Reflections on A Promised Land by Barack Obama

I Introduction

This is not a review of Obama’s book. Rather, it is about using Obama’s book to reflect on who he is and what he stands for, but mostly it is about who I am and what I stand for as I reflect on those questions in response to my reading his book. My writing will flow as I read the book. I invite readers to come along for the ride and read the book alongside me. As you can imagine, very few books have this effect upon me. I occasionally break through my wariness at reflecting on my life. But reading Obama almost compels me to do so. One question I ask myself as I begin reading is why? Hopefully, I will have an answer by the end.

Of course, Obama’s book is important for history as he reflects on the people and events in which he played such an important part. You should read the book for those discussions as, at most, I will only refer to them, and then only insofar as his account makes me reflect on what my position was at the time and whether it has changed. The question is: what does Obama’s response say about him? What does my response to his response say about me? For we are both creatures of our time and, in the case of Obama with his clarity of thinking and writing style, easily invites the reader to view the world through his eyes. If I accomplish only an iota of that success, I will consider my “responsa” to be well worthwhile.

There is a second thread through the book – Obama’s encounters with ordinary people, from the gardener who worked for forty years in the White House to a constituent he talked to in southern Illinois. Obama has a unique ability to make contact on this level. When I was involved in helping create an early warming and conflict prevention system in East Africa, I worked alongside the former head of the Kenyan civil service in developing CEWARN, Conflict Early Warning and Response Network, that was launched in 2002 under the auspices of IGAD, the seven-country Inter-Government Authority for Development in East Africa. He was a Nelson Mandela type diplomat and political animal that I have only met in Africa. Call him KNM. Among his many accomplishments, he had been the key mediator for resolving the conflict between FRELIMO and RENAMO in Mozambique in 1992. He would go on to help forge the initial very tenuous peace agreement from 1999 to 2000 for Somalia, the Addis Ababa Agreement.

I recall when the two of us were in Addis Ababa to attend a meeting with representatives of USAID at 10:00 a.m. We had arrived that morning from Nairobi and the plane had run late. It was already 10:05 when we reached the hotel. The meeting was on the mezzanine level. As we entered the hotel, KNM greeted the doorman by name and asked about his two children – also by name. When we got to the front desk to get directions to the meeting room, after saying good morning to the other two clerks whom he knew, the woman – really just a girl in her late teens – behind the desk was new. KNM asked for directions but immediately also asked her for her name, inquired about her family and background and engaged her in an 8-minute conversation as I stood impatiently shuffling back and forth, glancing at the clock on the back wall of the check-in desk.

As we headed up to the meeting and I hurried him along, he said that he had noticed me nervously looking at the clock. What I had to learn was that that these ordinary citizens we were running into were more important for our complex system for warning and averting violent conflict than the high-up funders from USAID in Washington whom we would be meeting. The latter could wait an extra ten minutes. The opportunity to get to know that girl could not be missed.

When Obama described stopping to talk to the White House gardener as he went from his residence in the West Wing along the colonnade to his Oval Office, I thought of KNM. Obama may have scarcely known his Kenyan father, but, somehow, he had inherited those amazing political genes and genius that I have only encountered so extensively in individuals in Africa, what is often called “the common touch.” Of course, Nelson Mandela was the epitome.

Obama inherited a country deeply immersed in a fruitless and stupid war in Iraq and an economy on the brink of total collapse. When he left office eight years later, the country was incomparably better off until his successor took over. Four years later, Trump is on the verge of leaving office with the country reeling economically in the midst of a pandemic in which 1 in every 1,000 Americans has died, where racial divisions that many of us had thought were behind us had forced protesters to take to the streets in very large numbers and where, perhaps most significantly, the norms of democracy had been abused like never before in American history and, instead of a flag flying proudly, it flies tattered and torn at the sight of which America’s friends could only weep.

Obama has always been aware of the contradictory forces that constitute America. But he has also been attuned to what Abraham Lincoln called its better angels. As a Harvard Law School graduate and the first Black editor of its famous law journal, and as a law professor, he was acutely aware of the mistreatment of Native Americans and the use of the law to deprive them of their property rights for “the court of the conqueror has no capacity to recognize the just claims of the conquered.” (xv) In spite of Trump and his populist appeal, Obama always remained hopeful. He learned to place his faith “in my fellow citizens, especially those of the next generation, whose conviction in the equal worth of all people seems to come as second nature, and who insist on making real those principles that their parents and teachers told them were true but perhaps never fully believed themselves.” (xvi)

Part I of his memoir is called “The Bet.” It ends as follows. “I had made a bet a long time ago and this was the point of reckoning. [He was on the verge of declaring his candidacy to be the Democratic nominee for president.] I was about to step over some invisible line, one that would inexorably change my life in ways I couldn’t yet imagine and in ways I might not like. But to stop now, to turn back now, to lose my nerve now – that was unacceptable.” (78) And, quite aside from his brilliance and acute political sensitivities, there is a nutshell is the difference between Obama and myself.

As Obama wrote in the next section, “ultimately it was rap that got my head in the right place, to songs especially: Jay-Z-s “My 1st Song” and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” Both were about defying the odds and putting it all on the line. (‘Look, if you had one shot or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it? Or just let it slip…’); how it felt to spin something out of nothing, getting by on wit, hustle, and fear disguised as bravado.”

Obama took risks. I have always been risk averse – even when I finally left medical school after two previous attempts and all the proof anyone would need that, as good as I was at getting high marks, I would be terrible at diagnosis. If the Dean of Medicine had not spent three hours with me and finally reassured me that if I left medical school, I could resume precisely where I left off anytime in the next three years, I would not have made the leap from medicine to philosophy. Obama, when much of the evidence was against it, but – and this is important – enough evidence had been gathered to support his next level of personal risky decision-making, could and did bet on himself. He did not require a safety blanket.

On the other hand, when it came to policy, as we shall see with his economic restructuring and his bailout of the mortgage crisis, he was very cautious. He believed not only in incrementalism but trusting the experts who had been part of the very system that brought about the collapse. As I will try to show, there were two roots to this caution. His audacity of hope often stretched beyond his knowledge and experience. Secondly, inherently, he was actually a financial conservative more than a reformer in spite of both his sentiments and his professed liberal positions.

There is another way to describe this same propensity. My eldest son summed up the tension between fortuna and will as follows: Obama was “exceptionally clear ability to know when fortuna was working for him and when his will was working.” He was better than Clinton when it came to will; as I will make clear in a subsequent blog, he beat McCain thanks to fortuna. Obama was “a ‘reformer’ in the long tradition of that word and good at it because he knew about personal and structural limits.” But pushing for reform but accepting personal and structural limits as so critical made him effectively a policy conservative in practice as we shall see.  

Perhaps the most valuable advice Obama ever received was from that gardener he sometimes met on the colonnade or in the rose garden of the White House. His job was “to make the garden look good,” (4) and he took great pride in his accomplishments. When I read those lines, I could not help but remember the Peter Sellers 1979 satirical movie, Being There, where Sellers plays the role of Chauncey Gardiner.

Chance (Chauncey) as you will recall if you have seen the movie, was a simple-minded man who had spent his whole life behind the walls of a rich patron taking care of his garden. He only knew what he saw on TV. The rich man dies. Chance is thrown out into the world with a benign faith that, as long as one tends your garden, everything will be ok. Using that mantra, unintentionally he rises to business and political heights and the film ends with the current president’s advisers planning on making him the next presidential candidate.

There are two key similarities between the allegory of Chauncey Gardiner and Barack Obama, neither of which is about brain power. First, Obama, though certainly not without his own and Michelle’s deliberations, is carried forward on the geist of the times which will eventually sweep him into the presidency. Second, in the end, the job of the president is no different than any other job and it can be summed up as tending to the garden, ensuring it is healthy and bountiful. “I needed to work as hard and take as much care in my job as they [the gardiners] did in theirs.” (5) All along, serendipity will play a major roll at every step of the way.

As relaxation, I often play solitaire, not any game of solitaire, but Las Vegas solitaire where, after distributing cards in seven uneven piles of increased numbers by one, with the top card face up, you play the rest of the cards, not in a repeated series of three, but one card at a time with only one chance through the deck. The Las Vegas version is closer to the allegory of life in two respects. There is only one run through. Second, although some skill, memory and judgement can help you to win, the outcome is overwhelmingly the result of luck. Serendipity, not destiny nor rational choice, is the most important factor in determining your life history. Even brilliance is a matter of luck and the genes you happen to inherit.

Obama, in spite of his brilliance, always recognized that the major factor determining his success was that he was at the right place at the right time. Choices had to be made. And that meant risk. He is noteworthy in the political and career risks that he took. Second, as important as luck was, there was no substitute for care, for caution and for considered observation and reflection to help tip the scales of chance in the direction you wanted. You may have very little control over events, but it is critical that you apply the greatest acumen to the narrow openings that you do have.

One most important stroke of luck was Obama’s mother. She made Obama look like a piker when it came to taking risks. “Appalled by racism, she would marry outside her race, not once but twice, and go on to lavish what seemed like an inexhaustible love on her two brown children. Incensed by social constraints put upon women, she’d divorced both men when they proved overbearing or disappointing, carving out a career of her own choosing, raising her kids to her own standards of decency, and pretty much doing whatever she damn well pleased.” (7) Like his mother, issues of race and class would preoccupy him, but with his eyes less on the personal than on the larger-than-life picture and the underlying structures. Further, it may have instilled in him a willingness to take risks, but in his marriage to the love of his life, Michelle, he was unwilling to sacrifice a marriage partnership for intellectual and career freedom and the dangers of serious financial hardships.

While Obama immersed himself in the world of books to figure out the nature of his calling (10), it is hard to reconcile comments such as these with his insistence that he did not believe in destiny. Whatever the nuances of difference between destiny and calling, one message comes through loud and clear – Obama was always very ambitious. In reading his memoir, I came to realize how important ambition is in providing a goal and the energy to drive towards it. I, on the other hand, have lacked that kind of single-minded ambition. At each step of my way, I have simply done what I liked doing without a great goal in mind either for myself or for the world. I also did not weigh the differences in values in the various options that I had. Instead, often I was driven more by personal needs than a detached appraisal.

Most of the time, I had luck on my side, both in the gifts that I had fortuitously been given in my DNA and my culture, and in the timing and opportunities that had been offered to me. These included my role as a student co-op housing organizer, a professor, a university administrator, a founder of refugee action and research, a participant in creating regional political institutions in Africa and, perhaps the most important job I ever had, studying why countries stood by and did not try to stop or mitigate the Rwanda genocide when it was clearly possible. The international community sponsored the study, but I do not believe it absorbed the lessons.

Where I excelled, and where Obama did to a much greater degree, was in seeing openings and opportunities and understanding how well they suited my skills and abilities and my desire to improve the world. Reading Obama, I realize how much further I could have gone and how much more I could have contributed if I had had one-tenth of Obama’s very focused ambition. Perhaps I was too much like Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son in the bible, a moralist but without the singular focus to see a task through to the end. Many times, self-expression counted more than implementation.

Next: Part II: National, Racial and Ethnic Identity

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