Barack Obama’s much-anticipated memoir, “A Promised Land” is emblematic of the man himself in that it is most unusual. I don’t mean unusual in the way conspiracy theorists or Fox News fanatics mean unusual when they describe Obama. I mean unusual in the sense of his life story, his meteoric trajectory, and how a man like him — not from money or a dynastic family; not white, an unusual name and raised by a single mother — ascended to the Office of the Presidency. So, I guess, in a remote sense, I do mean unusual the way a conspiracy theorist or Fox News fanatic might mean such a word. However, unlike them, Barack Obama’s unusualness, his peculiarity, signified, and continues to signify to me, a world wide open. One of potentials and possibilities. A world in which the dye has not been cast, the mold has not been made and there was a seat at the table of history for all of us willing to really and truly lean in.
Barack Hussein Obama was inaugurated as President on January 20, 2009 to the joy of millions and the chagrin of a powerful, loud and established few. A few who over the course of the next eight years would obstruct, diminish, cast doubt upon and racialize President Obama to the tune of millions of their own supporters. It was so that on November 9, 2016, as Van Jones called it, “a whitelash” occurred. A stinging repudiation of all that 44 had stood for made manifest by electing 45: Donald J. Trump. The man who, thanks in no small part to the media, had been fulminating the so-called ‘birther conspiracy’ in which he floated the idea that his would-be predeccesor had not in fact been born in the United States and was, therefore, as so many had suspected/had fever dreams about, an illegitimate President.
After all, how could a man of mixed race with Hussein as a middle name ascend to the highest office in a (white man’s) land. It could not be that he was rhetorically gifted as evidenced by the way he had wended his way into public consciousness at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. A speech whose soaring rhetoric captured the imaginations of millions, not just in the United States, but the world over. It could not be because he attended Harvard Law School, was a Constitutional scholar and editor of the Harvard Law Review.
It could not be that he ticked all of the heteronormative boxes expected of a President. Married: check. To the same woman: check. Scandal free: half a check (that’s less expected and I’m looking at you Bill and Hill). Two kids: check. But that wife, those kids and that marriage didn’t reflect the majority back to themselves. They didn’t look like them and so couldn’t possibly be legitimate. No, it couldn’t be any of those things that delivered the presidency to Obama (what kind of name is that anyway?). Of course, he could not be a patriot and, instead, had to be part of a deep state conspiracy in which an evil, black, Muslim man sought to disrupt the world order. Yeah, that was it, and the more those fires got stoked and those conspiracies floated, the more likely it became that Obama would get broken, washed away and forgotten by history.
And yet, none of these things have happened. He has become an even more revered figure (not among all but certainly among more of those of substance who believe in science, facts and truth than his successor) whose signature accomplishments, including the much maligned and endlessly attacked Obamacare, have withstood the test of time. As outlined in my piece, “A Cold Civil War”, Obama’s accomplishments in the face of such hostility and aggression are nothing short of remarkable.
They have withstood because, as Jonathan Chait outlines in his book, “Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail”, Obama’s profound understanding of the law and the Constitution of the country he was elected to lead, allowed him to craft legislation that would last, withstand the test of the time and the baseless attacks of the GOP. As Jimmy Kimmel noted, humorously, but, also incredulously, in a recent with former President Obama, Republican voters love the Affordable Care Act but really, really, really hate Obamacare. So, they love the thing that is, in fact, the same thing as the thing they claim to hate. Damn. No wonder conspiracy theories float their boats; so susceptible to the power of suggestion they are.
Yet, in the face of unending storms, President Barack Hussein Obama, remained steadfast, sure, even-handed and supremely confident in his destiny. Confident in his mother’s belief, who used, as he says, “every opportunity to offer moral instruction”, that he could change the world and he was confident in himself. The origins of the word confidence are con and fid meaning fidelity or faithfulness to oneself and those are good and important things to be. More of us should be those things more frequently and a fair amount of us should be those things far less. At times though, President Obama appeared confident to the point of arrogant, perhaps even egotistical. He was so sure of his own knowledge and skill and he was not a great explainer, unable to so-called ‘dumb it down’ for those who were not Constitutional scholars or Harvard educated. Those things, certainly to his critics, created stumbling blocks to his Presidency and, as we have come to learn, his personhood.
While President Obama — or any of us — ought to not have to hide our lights under the proverbial bushes in order to fit in, we do have to, on occasion, modify how we are shining that light. We have to reconsider how it’s framed and where it’s directed, if not its wattage. Apparently, President Obama, for all of his stature, his accomplishment, his glow and his shine, has considered those things too. It is just one more way in which he, and his book, are remarkably unusual. He is reflective, and humble in being so reflective, in a way that is atypical among Presidential memoirs.
It did my heart no end of good to come to learn that Barack Obama, as he told Oprah, during and since his time in office, considered how well he articulated things like another Great Depression, from which he saved the United States from, was communicated. He also considers what he was trying to prove vis a vis his ambition and his constant desire for more. He ponders the question his wife asked him about why the path he always seeks is filled with more grandeur, but, also, more difficulty. President Obama wonders what the hole that he was trying to fill was connected to. And we all have that hole, he is just unafraid to look into its void and seek what is in its depths.
While it did my heart no end of good to know that he posed, and then pondered such questions, it did my heart even more good to know that, in many respects, he is still waiting on answers. It did because the arc of a substantive human life is to become less sure. Certainty is required at some points because without it men like Obama (or anyone really) would never seek things like the Presidency, but, humility is required always. So, while President Obama said to Oprah “a certain level of megalomania” is required to seek the job of President, a degree of humility and a willingness to be humbled are what allow someone to do it as well as he did. That is also why Obama’s megalomania never took root in his nature or hold in his life as it has clearly done in the life of his successor.
As Obama said, he and his family stayed who they are despite eight heady years in the White House. President Obama is able to joke about and laugh at himself, especially in terms of where he ranks within in his own family. Seal Team Six may have been at his command but his wife Michelle and daughter Sasha certainly are not. He is also able to share and to give credit especially to, as he refers to them, the incredible team who stood by him for eight years and remain loyal to him now. That is, yet another testament to his exceedingly good character as there is not a single Omarosa publishing a tell all in that bunch.
So, yes, it goes without saying, President Obama is an extraordinary man, but, in the most important ways, he is ordinary and ordinarily human. He is because he does what any good and substantial human would do and that is question and regret and seek to continually do better even when what one, such as himself, has done up until now is pretty great. He does not, however, spend time and energy, emotional or otherwise, ruminating over what is impossible like Republican intractability. He knows he could have kissed their rings every day of his Presidency and it would have made not one bit of difference. He can, as he says, operate on many levels at once.
President Obama noted that throughout his Presidency, he had to always operate on many different levels. The levels of husband and father; statesman and politician and many others. He could be giving the country hope at his inauguration while having the instructions for what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. He could stay calm in the face of Sandy Hook while feeling heartbroken and enraged at the inaction on gun control. He could be planning a raid on Bin Laden while addressing the nonsense that is birtherism.
And, so, at the end of the day, perhaps his humbling and his humility; his pondering of those more human questions of ‘what am I doing’ and ‘why am I doing it’ are not ordinary things to do after all? Maybe they are pretty rare and pretty remarkable? More and more I am starting to realize that is the case. But, as President Obama teaches us, there are questions about ourselves, and about the world, for which we may never have answers. However, we ought to keep striving, keep seeking, keep trying, keep building the world as it should be and keep being humbled, ideally operating on all of those multiple levels, all at the same time. We have to because the dye has not been cast. The mold has not been made. History really does have a place for all of us who are truly willing to, as President Obama has and remains willing to do, lean in.