I believe that we can all agree that 2020 was a year unlike any other in modern history. The coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19, brought the world to a grinding halt and disrupted our lives in ways we could have never imagined. Here in the United States, we saw the pandemic take hold, social unrest erupt and the election of Joe Biden, Jr., as the next President of the United States of America. His swearing in on January 20, will mark the final stage in the transition between administrations. For some, it signals the return of politics largely void of the more extreme rhetoric that has gripped the country in recent years. Former President Barack Obama, will undoubtedly be called on for support and advice. I have often thought back to the Obama administration and the decisions that were made on a range of issues. But in particular, I have become even more interested in what life is really like as the Commander-In-Chief. This book, by the 44th President of the United States is exactly what I had been looking for. Not only does it provide an insider’s view into life within the White House, it is also a sobering account of life as a politician. There are highs and lows with a lot in between.
The book is in part an autobiography, with Obama reflecting on his childhood in both Hawaii and Indonesia. However, the more mundane aspects of his life story are not included. In fact, his early life is fairly compressed into a small section of the book. The story picks up the pace when he meets his future wife Michelle, at the law firm of Sidley & Austin in Chicago, IL. And this description of his first impression of her is one of the highlights in the book:
Michelle Lavaughn Robinson was already practicing will when we met. She was 25 years old and an associate at Sidley & Austin, the Chicago law firm where I worked the summer after my first year of law school. She was tall, beautiful, funny, outgoing, generous and wickedly smart-and I was smitten almost from the second I saw her.
For Michelle, the story is a little different as she explains in her own book Becoming, which has become one of my favorites for its honesty and ease at which it can put an interested reader. Curiously, when I have asked my own parents of how they came together, their versions also slightly differ. Perhaps it is the passage of time or the way in which men and women view their shared history that results in varying versions of the romance between them. Regardless, the required component of love that is built upon a strong foundation, can be found here and the journey they embark on with two daughters, is nothing short of incredible.
What I found to be appealing about the book is that Obama does not avoid discussing his own mistakes, transgressions and administrative policies that did not work out. And like other world leaders, he experienced self-doubt, not in a prohibitive way but as a young politician questioning whether he can make his mark against established political juggernauts. With the benefit of hindsight, we know today that fate was on his side. The campaign and the election itself are covered with particular detail paid to the mission his team faced in getting most of America to vote for a largely unknown bi-racial candidate with a Muslim name. The story reveals a lot about America while showing how far we have come and how far we still have to go. I am aware that those who do not like the former president will have their opinions formed before reading the book if they choose to do so. And others will have the opposite mindset and possibly be blinded to his faults due to their admiration of him. Regardless of your political affiliation, if you decide to read this book, you must do so with an open mind.
Although I remember clearly when he was elected, I still found myself reading with suspense as the primary results came in followed by the general election. In the wake of his victory, he begins to put together his cabinet and this part of the book will be of high interest to those who are curious as to how presidents assemble their teams. It is an exhaustive process and the amount of tasks that have to be completed the by the new Commander-In-Chief are staggering. Personally, the Obamas’ lives are changed forever for better and worse. He discusses this aspect as well, with high focus on the lack of privacy afforded to a high profile public official. Further, his ethnicity put him under a more focused microscope and for right-wing figures, he was the perfect target for all that they believed was wrong with America. However, it is clear that deep down, he is a human being like the rest of us who loves action films, a pickup game of basketball and spending time with his family. It will be easy to see why so many voters felt that they could relate to him on a personal level. And I found one section of the book in which current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) gives him this advice on being president:
“Mister President”, Nancy said to me on one call, “I tell my members that what you managed to do in such a short time is historic. I’m just so very proud, really. But right now, the public doesn’t know what you accomplished. They don’t know how awful the Republicans are behaving, just trying to block you and everything. And voters aren’t going to know if you aren’t willing to tell them”
At times during his presidency, it seemed as Washington was about to go off the rails. But, before that could happen, the country was in dire shape due to a recession in 2008. Obama explains what awaited him as he came into office and how his cabinet tackled the looming financial crisis. Some readers may be shocked to learn just how close the nation came to financial collapse and why that threat exist today as a pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the American and world’s economies, which are inextricably linked as readers will see. As Commander-in-Chief, Obama travels the globe and provides us with keen observations of a host of world figures, some of whom remain in power today. And on the domestic front, the battle with House and Senate Republicans takes center stage with Senator Mitchell McConnell, Jr. (R-KY) filling the role of the antagonist in the story. Obama never portrays McConnell as being evil and recognizes that the senator from Kentucky is a seasoned veteran of politics. Also, he makes it a point to keep the focus on legislation and avoids personal attacks and scrutiny of the personal lives of those opposing him. I felt that this approach was correct and provided the book with the touch of class needed for it be well-received. Although he is honest about his feelings with regards to their actions, he also acknowledges their strengths and accomplishments.
Some readers might be expecting a long discussion regarding the current president but Obama only dedicates a short section to Trump, which focuses mainly on the birther conspiracy that gained traction during his first term. Interestingly, Obama points out something in Trump’s actions that readers will pick up on as they move through that section. It will make one wonder whether Trump really believes what he says or is simply a master at manipulation and riding the waves of conservative sentiments.
Towards the end of the book, Obama moves on to the Middle East and the final mission to locate and eliminate Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011). The reasons for greenlighting the mission and how it developed are explained and left to readers to decide whether it was the right call. What is clear is that by all accounts, it was the success that had been hoped for. And while it did not eliminate Islamic terror, it did satisfy one promise he made before getting elected that if he had Bin Laden in the cross-hairs, he would authorize the mission. The book closes after the Bin Laden raid and I had expected more to follow regarding his second term in office. However, if he had included a discussion of the next four years, the book would have grown to a staggering amount of pages and tuned even the most die-hard readers off. Perhaps there will be another book but only time will tell. However, for the present time, we have this memoir of a ground-breaking time in United States history.