The true mettle of a person comes from the ability to overcome adversity and present themselves in as positive a light as possible, or at least I think so. With so much that has happened over the last four years in American politics, one might be able to extend that to the world’s population, or at least those who spent any time impacted by the country in some way. When February began, I sought to spend some time looking at three men who had fought through the trenches of American politics and risen to the position of President of the United States. This memoir, the first of two parts, by President Barack Obama, serves as the final piece in this brief study. It was both refreshing and awe-inspiring, as well as whetted my appetite for the second part. While it is both laudatory and humbling, it does serve to prove that America fell into quite an abyss from 2017 until earlier this year, as we look back at the first term of a man who sought to change the rules and protect the country he loved while doing so. Some may disagree with this, which is their prerogative, though few can discount that the election of Barack Hussein Obama ushered in much change from the way things were done in Washington before. Gripping and enlightening, I was riveted with each page turn and cannot wait for the second volume to complete the story!
Born to modest means, Barack Obama was an outsider from the outset. With a Caucasian mother and Kenyan father whose relationship deteriorated early, Obama was never one to fit into any single group, which he mentions proved to be a yoke of his throughout those` ` formative years. Added to that, the boy who was born in Hawaii was soon travelling to Asia where he began his scholastic learning. He was passionate about education and did not allow himself to be shaped by the perception of others at any point.
When he finished public school in the United States, Obama had aspirations to make a difference, though he was also still in the mindset of many young people, wanting to balance fun with studying. He got passable grades and soon found himself before he landed in law school and found a passion he did not know was there. With the fire lit within him, Obama settled in Chicago and sought to make a difference in the lives of those around him as a community organiser, while also teaching at the law school. He met a lovely woman named Michelle Robinson, who changed his life and taught him the importance of being grounded. Obama speaks at length about their connection and quickly burgeoning relationship, which led to marriage, even if it was not always blissful.
As the Obamas laid down some roots and started a family, the enticement of politics soon crossed Barack’s path. While not the life she pictured for herself, Michelle supported her husband as best she could for his run for a seat in Illinois’ State Senate, a post he won. Balancing the workload with being a young father, Obama did his best to make a difference in the lives of many, while also trying to keep his narrative together. It was not always easy, but the Obamas made it work, somehow.
Testing the power of their relationship, Barack soon devised a plan to take his local advocacy onto a larger stage and sought to win a seat in the US Senate. Less than impressed and trying to carve out a career of her own, Michelle agreed to the venture, but set limits on campaigning and ensured that the Obama household would never have to come second to the electorate. Obama explores the run for a seat in DC and the struggles that he had to overcome, all while he was being noticed on the national stage. His invitation to speak at the 2004 Democratic National Convention proved to electrify a young Barack Obama, but also made a name for him amongst the heavy hitters in the party. He was a man whose name would cross their lips again soon.
The Obamas tried to get used to the national stage and life in DC, struggling at times with the dual households and added responsibilities. A newly-minted senator, Barack Obama had a great deal to learn, though received significant support on both sides of the aisle. Obama illustrates both the great help he received as well as struggles he was forced to overcome on such a large stage, all while trying to carve out his own niche. He sought to push for change, so much so that he would soon be a name people put forward for the 2008 presidential election, surprising because of his lack of experience.
As Obama explains, it was the idea of running for president that almost derailed his relationship. Michelle was wholeheartedly against it, having enough trouble keeping their girls away from the spotlight. It was a stressful time, as Barack wanted a larger taste of the limelight and knew he could make a difference. Backers and political heavyweights continued to press for him to run and Michelle did eventually agree, but set strict guidelines for any run. Thus began the monumental run for president by a man who would smash glass ceilings along the way.
Obama does not hold back about the 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination. It was a gloves-off affair, with a number of well-known heavy hitters, including: Hilary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Edwards. They all had experience and name recognition on the national scene, though Obama had something that appealed to voters throughout the campaign. Keen on making himself known and advocating for what he believed was right, Obama was able to capture the nomination with some difficulty, as is described at length in one portion of the book.
The stage was set for a run against John McCain and the Republican base for the role of president. With the George W. Bush presidency entering its final year, the heat was on for both men to explain how they would bring America into a new era. No one could have predicted the issue that hid in the shadows, the massive financial crisis, though Obama explores it at length and how it shaped the campaign that summer and into the final stretch. Both Obama and McCain had their own way of handling it, walking a fine line as President Bush tried to wash his hands of it. Grit and determination balanced against pure vilification of the current administration’s choices in the final weeks, while Obama and McCain locked horns. When all the ballots were counted, America had chosen its first African American president and change was on the horizon, the campaign slogan of “Yes, we can” resonating around the world. However, winning the position was the easy part, or so it seemed.
From the day he was president-elect, Barack Obama was in the hot seat, asked how he would now handle the burgeoning debt and bailouts that President Bush was leaving for him to solve. While Obama seeks to take the high road and tackle solutions, there is a degree of finger pointing and a somewhat high-brow blame game directed not only at his predecessor, but also the congressional Republicans who attempted to stymie progress on getting the country on its feet. Efforts were made to seek change, even during that interim time between the election win and Inauguration Day. It would not be an easy road for Obama as he started as America’s leader, as seen in some of the early meetings with Republican leadership.
Amidst much of the blood, sweat, and tears in the middle of the memoir, Obama does take some time to recount his swearing-in, a monumental event for the country as a whole. While some could still not accept the idea of an African American as POTUS, many celebrated the event and the day took on an special excitement. There is wonderful explorations of sentiments as well as depictions of how Washington prepared for the big day, including the flubbing of the Oath of Office. It was significant, to say the least, but only one day of reprieve before returning to making a difference.
Obama discusses some of his early international summits and sentiments about his new ‘international friends and foes’ in the form of world leaders. It is clear that some would be stronger allies than others, but Obama presents it as an attempt to get to know where he could turn and which leaders might be hiding knives up their proverbial sleeves. It is no shock which leaders fell into which categories, but I will leave it to the reader to uncover the list and Obama’s sentiments throughout the tome. Either way, there is an excellent exploration of international diplomacy as some of the world’s issues take the forefront of the discussion, including: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as global shifts in politics and those nations who sought to exert their own form of control.
Obama sought to create new and lasting relationships on the international front, including thawing of relations with some countries whose enemy status could not be disputed. Iran proved to be one such country, though the frigidity of the late 1970s and into the 80s would not be easily forgotten. Obama sought to engage along nuclear energy terms, with the Iranians remaining sceptical and tepid throughout. However, there was a determination for America to lead, rather than vilify and point fingers, which appears to be what Obama did.
The book contrasts this nicely with talk of some domestic issues, though the most recollected ‘home-based’ policy Obama had from his first term haunted him into the reign of America’s Autocratic Whiner. Healthcare had long been a sticking point for American administrations, especially something that proved to be affordable. He sought to walk the fine line, particularly as there was a need to ensure congressional passage of the legislation, though Obama was determined to make a difference. As a Canadian, I was enthralled with the rhetoric that emerged on both sides, as though the idea of affordable healthcare for all (let alone, universal) was as inviting as cutting one’s throat with a rusty tin can. Through some tugs and pulls, as well as serious negotiating to protect from a Republican filibuster in the Senate, a plan emerged with majority support in both houses.
Equally as troubling within America’s borders was how to handle the economy post-2008. Obama spends significant time exploring how he sought to rebuild America, through a stimulus package that could help the country get back on its feet. From disdain over corporate bailouts to helping the ‘little guy’ who was sucked into the mortgage market and left with nothing. While there was a degree of compassion to the Obama program, there had to be strict rules, some of which would not impress those within the Democratic Party. However, shouldering ahead was needed, while also trying to tackle many of the other issues left on the agenda.
This first volume of the memoir did not seek to defend Barack Obama as being correct all of the time, even when others refused to listen, but rather to give the reader a broad view of events and how they were seen from within. There were foibles throughout, something that Obama readily admits, but there were also some concrete plans to make things a great deal better, even if others blocked growth or success. Obama showed grit and determination, even as he admitted to being verbose. While the Obama Administration was sandwiched between two staunchly aggressive Republican presidents, they took action, rather than simply wandering around with a broom and dustbin. I believe that is one of the takeaways from this piece for me.
Much like his love to talk, Barack Obama shows that he enjoys putting words on the page. This is by no means a quick read, nor should it be. There is a significant amount of detail throughout the piece to educate and entertain the reader. Facts, perspectives, and raw sentiment cover many of the chapters, giving the reader the man’s personal view on things from congressional battles, world leaders, and international diplomacy. Blunt and surely peppered with some honest to goodness language, the book may turn some away who seek to paint murals of the 44th POTUS, but it is the honesty that sobers the reader throughout this journey. With strong chapters and a personal touch on each page, this memoir tells the story without the flourishes and filters, while making the wait for the second instalment all the more painful. Still, I’ll do it, as this book was so impactful, I cannot imagine what is yet to come!
Kudos, President Obama, for leading from the front. You made the hard decisions and did not rely on any news network to dictate how the winds were blowing or sycophants to pat your ego.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons