The False Promise of Obama's 'Promised Land'Roundup
tags: Barack Obama, memoirs, presidential history
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at Dartmouth College and the managing editor of Modern Intellectual History.
In October 2008, a month before the historical election that would make him the first Black president of the United States, Barack Obama grew worried about the messianic expectations his campaign had invited. For voters electrified by his rallies and political homilies of hope and change, Obama had emerged as MLK 2.0, a savior to deliver the country from the bondage of George W. Bush’s War on Terrorism abroad, from violations of civil rights in the name of national security at home, from the shame of Gitmo, and from the most devastating financial crisis since the Great Depression. He would deliver a new New Deal, restore the country’s international reputation, and cool a warming planet.
These expectations were not uninvited: in his speeches Obama carefully deployed populist, D.C.–outsider rhetoric and channeled the Black prophetic political tradition. Yet in his new memoir, A Promised Land, which covers his turbulent first two years in office, Obama recalls—at the peak of his election campaign—wanting nothing to do with these hopes. “It was personally disorienting,” he writes, “requiring me to constantly take stock to make sure I wasn’t buying into the hype.” Many of his supporters did buy into the hype—which left Obama thinking, before he even entered the White House, that “it would be impossible to meet the outsized expectations now attached to me.”
It was also in October 2008 that Obama first recognized that it was not just political liberals and leftists who were succumbing to populist messianism. In August, John McCain chose the Governor of Alaska and self-proclaimed hockey mom, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. For all her clear weaknesses, Obama saw Palin as an effective populist who also galvanized the masses, but who did so by “enthusiastically gassing them up with nativist bile.” Before his defeat of McCain, Obama already sensed in Palin’s populism the nativist fringe making its way toward center stage in the Republican Party—a trend that would foretell Trump’s future presidency.
The new book makes plain that Obama viewed expectations of radical hope and change not only as unfair but also as a threat to his own vision of America as “a promised land.” His early premonitions about a savior syndrome mobilizing both left and right play out from beginning to end in this memoir. But how exactly does Obama envision the promised land? Despite the title, these seven hundred pages never say: the words “promised land” appear only once in the book as an epigraph, in an African American spiritual. The omission is striking; such vagueness can only be considered intentional.
The only place where readers might be able to tease out any substance is in the book’s very brief preface. There Obama tells us that despite the dark political forces that have arisen in recent years, he has yet to give up on “the direction of the America we’ve been promised”—on the idea of “liv[ing] up to the meaning our creed.” By this Obama apparently means the country’s founding documents that proclaim all people equal before the law. In stoic language, Obama envisions a slow but steady march toward the fulfillment of founding values.
What is less clear in the book is that behind this faint residue of a political ideal lurks the influence of post–Cold War liberalism. The ghost of the 1990s haunt this new book and help to explain how Obama’s administration came to be seen by so many as both a great disappointment and a grave mistake—one we must avoid making again today.