Obama’s memoirs, a critical and optimistic look at a divided US

By Lucia Leal

Washington, Nov 17 (efe-epa).- Optimism about the future of the United States mixes with an introspective exercise in the first volume of memoirs published by former President Barack Obama, a leader whose historic rise captivated the media world but who also stirred up the tensions that would raise to power his antithesis: Donald Trump.

“A Promised Land,” which went on sale on Tuesday throughout the world and in 19 languages, including Spanish, made clear from its title Obama’s unquenchable faith in the future of the country he governed from 2009-2017, and which now – in his judgment – is “on the brink of a crisis” of democracy due to its extreme political polarization.

“I’m not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America – not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all of humankind,” writes Obama in the book’s preface.

That confidence in the special destiny of his country, and in the exceptional character of the US, is the backbone of the book’s 768 pages, which covers his life from his early childhood up until the moment in 2011 when he met the members of the US Navy SEAL team who ended the life of Al Qaeda leader and the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Osama Bin Laden.

The book’s publication has sparked great expectations in the US, where the Crown publishing house has printed 3.4 million copies just for that country and Canada, along with another 2.5 million for the international market, including Spain and a large part of Latin America.

Those who have had early access to the book describe it as a self-portrait that is much more introspective than is habitual for the memoirs of former US presidents, a crafting motivated in part by Obama’s talent for narrative.

“First and foremost, I hoped to give an honest rendering of my time in office – not just a historical record of key events that happened on my watch and important figures with whom I interacted but also an account of some of the political, economic, and cultural crosscurrents that helped determine the challenges my administration faced and the choices my team and I made in response,” Obama told The Atlantic.

That desire to create a tool for historians as well as bring the public closer to what it’s like to be president was what delayed the publication of the book, which Obama originally wanted to – and thought he could – complete within one year. In recent months, too, he has been heavily involved in campaigning for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who served as his vice president.

Obama’s editor, Rachel Klayman, told The New York Times that “He’s a superb writer, but no one would accuse him of being succinct.”

What distinguishes him as a writer is not just the scope and detailed way he puts together the history, but also what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described in her critique of the book as an emotional guardedness, saying “There is very little of what the best memoirs bring: true self-revelation. So much is still at a polished remove. It is as if, because he is leery of exaggerated emotion, emotion itself is tamped down.”

Besides confessing that he very sensitive to looking stupid, Obama discusses the possibility that his initial decision to run for public office was due more to his ego than to his desire for public service.

He also confesses that he ended up running for president in 2007 despite the fact that his wife Michelle was completely against the idea.

He says he was incredulous when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, wondering “why,” and in the book he also reminds progressives who were disappointed by his presidency that he was never an idealist dreamer but rather much more pragmatic.

Obama also laments the fact, however, that he was not able to accomplish more in a number of spheres, above all gun control and immigration, but he blames the obstruction of the Republican majority in Congress for that, noting that the GOP controlled both houses of Congress during six of his eight years in office.

He told Chilean writer Isabel Allende in an interview for Univision that people say that the Obama administration deported many people, but he never introduced that policy. Rather, he said, he inherited Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Border Patrol and many laws and was not successful in changing them, but it was not because he did not try to do so.

Trump’s election in 2016 was, in part, a reactionary response to the landmark event that was Obama’s rise to power, the first black president, who the mogul had attacked for years with a baseless and racist conspiracy theory that he was not born in the US.

But Obama’s book refers to Trump only in the preface, when he admits that his successor represents something “diametrically” opposed to him, and goes on to argue that this populism was present in the 2008 election, which Obama won, at the huge rallies held by Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

All these forces – the politics of identity, anti-immigrant sentiments and conspiracy thinking – were gathering force, he writes, and crystallized in 2010 in the rise of the Tea Party movement, which upended US political life, creating a country that now is marked by deep divisions.

In his interviews to promote the book, Obama has spoken about the responsibility of the media and the tech giants in resolving that crisis, but above all he remains hopeful “because I’ve learned to place my faith in my fellow citizens, especially those of the next generation, whose conviction in the equal worth of all people seems to come as second nature, and who insist on making real those principles that their parents and teachers told them were true but that they perhaps never fully believed themselves.”

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