a promised land

Image: Mira Schendel, undated, Photographic Reproduction Romulo Fialdini


Commentary on Barack Obama's Newly Published Autobiography

Any memoir of a US president would be a balm in the face of the ignoble figure of Donald Trump. This perception applied to Barack Obama takes on a superlative dimension. Launched shortly after the presidential election, the book The Promised Land came as an announcement of the end of the nightmare of Trump's term. One of Obama's undeniable qualities is his ability to timing political. The first volume of his memorial to the presidency was a record seller and put the former president back on the global scene of opinions, views and interviews about America and the world.

In order to read and interpret Obama's book with the necessary phlegm and objectivity, it is therefore necessary to exercise distance from this scenario of extreme polarization in which the US has submerged since the Trump administration and, not least, calls for the removal the feeling of relief (global, by the way) to see the occupant of the White House defeated by the undisputed victory – enshrined in the vote, by the electoral college and, after the Trumpist insurrection on January 6, by the US Congress – of the Joe Biden Democrats and Kamala Harris. It is from this atmosphere of triumph over the scorched earth scenario of four years of Trumpism that we must solemnly leave to analyze Obama's memorial work.

With over 700 pages, divided into seven chapters, and depicting only the first term, Promised land it is written in the first person, as a sincere story told to anyone who is curious or interested. That seems to have been Obama's intention – to democratize knowledge about what it means to be president of the USA. In addition to this didactic aspect, Obama's book reveals the existence of two people in the work, Obama-candidate and Obama-president.

The first two chapters (Part I. The Gamble; Part II. Yes We Can) are the Obama-candidate narrative, a CASE​ of an electoral phenomenon, as a subject of great charisma and bearer of a powerful message of hope and of breaking a political obstacle – that of being an African-American candidate in a society crossed by racism, in which black men and women represent 10% of the country's population. His campaign catchphrase, “Yes, we can” (Yes, we can) has transformed his personal journey into a collective journey that brings him closer to myths and epics. But Obama refuses to match himself or be recognized as a hero; rather, he values ​​and extols in detail the support of his wife, his family, his advisers and his co-religionists, highlighting their qualities – which he often qualifies as superior to his own. Obama's modesty – allied to his impressive political intuition – assumes an unbeatable strength in his condition as a candidate.

but the other person, President Obama, who faced a permanent political wall from Republicans in Congress, and in the international field the growing loss of US influence and power in the world, reveals doubts, uncertainties and dissonant hesitations of the bearer of hope. On the ground of Realpolitik, which Obama says he learned from his first electoral experiences in Illinois – including a defeat early in his political career – hope is symbolic capital that does not translate into tangible achievements. There is a vision of long last in Obama's self-assessment when justifying what he did, what he didn't do and what he imagines will project beyond his presidency.

In the third chapter (Part III. Renegade), Obama recounts his arrival at the White House, the formation of the government and the first and hard clashes with the Republican opposition. The daily life of the presidency and its rites are narrated in rich detail, interspersed with descriptions of the profiles of each actor in the political scene, whether supporter or opponent. Result of one of the first major political battles in Congress – the Recovery Act, to face the economic crisis of 2008 – was approved in 2009, indicating the difficulties that Obama would have to govern.

In this chapter, too, he presents his impressions and views on US foreign policy. His government inherited the Iraq wars (which he opposed as a candidate for the Senate), Afghanistan, the “War on Terror” at that time represented by the al quaeda, the nuclear issue with Iran and North Korea. And the rise of China and the BRICS. Regarding his method of formulating external action, Obama says that there were frictions between the new generation (Susan Rice among others) and the old generation (Hillary Clinton among others) of his team and confides that the tension between these team members “was the product of a deliberate action on my part, a way to resolve the tensions inside my own head” (p. 327). This tension induced between the “modern” and “traditional” of the Democratic Party within his cabinet, appears as a hallmark of Obama-president, who tries to obtain a permanent synthesis of opposites, a conciliation of antipodes, which makes him govern in a continuous disposition of arbiter of his own government.

In chapters four (Part IV. The good fight) and fifth (Part V. The world as it is), Obama dives into the analysis of international politics and its main characters, who he met and with whom he negotiated. The highlighted topics are global governance actions in the midst of the economic crisis and the fight against global warming. It is in this context that the BRICS emerge. Obama recognizes – and even justifies – the power of this new group in managing global affairs with the emergence of the G20 and the deficit of participation in the World Bank and the IMF. Obama says “In theory, at least, I sympathized with his point of view” (p.352). But it charges these countries to assume greater responsibilities.

It is in this context of the new role of the BRICS that Obama quotes Lula in a paragraph that caused great repercussions in the Brazilian press. There were those who said that Obama “took revenge” on Lula (because Lula would not have had a good relationship with Obama, as she had with Bush), based on the statements made. It is then worth reproducing what Obama said (p. 352-53): “The Brazilian president, for example, Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva, had visited the Oval Office in March (2009), making a good impression. A grizzled, likable former union leader, with a stint in prison for protesting the military government, and elected in 2002, he had initiated a series of programmatic reforms that sent Brazil's growth rates skyrocketing, expanding its middle class and securing housing and education for millions of poorer citizens. He was also said to have the scruples of a big boss in the Tammany Hall, and rumors circulated of government patronage, underhand deals and kickbacks running into the billions”.

Taken out of context, the paragraph gives rise to the understanding that Obama qualifies Lula as a popular leader who benefits the poorest, while branding him as a “mafioso”, clientelistic and obscure in government affairs. But Obama is very careful with his words: he never mentions corruption. And by the time the book was written, Lula had already been accused and (illegally and unfairly) arrested for Operation Lava Jato. Within the context of the book, the paragraph about Lula is part of the rational of Obama to show that the BRICS are a new international political force, but in his view they carry problems in their political and governmental structures.

All political leaders were criticized and analyzed for their “contradictions” in this regard. For this reason, the idea of ​​“Obama's revenge” against Lula cannot be sustained. One can even make a favorable reading of the president's memoirs to former president Lula, along the lines of his famous phrases "This is the guy!" and “The most popular leader on earth”, said by Obama to Lula at a G20 meeting, whose disclosure earned the former Brazilian president an extra dose of international prestige on the occasion.

About Brazil in general, it is interesting to note that when checking the index of the work, the country appears three times, one of them in six pages. It is the only Latin American country expressly mentioned more than once – neither Cuba nor Venezuela are mentioned, and Mexico is mentioned only once – to name three countries that are high on Washington's foreign agenda. And as for the region's leaders, only presidents Lula and Dilma are mentioned. It is because of this “prominence” of Brazil in the memories of Obama's first term – and the absence of other Latin American countries and leaders – that the relative importance of the country in Obama's memories is recognized.

In Chapter VI (Part VI. All proof), Obama reports on the difficulties he had to face in government, highlighting the reform of Wall Street, the leak of the BP oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico and the deactivation of the Guantánamo prison ( one of his promises never achieved by the blockade of the Republicans, but not only).

In Chapter VII (Part VII. On the tightrope), Obama talks about the difficulties he faced in dealing with the conflict in the Middle East (it should be noted that Obama was the least pro-Israeli of US presidents in recent history, which led to accusations to be pro-Islamic) and the Arab Spring process. He tells details of how he tried to convince President Mubarak to step down when the demonstrations broke out. And he narrates an episode that causes diplomatic embarrassment for Brazil: when visiting the country during President Dilma’s term, Obama authorized, while in Brasília, the first military intervention of his government: an attack on Gaddafi’s forces in Libya (p. 672).

The book has two internal inserts with a rich collection of photos from Obama's first term, revealing crucial moments of his government. These are images that speak volumes about how Obama perceived his trajectory. There you can see when Obama receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo; and the President with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the military high command accompanying the operation that executed Osama Bin Laden on Pakistani soil. Among these photos, one seems to summarize the purpose of his memories: Obama crouched down, welcoming a black child, whose countenance does not hide the enormous satisfaction of meeting the President. The photo's caption reads: “Part of the rationale I gave Michelle before running for President was that if she won, children around the world would see themselves, and their possibilities, differently. And that, in and of itself, would be worth it.”

Naturally, a review of a book of such breadth and detail will leave much to be desired in many respects. We have no choice but to encourage anyone who might be interested to read the book, which had an excellent team of translators in a well-kept Brazilian edition. Not forgetting that the book on the second term is yet to come…

*Gilberto MA Rodrigues Professor and coordinator of the Graduate Program in International Relations at the Federal University of ABC.


Barak Obama. a promised land. Translation: B. Vargas, CA Leite, D. Bottman, J. Dauster. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2020, 731 pages.


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