The Audacity of Disappointment: Barack Obama’s A Promised Land

The President of the United States is having that recurring dream again. He finds himself on an unmarked street in an unknown neighbourhood; possibly on foot, possibly on bike, but distinctly alone regardless. The physical trappings of the office – motorcades, security details – are absent, as are the emotional weights. His decisions are no longer of consequence. He sits down on a bench, takes a sip of a bottle of water bought from a nearby shop, and watches the world pass by. Amidst this tranquil bathos, he finally finds contentment.

Other people’s dreams are always dull, yet there is still something impressively anodyne about Obama’s hallucinations. It’s a safe bet that the subconscious desires of most leaders tend towards the expression of power, rather than its absence, but then most leaders held less on their shoulders in the first place. The overriding dread that pervades this capacious first-part memoir is not failure per se – the politician’s signature trepidation – but that of mere disappointment; the sense that the hopes of his supporters may have burned a little too bright, with the reality of governing a little too unyielding. “At some basic level people were no longer seeing me” he reflects during the campaign: “Instead, they had taken possession of my likeness and made it a vessel for a million different dreams. I knew a time would come when I would disappoint them.”

He is a touch too detached regarding his own role in fanning those flames. This was the candidate that proclaimed “The Audacity of Hope”, the candidate that signalled the “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” and the candidate that offered the hand of friendship to a world weary of an American military colossus engaged in at least 60 countries worldwide. Even by the extraordinarily elevated standards of the presidency, few dealt in dreams quite so big. The idealist, however, appears mostly for popular consumption; the inner-realist is the driving force, and it sees the ovations that brought him to power less as a springboard to a mass movement, and more as a difficult problem to be managed during the inevitable compromises ahead.

The pride he takes in the achievements of his first term is tempered by the nagging of his critics – those of the disillusioned supporter variety – for whom incremental change left a sense of anticlimax. “You’ve been cursed with people’s high expectations, ” Václav Havel tells him in an instructive anecdote, just in case the reader has not yet grasped the message: “because it means they are also easily disappointed.”

Like injuries for Machiavelli, Obama inflicts many of his disappointments all at once. Fresh from disparaging the Clintons during the primary campaign as representing the stale politics of a bygone era, he gets to work restoring the ancien regime to his cabinet. The headhunting process for the most important economic job in his administration, amidst a paradigm-shifting financial crisis, appears to have instantly narrowed to two Clinton-era stalwarts: Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. The only explanation offered for such a seismically unimaginative shortlist is that they “had managed crises before” and could therefore “calm markets in the grip of panic”. Apparently unrelatedly, Obama remarks elsewhere that the Treasury Department within which both men sat in the 1990s had caused “enormous hardship”, through a dogmatic focus on structural adjustment policies in the handling of the very international financial crises adorning their CVs. Room is eventually found for both applicants. Experience – the watchword that Obama the candidate had so derided when tossed his way by Hillary Clinton and John McCain – suddenly regains its inviolability. Van Jones – Obama’s only appointee to have actually emerged from the organising tradition upon which the candidate built his brand – is promptly disposed of, following a half-baked smear campaign by Fox News.

The hopefully scattered allusions to FDR are unconvincing; the book reveals a presidency borne of a deep desire for consensus, frustrated by a failure to find it. Nowhere is this more evident than in foreign policy, where the continuity comes not just from the Clinton era but from the Bush Administration too. Early on, there is a feeble but revealing defence of his predecessor’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which “hadn’t involved the indiscriminate and unnecessary targeting of civilians”. This is subsequently leveraged as a justification for Obama’s approach of fine-tuning Bush’s Global War on Terror, “rather than tearing it out root and branch to start over”.

This resistance to substantive reform leaves the contours of US imperium untroubled. On major foreign policy decisions the same Bush-era appointees continue to give more or less the same advice. Two of the only fresh faces in the room are Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta (her Husband’s ex-Chief of Staff), and Obama readily admits that their “hawkish instincts and political backgrounds left them perpetually wary of opposing any recommendation that came from the Pentagon.” His National Security Council agrees unanimously on regular troop increases for the war in Afghanistan, with the occasional exception of Joe Biden – not renowned for his reticence in the area of foreign intervention – who takes on the role of the room’s token dove.

Obama keenly grasps these institutional biases and can be quietly scathing about the military brass’ attempts to “jam” him, as Biden puts it. But such perspicacity does not evolve into action; he appears to have a near-teleological acceptance of what he artfully describes elsewhere as the “indelible rituals of empire”. Foreign policy advisors support perpetual war. Economic advisers support Wall Street. Plus ça change. In another bracingly candid passage, he reflects on the lives of young men in the Middle East: “I wanted somehow to save them…yet the world they were a part of, and the machinery I commanded, more often had me killing them instead.”

Particularly striking is the almost non-existent defence of the status quo ante to which his presidency genuflects. There is little affection here for the US model of ultraliberal capitalism, or its pan-global military dominance, nor its acrid social policies of police brutality and mass incarceration. In most part he tacitly accepts the premises of his Left critics; his scold is reserved for their urgency. The tone-policing begins early, as he internally chastises a group of activists for their “graceless and unnecessary” decision to peacefully protest President Bush on his final day in office. An affront, in Obama’s view, to the “boundaries of decorum [that] had once regulated politics”. Similarly, he is prone to using a crass Geithner expression: “Old Testament justice”, utilised to hand-wave away public clamour for a restructuring of the banking system after the 2008 crash, or accountability for the executives that helped precipitate it. He is unable to comprehend the fury – or, as he might prefer it, disappointment – incited by the seeming impunity of the powerful, and is insouciant regarding his declination to prosecute the previous administration’s torturers and the financial industry’s vandals. As he belittles such anger as merely a defect in politeness, it becomes increasingly apparent that the 44th President is yet to reckon with some of the underlying symptoms that heralded the 45th.

The narrator’s conflicts of interest might be too raw. In 2015, The Intercept was leaked a cache of documents pertaining to the Obama Administrations’ vastly expanded use of “targeted killings” during his first term in office, and the accompanying internal decision to suppress civilian casualty numbers by posthumously categorising all individuals within the deadly vicinity of a drone strike as enemy combatants. Also revealed was the likely-illegal practice of “double-tap warfare” – bombing a suspected target, before initiating a second strike when the rescuers and first responders had reached the scene. Obama is almost uniquely thoughtful amongst his generation of American leaders, and it would have been fascinating to see him reconcile such perfidious realpolitik with the book’s postulates about US idealism, or bromides about the Trumpian threat to a prelapsarian age of political decorum. The reader is denied that reckoning, and disappointment, once again, lingers.

Obama envisages himself as the consummate Weberian politician – delicately balancing his ethic of conviction with that of responsibility, via heavy-is-the-head musings on the grave responsibilities of state power. But he also seems perennially afflicted by the expectations of November 2008, and that election-night party in Grant Park. His caution led him to the view that the challenge of the presidency was as much to elucidate the constraints upon progressive ideals, as it was to help shift them. Even in his dreams, then, he aspires not towards remaking the world, but to a time in which he is no longer responsible for its failure to be remade. For Obama, that was the true burden of the office.

Frankie Bond has previously worked for a Democratic Congressman, and was an organiser on the Obama 2012 campaign in North Carolina.