Barack Obama publishes his memoir and it is often gloomy read about a man who struggles with himself and expectations. And who has dark premonitions. Angela Merkel will particularly enjoy reading the book.
If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, Barack Obama built his own ordeal. Because he meant what he promised, because he wanted change, hope, not just as a PR slogan, but out of conviction. And then came to in the White House and realized that “my heart was now chained to strategic considerations and tactical analysis”. That he couldn’t meet expectations, not his own and not those of others.
One who often couldn’t do what he wanted and suffered as a result – that is the story that Barack Obama tells in his long-awaited memoir of his first term in office. He would like to explain what it feels like to be president. In his own words: like a mountaineer who realizes after the summit storm that there is still a much higher summit behind it, the supplies are exhausted, the bones ache and a thunderstorm is approaching.
From the Lehman crash to the bankruptcy of Greece, from the disaster in Afghanistan to the historic bankruptcy in the congressional elections – a never-ending wave of mammoth tasks spills over 1,000 pages. And a dark premonition of what will come a few years later, like the freshening wind that heralds the thunderstorm: a country is drifting apart, Republicans and Democrats are entrenched, the tone is radicalized. And late, almost at the very end, the guy appears who was “completely uninhibited”. Obama ignored him at first, made fun of his conspiracy theories without knowing what was in store for the country.
Just a normal teen
Barack Hussein Obama II was born on August 4th, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii, to a Kenyan and an American. As a child he lived with his mother in Indonesia for some time after his parents divorced. After high school, Obama studied political science and worked for an NGO in Chicago before enrolling in law at Harvard Law School. There he met Michelle Robinson in 1989, whom he married in 1992. The couple have two children – Malia Ann (* 1998) and Sasha (* 2001). Obama began his political career in 1996 as a senator in Illinois. In 2004 he moved to the US Senate and made a name for himself primarily as an opponent of the Iraq war. In the Democratic primary campaign of 2008 he prevailed against Hillary Clinton, on November 4th, 2008 he was elected 44th President of the USA against the Republican John McCain. Four years later he won his second term against Mitt Romney.
But “A Promised Land” is Obama’s story, and because he knows how to tell compelling stories, he makes readers know as best he can that the presidency is just like a normal job. You get bogged down in too many projects, try your best, mostly fail, get annoyed with colleagues, smoke too much, sleep too little. Well, and one can “blow up the whole world”, as Obama writes, apparently still with astonishment.
Obama describes the way to the Oval Office like a typical Cinderella story: He was a completely normal teenager, a “listless student and passionate basketball player” who only chatted with friends about sports and girls “and about how and where we met can get drunk. ” Reading Marx and Foucault? Just one way to pick up women in college. In the end, however, he made it to the elite Harvard University – and met Michelle Robinson, whom he married in 1992. However, Mrs. Obama is skeptical to annoyed about his career as a politician, especially when he suffered a bitter defeat in the 2000 congressional elections. A low point that Obama relentlessly describes: “I was almost 40 and broke, suffered a humiliating defeat, my marriage was not the best.”
Suddenly a warlord
Obama could be credited with the fact that he did not skip his bankruptcies – but he often performed them in the tone of the class-nerd who had a very bad feeling during his class work and was then the only one who wrote an A. “Humblebrag” is what the Americans call it, feigned humility that can turn into showing off. It didn’t go that bad for Obama – four years later, this man was the party’s hope and US senator, and four years later suddenly the first black US president in history. And more than that: A global beacon of hope who is still speaking as a candidate in Berlin in front of 200,000 in 2008 – a role that makes him “uncomfortable”, as he writes. Mainly because it creates expectations that no politician can meet. He suspects it, and yet has to learn the hard way.
The Realpolitik lesson begins as soon as he moves into the White House. “Yes we can”? Not in a global financial crisis that spreads around the Lehman Crash that plunged millions of Americans into unemployment and homelessness. Not with stubborn Republicans, for whom “the rules no longer apply” in the culture war against Obama. Not the responsibility of the Commander in Chief, who many voters would have liked to see as the anti-war president, but who sent even more soldiers to Afghanistan. “So far I had criticized the” War on Terror “from the cheap places,” writes Obama. “Now it was my war.”
Why he ends it in Iraq and continues it in Afghanistan, he explains in page-long digressions down to the smallest detail (leaving out the controversies about the question of how he conducts it, keyword drone war), supplemented by digressions into the history of the countries embedded in an introductory seminar on how the American system of government works. Even for German readers who, thanks to John King’s geography lessons on CNN, can easily find Susquehanna County on the map during the elections, some of the chapters on Obamacare and the TARP law are likely to be difficult.
Those who stick with it will be rewarded with some exciting self-reflections from Obama. He even shares the disappointment of many people with his politics, he writes at one point. “People thought that my choice would change the country. Instead, their lives are even harder and Washington as broken as ever.” He is largely silent about what he himself contributed to the disappointment – the privilege of the memoir writer. What is striking, however, is how often he blames external factors for the failure, for example in the summer of 2009, which he had planned as the “summer of the upswing”: “Only Greece imploded”. Or the new Middle East strategy that collided with the Arab Spring: “If only our timing had been better.”
In many moments, however, the humor that has contributed so much to Obama’s popularity flashes through – when an adviser rings him and reports about the Nobel Peace Prize, the US President answers with a counter question: “What for?”
Praise for Merkel
The chapters in which Obama lets his readers play little mouse in world history are easier to read, of course preferably in heroic deeds and hussar acts, in which the ex-president sometimes shows a thieving joy. At the world climate conference COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, he and Hillary Clinton carried out a commando action that one of his advisors celebrated as a “real gangster number”: China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao wants to break the agreement and evades a conversation with Obama. He allows Jiabao to be tracked down and crashes his conspiratorial meeting with Brazil, India and South Africa – in the end there is a deal in which the emerging countries also commit themselves for the first time to contribute to climate protection.
Obama has to coordinate his actions in Copenhagen above all with the Europeans – and the woman he sees as Europe’s leading figure: Angela Merkel. She wishes German readers can vividly imagine it, laconically “good luck” for the meeting with the Chinese, where she “pulled the corners of her mouth downwards (…), the facial expressions of a person who is used to tackling unpleasant things to take. “
“Reliable, honest, intellectually precise”
Obama writes of the German Chancellor only in the highest tones – even if Merkel initially met him with skepticism, “because of my ability as a speaker”. He did not take it amiss at Merkel, an aversion to possible demagoguery is probably a good quality for German politicians. And the better the US President got to know Merkel, the more sympathetic she became: “Reliable, honest, intellectually precise and naturally friendly.” Which does not mean that Merkel and Obama were always in agreement on the content, on the contrary, in the course of the economic crisis in 2009, for example, the German Chancellor blocked American requests for stimulus injections time and again – with a typical Merkel sentence, “as if I had suggested something slightly tasteless “:” Yes, Barack, I think that may not be the best approach for us. “
The chancellor’s stoic manner even amused Obama now and then – as at the G20 meeting in London in 2009, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy chanted the name of US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in exuberance over the agreement. Obama burst out laughing, also because of Angela Merkel’s “pained” expression. “She eyed Sarkozy like a mother at a naughty child.”
Mockery and ridicule for Trump
Obama found a man not at all funny who he only paid attention to “marginally” for a long time, but who suddenly dominated the headlines – with the lie that Obama was not born in the USA. “At first I ignored the nonsense,” writes Obama, who has pinned Donald Trump as a “attention-grabbing building lion”. He got to know him when Trump offered to cover the bubbling borehole of the Deepwater Horizon. It was arguably one of the better decisions the Obama administration made to let professionals do the operation.
“A Promised Land” makes it clear how the Republicans and especially the Tea Party are cultivating the field for Obama’s successor, with uncompromisingness, tricks and lies. Four in 10 Republican voters at the time believed that Obama was actually not a native of the United States. A circumstance that the president took with humor back then, in his legendary appearance at the Correspondents Dinner, when he mocked Trump, who was sitting in the audience: “What does he want to prove next? That we were never on the moon?” Actually the last words he wanted to dedicate to Trump. “I had more important things to do.”
“I felt guilty”
To Obama’s sadness, this was also often the case for the family, which he cannot look after as he wants. “I felt guilty,” he admits at one point because he was often not there to see Malia and Sasha grow up, read to them, and accompany them to sport. He experiences the rare moments of normality all the more intensely, and he also lets the readers participate in his proud tears. Regardless of the insight into the Obama’s private life, which is not always rosy, he never explicitly states how he really feels about being president.
He fills many pages with the question of what his election means for the People of Color in the United States, he names the racism that still poisons society, but he does not give a deep insight into his experiences. Maybe because he knows you will always be president. And that is why his heart remains forever chained to strategic considerations.
Barack Obama: A Promised Land. From the American English by Sylvia Bieker, Harriet Fricke, Stephan Gebauer, Stephan Kleiner, Elke Link, Thorsten Schmidt and Henriette Zeltner-Shane. 1024 pages, with 32 pages of color image. € 42.00. Penguin Publishing House. Will be released on November 17, 2020.