Barack Obama wrote a book. It provides rare insights into international politics. And incidentally explains how Donald Trump was able to become US President.
When politicians write an autobiography, a lot can go wrong. It can degenerate into a retelling or a pamphlet of justification. She can get lost in political details or want to explain the whole world.
In the worst case, it’s: pretty boring.
This is definitely not Barack Obama’s autobiography. The first volume, which appears on Tuesday and is entitled “A Promised Land”, avoids many of the traps very successfully on many sides. The book allows us to understand the man and the politician Obama better. And with it the USA and international politics.
When Sarkozy was playing a football fan
In just under 1,000 pages, Obama tells of his childhood, unsteady youth, his political ascent and the first of two terms as president. The book is always most entertaining when it reports on the curiosities of politics behind closed doors.
When it comes to the G20 summit in London in 2009, Obama compares Angela Merkel’s qualities with those of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Two politicians who “couldn’t have been more different in temperament,” as he writes. Obama likes the Chancellor, that has been known for a long time. In the book he describes her as “reliable, honest, intellectually precise, and naturally kind”.
The Chancellor is characterized by a mixture of “organizational skill, strategic acumen and unwavering patience,” writes Obama. Sarkozy probably not. Conversations with him were “alternately amusing or desperate”. But Sarkozy urged the cautious German “often to act”. Not unimportant either.
And the French lifted the mood. At least Obama’s mood. When the summit passed an important agreement to fight the financial crisis, Sarkozy came to the US president and thanked him profusely, Obama says. Sarkozy praised the agreement, thanks to Obama and US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner!
“Then Sarkozy began,” writes Obama, “chanting my Treasury Secretary’s last name like a fan at a football game.” People looked around at them, Geithner was embarrassed, Obama laughed – and Merkel “now eyed Sarkozy like a mother at a naughty child”.
One can imagine it vividly.
From Sarah Palin to Donald Trump
But the book is more than a collection of funny anecdotes from everyday political life. It can be read as an explanation for everything that came after. Or rather, who came after: Donald Trump.
Obama ran against Republican John McCain in his first election campaign in 2008. Obama describes McCain as a good guy, even if he was hopelessly overwhelmed by the financial crisis that broke out in the election campaign.
But there was still Sarah Palin. McCain wanted the then relatively unknown governor of Alaska to be his vice president. She was an “effective populist speaker”, writes Obama, but had “not the slightest idea” about almost any topic. That didn’t bother the Republicans. On the contrary, when Palin failed in an interview, “they seemed to see it as evidence of a liberal plot”.
Sounds too familiar.
Obama writes about this period: “It seemed like with Palin the dark ghosts that had long lived a shadowy existence on the fringes of the Republican Party – xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, aversion to blacks and browns – were making their way in find the center of the party. “
Palin’s spectacular rise was “a kind of template for future politicians,” writes Obama. Also for Donald Trump, who only plays a role very late in the book. Among other things with the conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the USA. Trump didn’t have to invent that either.
“Not quite according to plan”
Obama tells the unlikely story of the Hawaiian-born little “bar” who will become the most powerful man in the world, reflected over long distances and self-deprecatingly. It rarely gets American kitsch, for example when the “flashes of thousands of cameras” were “like a mirror of the twinkling stars above us”.
Just as there are bad sentences in every book, there are also passages in 1,000 pages that are more boring than others. Obama himself explains in the preface that the writing process “did not go quite according to plan” and that 500 pages became a few more.
You can tell in a few places. Pages of pros and cons of various sizes of an economic stimulus package are more for specialists. And where the leader of the Democratic primary campaign in the state of Iowa could ride a bike as a kid doesn’t need the whole world to know.
The good thing is: You can also skip pages in the autobiography of the once most powerful man in the world.