Book Review: "The Promised Land" by Barack Obama
History - American Released - Jan 15, 2021
Reading this book is highly informative–like taking a semester of college courses. Obama describes every issue and problem that faced his presidency in great detail, from the financial meltdown that he inherited, to the off-shore drilling disaster that gushed billions of barrels of crude oil into the ocean waters of the Gulf Coast. Obama is not only a quick study, but absolutely thorough in his problem-solving quest to master the facts and arrive at an equitable and just solution. At 701 pages the book is decidedly long, but it is well-written and entertaining; Obama is not only incredibly bright, but a gifted story-teller who never fails to inform while holding your attention. Incidentally, the "promised land" of the book's title is the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which brought Obama tremendous joy and personal satisfaction. Obama's book covers his early days as a community organizer up through his first four years as president.
What I appreciated most was learning how Obama put together and managed his team of advisors, staffers, speech writers, and White House cabinet. Also noteworthy is how he led them to fulfill his ambitious plans for the nation, as well as resolve various crises that confronted his administration. His relationship with his wife Michelle is particularly special, a relationship not without its problems. What's interesting is how often a good sense of humor on both their parts helped smooth over the occasional rough spots. Early in the book, it becomes evident that Michelle (a successful lawyer in her own right) is somewhat jealous of her husband's success, which she jokingly attributes to his having "magic beans" in his pocket.
On their way to a victory dinner, after winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, and having been offered a new lucrative book deal, Obama writes: We were headed down the hall toward the elevator when suddenly Michelle stopped.
"Forget something?" I asked.
She looked at me and shook her head, incredulous. "I can't believe you actually pulled the whole thing off. The campaign. The book. All of it."
I nodded and kissed her forehead. "Magic beans, baby. Magic beans."
Also noteworthy is Obama's description of several world leaders, including Vladimir Putin: "Physically, he was unremarkable: short and compact–a wrestler's build, sandy hair, a prominent nose, and pale, watchful eyes . . . I noticed a casualness to his movements, a practiced disinterest in his voice that indicated someone accustomed to being surrounded by subordinates and supplicants. Someone who'd grown used to power."
His first meeting with President George W. Bush is noteworthy as well. The meeting (originally called by Republican presidential candidate John McCain) was to address the world financial crises that was threatening the nation's economy. About the White House meeting, Obama writes: "No one looked like they wanted to be there. The president certainly hadn't sounded enthusiastic when we'd spoken on the phone the previous day. I disagreed with him on just about every one of (his) major policy decisions, but I'd come to like the very man, finding him to be straightforward, disarming, and self-deprecating in his humor.
"I can't tell you why McCain thinks this a good idea," he'd said, sounding almost apologetic. He acknowledged that Hank Paulson and I were already communicating a couple times daily and expressed appreciation for my behind-the-scene help with congressional Democrats. "If I were you, Washington is the last place I'd want to be," Bush said. "But McCain asked and I can't say no. Hopefully we can keep it short."
Solving the financial crises proved to be a lesson in how to get things done in grid-lock Washington (and, at the same time, learning how to cope with the likes of Mitch McConnell, Republican leader of the Senate, and Republican House Speaker John Boehner), and would prove instructive in how to get his Affordable Health Care bill passed in both houses of Congress. The stakes were high, as Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel warned him. "If you lose, your presidency will be badly weakened. And nobody understands that better than McConnell and Boehner."
"We better not lose then," Obama said.
"My interest in healthcare was beyond policy or politics," admits Obama. "It was personal . . . Each time (on the campaign trail) I met a parent struggling to come up with money to get treatment for a sick child, I thought back to the night Michelle and I had to take (our) three-month old Sasha to the emergency room for what turned out to be viral meningitis–the terror and helplessness we felt as the nurses whisked her away for a spinal tap, and the realization that we might never have caught the infection in time had the girls not had a regular pediatrician we felt comfortable calling in the middle of the night . . . Most of all, I thought of (my) mom . . . Passing a healthcare bill wouldn't bring (her) back. . . . But it would save somebody's mom out there, somewhere down the line."
After getting the Healthcare bill through Congress, the next crisis facing the Obama Administration was the H1 N1 virus. At the time there was no known vaccine. Obama urged his health care team of experts to get out in front of the virus and find a remedy. Honesty with the public was key. Writes Obama: "Decisions would be made based on the best available science, and we were going to explain each step of our response to the public–including detailing what we did and didn't know . . . Although the United States did not escape unscathed–more than 12,000 Americans lost their lives–we were fortunate that this particular strain of H1 N1 turned out to be less deadly than the experts had feared, and the news that the pandemic had abated by mid-2010 didn't generate headlines. Still, I took great pride in how well our team had performed."
One of his first presidential trips took him to the Czech Republic, where he met poet-turned-politician Vaclav Havel. "Havel, as much as anyone, had given moral voice to the grassroots democracy movements that had brought the Soviet era to an end. Along with Nelson Mandela and a handful of other living statesmen, he'd also been a distant role model for me. I'd read his essays while in law school. Watching him maintain his moral compass even after his side had won power and he'd assumed the presidency had convinced me that it was possible to enter politics and come out with your soul intact."
One of the more difficult accomplishments of the Obama Presidency was achieving the Iran Nuclear Deal, which placed heavy restrictions on Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons. At first Iran would not even consider negotiations, however, a key meeting with Soviet president Dmitry Medvedev in London paved the way and a hard-won treaty was eventually worked out.
One of the biggest disasters to face the Obama Administration was a giant oil spill off the Southern Coast of America. It was an ecological disaster that seemed to defy a solution, which Republicans eventually call "Obama's Katrina."
Writes Obama: "To that point in my presidency, I'd maintained a fundamental confidence that no matter how bad things got, whether with the banks, the auto companies, Greece or Afghanistan. I could always come up with a solution through sound process and smart choices."
The well was located in the Macondo oil field, one mile below the ocean's surface. Every attempted fix failed, while crude oil gushed unabated to the surface, created an oil slick that would grow to roughly six-hundred square miles, and poison fish, dolphins, and sea turtles, and threaten long-term damages to marshes, estuaries, and inlets that were home to birds and other wildlife. Meanwhile, news outlets reported daily on the mounting damages and the fact nothing seemed to be getting done to plug the well. Obama made a number of public relations visits to the area, while seeking ways to plug the well.
The BP Oil Company was responsible for the disaster and agreed to cover all clean-up expenses, but their engineers didn't have a clue to successfully caping the well. Finally, Obama turned to his energy secretary Steve Chu, who recruited a team of independent geophysicists and hydrologists to work with him. A number of so-called blowout preventers installed by BP engineers had already failed. The solution? Fitting a second, smaller blowout preventer–called a capping stack–on top of the one that had failed. Once in place, a series of sequential valves on the unit were closed, the cap held, and the oil leak stopped.
As luck would have it, no sooner had the leak been plugged, than a hurricane swept into the Gulf Coast, with heavy winds that roiled the sea and threatened to dislodge the cap. But the cap held, and for the first time in eighty-seven days oil wasn't leaking from the Macondo well.
"There were no celebrations in the White House," writes Obama . . . "just enormous relief." It would take a couple more months and a series of additional procedures before BP declared the Macondo well permanently sealed.
The damage to the Gulf Coast was not as bad as thought, and the severely impacted fishing industry, recovered faster than anticipated. As if to demonstrate that the Gulf waters were safe, Obama took his family to Panama Beach, Florida, for a two-day vacation, "to boost the region's tourism industry." A photo was taken of Obama and his daughter Sasha splashing in the water, "a signal to Americans that it was safe to swim in the Gulf."
One of the perks of being president was being entertained by famous performers, in Obama's case it was a performance by Bob Dylan that particularly stood out. Writes Obama: "I can still picture Bob Dylan, with just a bassist, a piano player, and his guitar, tenderly reworking 'The Times they Are a-Changin'. When he finished, he stepped off the stage, shook my hand, gave a little grin and bow in front of me and Michelle, and vanished without a word."
On China Obama writes: "I thought Clinton and Bush had made the right call in encouraging China's integration into the global economy–history told me that a chaotic and impoverished China posed a bigger threat to the United States than a prosperous one."
In May 2009, Obama decided it was time to find Osama bid Landen, whose whereabouts had been a mystery since December 2001, and tasked his support staff to begin a search. "I want a report on my desk every thirty days describing our progress," said Obama.
A day before the ninth anniversary of 9/11, Leon Panetta and his CIA deputy Mike Morell asked to see him. "We think we have a potential lead on bin Laden," they reported. They had a fix on a man who resembled bin Laden, living in a walled compound on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. After further investigation a plan was hatched to invade the compound and either kidnap or kill bin Laden. A special ops mission was planned, headed by the Defense Department's Vice Admiral William McRaven, whom Obama would come to like. "The chance to work closely with the men and women of the U.S. armed forces–to witness firsthand their teamwork and sense of duty–had been one of the most humbling aspects of my two years in office. And if I'd had to pick one individual to represent everything right about our military, Bill McRaven might have been that person."
Several options were put forth. After Obama chose the one that seemed to have the best chance of succeeding, he gave McRaven the green light to dispatch the SEAL team and helicopter assault force to a base in Afghanistan, and await further orders. There was no guarantee of success. Even up to the last minute, the CIA continued to assess the chances of success. "I know we're trying to quantify factors as best we can," Obama told them. "But ultimately, this is a fifty-fifty call. Let's move on."
Writes Obama: "I officially gave the go-ahead for the Abbottabad mission, emphasizing that McRaven had full operational control and that it would be up to him to determine the exact timing of the raid . . . .
"(On May 2, 2011), at two p.m. eastern time, two Black Hawk helicopters that had been modified for stealth lifted off from Jalalabad Airfield, carrying twenty-three members of the SEAL team . . . for the commencement of what was officially known as 'Operation Neptune's Spear'."
Meanwhile in the White House Situation Room, Obama joined with Leon Panetta–who was on a videoconference line from Langley, relaying information from McRaven on the mission's progress.
Despite a few glitches (one helicopter was damaged and ultimately destroyed by the SEAL team), the mission was a success, bin Laden was killed, and several computers and documents (containing valuable intelligence on al-Qaeda) were retrieved.
Among other crises facing Obama in his first term was the so-called "birther" issue raised by Donald Trump. Writes Obama: "The Tea Party summer had migrated from the fringe of GOP politics to the center–an emotional almost visceral, reaction to my presidency, distinct from any difference in policy or ideology. It was as if my presence in the White House had triggered a deep-rooted panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted.
"Which is exactly what Donald Trump understood when he started peddling the assertion that I had not been born in the United States and was thus an illegitimate president. . . . "
(At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington), Trump said, "Our current president came out of nowhere . . . The people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don't know who he was. It's crazy."
At first, Obama paid no attention. But Trump wouldn't let go. On the Today show he said he'd sent investigators to Hawaii to look into Obama's birth certificate. "I have people that have been studying it, and they cannot believe what they're finding."
Finally, Obama sent an aid to Hawaii to obtain a copy of his birth certificate, the proof of which silenced Trump. Later, when Obama was invited to speak at a dinner in Washington, in which Trump was expected to be a guest, Obama accepted. Working from prepared remarks, he turned to Trump and said, "Now, I know that he's taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put forth this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that's because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter–like, Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? After the audience broke into laughter, I continued in this vein, noting his credentials and breadth of experience as host of Celebrity Apprentice and congratulating him for how he'd handled the fact that at the steakhouse, the men's cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. . . . These are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled. Well handled."
Continues Obama: "The audience howled as Trump sat in silence, cracking a tepid smile. I couldn't begin to guess what went through his mind during the few minutes I spent publicly ribbing him. What I knew was that he was a spectacle and in the United States of American in 2011, that was a form of power. Trump trafficked in currency that, however shallow, seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day. . . ."
I look forward to Obama's next book, about his second term as president.
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