea of America. That means we must do better than eight years of disappointment and unfulfilled hope.

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