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The Promised Land: Book Review

The Promised Land (2020), Barack Obama, the long-awaited first volume of his memoir. He briefly reviews his life, especially his political life, before the presidential campaign, with only a bit about his personal life (and almost none in my review). This may be because Michelle did such a great job of that in her memoir, Becoming. A couple of things of note: First, Obama is an excellent writer, including a number of memorable quotes. Second is how much the Republicans and media in general went after him for virtually everything he did. On the campaign trail he and Michelle had a fist bump after she introduced him. That made the cover of Vanity Fair, with them dressed up as terrorists. His presidency would be a bumpy ride, no matter what he did. The mainstream media was bad enough, but the Republicans and Fox News were worse. One of the things he points out is that, unlike conservative reporters, liberal journalists go after liberal politicians as well as conservatives. I used a lot of quotes, because his writing style is particularly good.


“Do we care to match the reality of America to its ideals? If so, do we really believe that our notions of self-government and individual freedom, equality of opportunity and equality before the law, apply to everybody? Or are we instead committed, in practice if not in statute, to reserving those things for a privileged few? … This nation’s ideals have always been secondary to conquest and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism. … America—the only great power in history made up of people from every corner of the planet” (p. xv-xvi).

“But the idea of America, the promise of America. … The America Tocqueville wrote about, the countryside of Whitman and Thoreau, with no person my inferior or my better; the America of pioneers heading west in search of a better life or immigrants landing on Ellis Island. … It was the America of Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers. … It was the America of Lincoln at Gettysburg and Jane Addams; … and weary GIs at Normandy, and Dr King at the National Mall” (p. 14).

“When was compromise acceptable and when was it selling out, and how did one know the difference?” (p. 12).

“It turned out there was no single way to be Black; just trying to be a good man was enough—honesty, hard work, and empathy” (p. 15).

“If a campaign could somehow challenge America’s reigning political assumptions about how divided we were, well then just maybe it would be possible to build a new covenant between its citizens. … The media might take notice and examine issues based not on which side won or lost but on whether our common goals were met” (p. 41). [This sounds like a MVG position.]

“Proof of people’s capacity to harness ingenuity in the service of madness” (p. 62); in this case, biological research samples.

“Forgotten people and forgotten voices remained everywhere, neglected by a government that often appeared blind or indifferent to their needs” (p. 63).

Part One: The Bet.

Chapter 1. Teddy Roosevelt ordered construction of what would become the West Wing and Oval office. “I was from everywhere and nowhere at once, a combination of ill-fitting parts, like a platypus” (p. 9). Shortcomings: navel-gaze over action; sensitivity to rejection or looking stupid; experienced his share of racial slights; “I learned not to claim my own victimhood too readily and resisted the notion held by some of the Black folks I knew that white people were irredeemably racist” (p. 13). “The closest I could find to what I had in mind was something call ‘community organizing’—grassroots work that brought ordinary people together around issues of local concern” (p. 14): a bit player for major changes. “I had to listen to, and not just theorize about, what mattered to people. I had to ask strangers to join me and one another on real-life projects” (p. 15). The problems with organizing were: too slow, difficulty of solving needs, and powerful people capable of making difference who didn’t. Harold Washington replaced Richard Daley as Mayor of Chicago was a start. He just needed better organizing and governing skills. Continued problem was lack of accomplishments. Obama thought he needed a law degree.

Chapter 2. He met Michelle as an intern in Chicago. Therefore, after Harvard Law it was back to Chicago; they were married in 1992. He was soon campaigning for Illinois congress, but “whatever preferences I had for fair play, I didn’t like to lose” (p. 30). “Republican in the Illinois senate had adopted the same uncompromising approach that Newt Gingrich was using at the time the neuter Democrats in Congress;” he was a mushroom: “you’re fed shit and kept in the dark” (p. 33). “That was politics in Springfield: a series of transactions mostly hidden from view, legislators weighing the competing pressures of various interests with the dispassion of bazaar merchants, all the while keeping a careful eye on the handful of ideological hot buttons—guns, abortion, taxes—that might generate heat from their base. It wasn’t that people didn’t know the difference between good and bad policy. It just didn’t matter. … The key to surviving this place is understanding that it’s a business” (p. 33-4).

Chapter 3. In 2004 Obama won an “easy” race for the US Senate. He talks about common ground. Tom Coburn was a government skeptic, but they worked together to increase transparency and reduce waste. “My first year in the Senate felt a bit like a reprise of my early years in the Illinois legislature, though the stakes were higher, the spotlight brighter, and the lobbyists more skilled at wrapping their clients’ interest in the garb of grand principles. … Republicans put forward budgets that underfunded education or watered down environmental safeguards” (p. 57).

Katrina” “I didn’t believe racism was the reason for the botched response to the Katrina disaster, it did speak to how little the ruling party, and America as a whole, had invested in tackling the isolation, intergenerational poverty, and lack of opportunity that persisted in large swaths of the country” (p. 63).

Obama opposed the Iraq War. “We met commanders and troops who were smart and courageous, driven by the conviction that with the right amount of military support, technical training, and elbow grease, Iraq could someday turn the corner, But my conversations with journalists and with a handful of high-ranking Iraqi officials told a different story. … The killings and reprisals between Sunnis and Shiites … the only thing holding the country together appeared to be the thousands of young soldiers and Marines we’d deployed … Those kids paying the price for the arrogance of men like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who’d rushed us into war based on faulty information” (p. 64).

Chapter 4. “If one of the qualifications of running for the most powerful office in the world was megalomania, it appeared I was passing the test” (p. 71). A cover story by Time was titled: “Why Barack Obama Could be the Next President.” A rationale for running was a black president would change the calculus of minorities on possibilities.

Part Two: Yes We Can.

Chapter 5. Obama announced his candidacy in February 2007, focusing on fundamental change, long-term problems including healthcare and climate change, moving past the partisan divide. He knew policy; his problem was inability to boil issues down [bumper-sticker-speak works]. Hillary’s story: “smart, ambitious women who had chafed under the constraints of their times, having to navigate male egos and social expectations. … In all our interactions, she came across as hardworking, personable, and always impeccably prepared” (p. 88). Barack’s problem: “you keep trying to answer the question. … The point is to get your message across. What are your values? What are your priorities. … Your job is to avoid the trap they’ve set. … The most effective debate answers, it seemed were designed not to illuminate but to evoke an emotion, or identify the enemy, or signal to a constituency that you, more than anyone else on that stage, were and would always be on their side. … Mobilizing public opinion, shaping working coalitions—that was the job. … People were moved by emotion, not facts” (p. 88-9).

“Plouffe imposed martial discipline. … He pointedly directed resources away from bloated consulting contracts and media budgets in order to giver our field organizers what they needed on the ground. Obsessive about data, he recruited a team of internet savants who designed a digital program” (90). The result was an eight-points margin of victory in Iowa.

Chapter 6. “I often felt steadiest when things were going to hell. Iowa may have convinced me and my team that I could end up being president. But it was the New Hampshire loss that made us confident I’d be up to the job. … Over time I’ve trained myself to take the long view, about how important it is to stay focused on your goals rather than getting hung up on the daily ups and downs” (p. 112).

“A lot of Democratic politicians did take Black voters for granted—at least since 1968, when Richard Nixon had determined that a politics of white racial resentment was the surest path to Republican victory, and thereby left Black voters with nowhere else to go” (p. 117). That meant a problem on focusing on civil rights or police misconduct. Obama focused on a progressive agenda, including inequality, healthcare and lack of educational opportunity, using language for all Americans. He called it “strategic patience” for blacks. John Lewis endorsed Hillary for president. Despite that, he won South Carolina.

Chapter 7. Technology proved important, malleable with commercial interests and entrenched powers, but “how readily it could be used not to unify people, but to distract or divide them; and how one day many of the same tools that had put me in the White House would be deployed in opposition to everything I stood for” (p. 131).

Then there was Jeremiah Wright as a serious and beloved pastor, but sometimes over the top (capitalist greed, militarism, and general rants). ABC News compiled clips from Wright’s sermons into two minutes: “calling America ‘USA of KKK.’ There was Reverend Wright saying, “Not God bless America. God damn America. … It was like a Roger Ailes fever dream” (141). Scary stuff, that mainstream media could blatantly take snippets out of context (for virtually anyone). Damage control for Obama’s team. Wright was channeling racial resentment of the black community and whites had different views of race relationships (perhaps less now given smartphone videos of police killing black people).

Chapter 8. After winning the nomination, Obama thought Clinton had too many complications to put on the ticket. “I had always considered John McCain to be most worthy of the prize … [including] the contrarian sensibility and willingness to buck Republican Party orthodoxy” (p. 152), but he was volatile. McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin proved to be incoherent but met Republican approval.

Obama reviews the recent history of Afghanistan, from the typical third-world country of the 1970s, to the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the Taliban takeover in the mid-1990s. Under Karzai was rampant corruption and his control did not extend much beyond Kabul. He also reviewed his opposition to the Iraq invasion. Maliki wanted the Americans to withdraw, after improvements from Petraeus’ leadership and surge.

Chapter 9. The subprime debacle from Obama’s perspective. He and Michelle bought their first house in 1993 in Chicago. In around 2007, a friend said: “The entire financial system, it’s all a house of cards waiting to topple” (p. 173), mainly because of mortgage-backed securities AAA-rated, but not appropriately backed by solid mortgages (or documentation). Obama does a good job of presenting the economy of 2007-8. This crisis rated about equal with Iraq on the campaign trail. At the same time, manufacturing shifted overseas and increasing use of robotics. In addition to lost manufacturing jobs, the internet wiped out many office jobs. The winner-take-all economy favored special high-demand skills, creating low inflation and cheap foreign-made products. Wealth was amassed, while workers suffered. This also stifled upward mobility.

Obama blames political choices beginning with Reagan and the “ownership society,” with tax cuts and reduced bargaining power of unions, then privatize and underfund the social safety net. He reviewed programs beginning with FDR to beat the depression and lay a foundation for the post-World War II period, with strong public schools and a GI Bill , Social Security, later the interstate highway system and Medicare and Medicaid. Obama wanted to raise the minimum wage, work for universal healthcare, and make college affordable.

Obama met enough Wall Street executives to know that many felt smug and entitled, indifferent on their impact on the general public. But everyone is connected and policies benefit (or harm) the competent and reckless and corrupt. Lehman Brothers went bankrupt on Sept. 15, 2008 and Obama was briefed by Hank Paulson (as was McCain). Then it was trillions in cash for the financial industry, not much for mortgagees. “Joe the Plumber” became a McCain campaigner and lambast Obama’s “socialist income-redistribution agenda.” Palin became a Tina Fey punchline on SNL. Obama noted: “the dark spirits that had long been lurking on the edges of the modern Republican Party—xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, and antipathy toward black and brown folks” (p. 195).

Part Three: Renegade.

Chapter 10: Obama sees the Oval Office for the first time, after his victory. Three million federal employees (including military), a few thousand are political appointees. Rahm Emanuel became his first chief of staff: “Didn’t he represent the same old triangulating, Davos-attending, Wall-Street-coddling, Washington-focused, obsessively centrist version of the Democratic Party?” “What kind of president did I intend to be” (p. 210)? Larry Summers as economic advisor: “Larry could hear your arguments, restate them better than you could, and then show why you were wrong. … Qualities like tact and restraint just cluttered the mind” (p. 211). Summers earlier picked Tim Geithner as his special assistant. Geithner served as President of the New York Fed, then was picked as Obama’s Treasury Secretary: “Tim had a basic integrity, a steadiness of temperament, and an ability to problem-solve unsullied by ego or political considerations” (p. 213). Christine Romer headed the Council of Economic Advisors. Focus was centrist, market-friendly.

Robert Gates stayed on as Defense Secretary (and in his memoir was none to kind to Biden, or even Obama). Eisenhower warned about the military-industrial complex and Obama assumed difficulty with the military, especially with two problematic war—and a military not interested in getting out. Obama favored diplomacy. Former general Jim Jones became his national security advisor. Susan Rice as UN ambassador, Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence, and Leon Panetta as CIA Director. Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State: Obama noted “her intelligence, preparation, and work ethic” (p. 218); Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security.

Chapter 11. Rahm: “Trust me. The presidency is like a new car. It starts depreciating the minute you drive it off the lot” (p. 233). Obama started with executive orders banning torture, adding ethics rules, plus Congressional action to expand Children’s Health Insurance Program, Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Then the subprime debacle, declining banks, stock market collapse, foreclosures and unemployment as a lagging indicator. Initial stimulus got passed.

“By the 1950s, most Republicans had accommodated themselves to New Deal-era health and safety regulations” (p. 241). Communism dominated foreign policy, but women and minorities were expected to know their place. The post-war consensus started breaking down with LBJ’s Civil Rights Act of 1964, then Vietnam, riots, feminism, and Nixon’s southern strategy of racism to win the 1968 election. Then the rise of Newt Gingrich, gay rights, and increased polarization. Conservative media followed.

“By the time I took office, this ‘big sort’ between red and blue was close to compete. There were still holdouts in the Senate—a dozen or so moderate-to-liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats who were open to collaboration. … The shift among House Republicans was even more severe. … The newly emboldened Gingrich disciples, Rush Limbaugh bomb throwers, and Ayn Rand acolytes—all of whom brooked no compromise, were skeptical of any government action not involving defense, border security, law enforcement, or the banning of abortion; and appeared sincerely convinced that liberals were bent on destroying America” (p. 242).

Obama explained the history of the filibuster. Vice President Aaron Burr wanted the Senate to ban the “motion to proceed” to end debate. In 1917 the Senate adopted “cloture” to end the filibuster with a two-thirds vote, then lowered to 60 votes. This meant virtually nothing passed the Senate (and therefore Congress) without this super-majority. Ted Kennedy was Democrat number 60, then he died and Obama had difficulty passing legislation. Stimulus did pass: emergency unemployment, aid to states and other emergency payments, middle class and business tax cuts, and infrastructure spending. McConnell was a problem: no strong convictions “beyond an almost religious opposition to any version of campaign finance reform. … McConnell said ‘You must be under the mistaken impression that I care” (p. 246). No charisma or interest in policy, but discipline, shrewdness, and shamelessness for power. John Boehner of the House just didn’t stray from the party line (and relevant lobbyists). Nancy Pelosi: “Nobody was tougher or a more killed legislative strategist, and she kept her caucus in line with a combination of attentiveness, fundraising prowess, and a willingness to cut off at the knee anyone who failed to deliver on commitments” (p. 247).

“I barely had time to dwell on the pervasive, routine weirdness of my new circumstances” (p. 250). Zero Republican help was forthcoming—it was all obstruction, while Democratic messaging was poor. Legislation like the Recovery Act passed with zero Republican votes. “American voters rarely reward the opposition for cooperating. In the 1980s, Democrats retained their grip on the House (though not the Senate) long after Ronald Reagan’s election and the country’s shift to the right, in part because of the willingness of ‘responsible’ Republican leaders to help make Congress work; the House flipped only after a Gingrich-led GOP turned Congress into an all-out brawl. Similarly, Democrats made no inroads against a Republican-controlled Congress by helping pass President Bush’s tax cuts or his prescription drug plan; they won back the House and Senate when they began challenging the president and Republican leaders on everything from Social Security privatization to the handling of the Iraq War. … An effective, sustained government response to the crisis would only be to my political benefit—and would tacitly acknowledge the bankruptcy of their own anti-government, anti-regulation rhetoric” (p. 259).

Then there was news coverage. “Whether out of fear of appearing biased, or because conflict sells, or because their editors demanded it, or because it was the easiest way to meet the deadlines … Report what one side says (quick sound bite included). Report what the other side says (opposing sound bite, the more insulting the better). … The willingness of the press to broadcast or publish these whoppers as straight news” (p. 259-60). The Democrats had the “hopey, changey stuff” according to Sarah Palin.

Obama describes the logrolling for the Recovery Act, the extra goodies to get the necessary votes. After passage, McConnell and Boehner continued attacks of waste and malfeasance and not bipartisan.

Chapter 12. The country started out “repelling enemies and conquering territory, enforcing property rights and policing issues that property-holding white men deemed necessary to maintain order, our early democracy had largely left each of us to our own devices. Then a bloody war was fought to decide whether property rights extended to treating Blacks as chattel. Movements were launched by workers, farmers, and women who had experienced firsthand how one man’s liberty too often involved their own subjugation. A depression came, and people learned that being left to your own devices could mean penury and shame. Which is how the United States and other advanced democracies came to create the modern social contract. As our society grew more complex, more and more of the government’s function took the form of social insurance, with each of us chipping in through our tax dollars to protect ourselves collectively. … In the span of a generation and for a majority of Americans, life got better, safer, more prosperous, and more just. A broad middle class flourished. … Over the years, that trust proved difficult to sustain. In particular, the fault line of race strained it mightily. … Even universal programs that enjoyed broad support—like public education or public sector employment—had a funny way of becoming controversial once Blank and brown people were included as beneficiaries” (p. 275).

From the likes of Fox News and the Koch Brothers: “The government was taking money, jobs, college slots, and status away from hardworking, deserving people like us and handing it all to people like them” (p. 276). The focus became if the middle identified with the wealthy and powerful or poor and minorities; that is, whose fault was it there were not doing that well. Media and social interaction forces were used to channel both anger and fear.

Tim Geithner had trouble getting confirmed, because of not paying payroll taxes when he worked for the IMF (he paid them in 2006). Obama viewed Senate review as another weapon of partisan warfare. Even well-qualified nominees were unnecessarily attacked, decreasingly their willingness to take a federal job.

A major problem with the financial crisis was what to do about bad mortgages and banks. Sheila Bair of the FDIC wanted a “bad bank” to buy up toxic assets. The big problem was how to price them when the market had essentially stopped. (They were on banks’ balance sheets and subject to big losses—losses should have been taken according to conservative GAAP, but typically not. The result could have been “zombie banks.”) Geithner used a “stress test” instead for the 19 biggest banks. This involved a specialized audit (audits are standard Fed functions). Those that failed would have six months to raise needed capital from private sources, then the feds would step in. The alternatives were the Sweden model of the 1990s to nationalize the banks or the Japan model of “forbearance” that led to continued stagnation. Nine of 19 were deemed okay, five required more capital and five additional government support beyond private capital (including BofA, Citigroup, and GMAC), about $75 billion short. In fact, the 10 troubled banks raised $66 billion leaving $9 billion for the feds to pay. No indictments or jail time, so the public was disappointed.

Obama talked about probabilities—somewhat analogous to Tetlocks’ super forecasting success (p. 294) and a reasonable approach for problem solving. Then there were the AIG and bank bonuses, which the bankers complained they were entitled to. Calling them “fat cat bankers” apparently hurt their feelings. [The term “banksters” from the 1930s may have been equally accurate.] They blamed Obama’s rhetoric for their problems; that is, anti-business: they “played the game no differently than their peers and were long accustomed to adulation and deference for having come out on top” (p. 296).

Auto makers were near bankruptcy: poor management and cars, foreign competition, pension problems, healthcare costs, but mainly a drop of sales of 30%. Paulson provided $17 billion in bridge loans. An Auto Task Force was set up, changing GM management, brought in Fiat as a stakeholder in Chrysler, and structured bankruptcy plans.

Chapter 13. How important is a global perspective? “How much was our fate actually tied to the fate of people abroad? To what extent should America bind itself to multilateral institutions” (p. 311)? “With the exception of Susan Rice … all of my national security principals … had come of age during the height of the Cold War and had spent decades as part of Washington’s national security establishment: a dense, interlocking network of current and former White House policy makers, congressional staffers, academics … For them, a responsible foreign policy meant continuity, predictability, and an unwillingness to stray too far from conventional wisdom” (p. 311). [This seems to be consistent with my blinders hypothesis.] Younger members apparently were more willing to challenge this “Washington playbook,” such as Cuba or Middle East policy, or human rights. A Washington problem was staff could stifle presidential directions (“slow-walk, misinterpret, bury, poorly execute). Customs, ritual, symbols and protocol mattered. Start with the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), mainly national security stuff. [Would the PDB be different if it came from the State Department?]

The military was scheduled to leave Iraq in 2011 under Bush and Obama agreed to it. The detour in Iraq meant Afghanistan was a mess: successful Taliban (assisted by Pakistan), poorly-trained Afghan army, corruption, and ineptness; plus, lack of a US strategy. Obama attempted a clear mission and coordinated strategy. “More had not produced victory, but it had at least avoided humiliating defeat” (p. 320). [That sounds like a replay of Vietnam.] The military called for a surge, like in Iraq. Only Biden was skeptical, focusing on the quagmire. It happened, being hard to buck the military pros. [It looked to me like Obama just got rolled—as did probably every president since Eisenhower.]

Obama reviewed the post-World War II cooperative agreements: Bretton Woods, IMF, World Bank, GATT, United Nations, NATO, and the basic focus on international laws, rules and norms. After the collapse of the USSR, new issues arose: China’s capitalism, developing countries flip-flopping between dictatorships to democracy. Periodic financial crises, like the US S&L crisis in the 1980s, currency collapse of Asian Tigers and Russia in the 1990s.

Part Four: The Good Fight.

Chapter 14. Focus on G20 and different world leaders. President of Brazil was Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva: “In 2002 he had initiated a series of pragmatic reforms that sent Brazil’s growth rate soaring … He also reportedly had the scruples of a Tammany Hall boss, and rumors swirled about government cronyism, sweetheart deals, and kickbacks” (p. 337). Obama dealt with Dmitry Medvedev as Russian president, more amenable than Putin, then the prime minister (“and the leader of what resembled a criminal syndicate as much as it did traditional government” (p. 337). South Africa had Jacob Zuma: “Mandela’s heroic struggle was being squandered by corruption and incompetence under ANC leadership” (p. 337). Manmohan Singh was prime minister of India who also introduced reform; unfortunately, a poor country with a caste system, divided religion and local corruption. China had a booming economy then under Hu Jintao. Most countries focused on narrow self-interest, certainly the BRICS. Those with American values of democracy and rule of law did not have the global scale. There was something of a deal on the global financial crisis.

NATO did not have a rapid-response plan to defend all allies: “For all their tough talk, Bush administration hawks like Cheney and Rumsfeld had been surprisingly bad at backing up their rhetoric with coherent, effective strategies” (p. 346). Erdogan as Turkey’s head had unsettled the country’s secular elite and democracy. In Europe there were growing far-right parties and anti-immigration sentiment.

Chapter 15. It starts with the Somali pirates hijacking an American ship, then kill shots by Navy seals. Al-Qaeda operatives throughout much of the Old World. Ben Rhodes became his go to speech writer for his ability to capture Obama’s voice and ideas. Drafts reviewed by the Pentagon or CIA came back with massive edits, especially anything remotely critical or controversial. Then there was dealing with the Muslim world and hostility against it. “Islamic fundamentalism that had come to dominate so much of the Muslim world was incompatible with the openness and tolerance that fueled modern progress; that too often Muslim leaders ginned up grievances against the West in order to distract from their own failures” (p. 359). Obama had his own experience when living in Indonesia, a Muslim country.

Obama reviewed the history of Saudi Arabia, beginning with Abdulaziz founding the country after World War I based on Wahhabist principles—the clerics then legitimatized the House of Saud. Massive oil fields changed the country, adapting western technology and creating an unusual kingdom. This was followed by Egypt from Nasser’s military takeover in the 1950s. Nasser developed a secular pan-Arab nationalism. Middle Eastern leaders had similar authoritarian rules: Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, ruling trough patronage, corruption and repression. Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt after 1981. Their personal interests overshadowed the countries they led.

Chapter 16. Teddy Roosevelt called for a centralized national health service in 1912, which was done in the UK and Germany, but not the US, thanks to doctors and southern politicians opposed to government involvement. Private health insurance began during World War II as companies, banned from giving pay raises, offered insurance and retirement benefits instead. Labor unions liked this arrangement. When Truman tried for national healthcare as part of Fair Deal, it was defeated (AMA called it socialized medicine and therefore loss of benefits). Medicare and Medicaid were established in the 1960s. Some child healthcare was also added. This accounted for about 80% of the public. With third-party payors, no one was paying much attention to costs (except the uninsured). The Clinton plan crashed and burned. Some 43 million were uninsured, while premiums rose almost double since 2000. The general public likes the current system, but wants every possible treatment available. [Given it’s an ultra-expensive, inefficient system with millions not covered and most people liable to be ruined by its high costs: why?]

“It’s hard to deny by overconfidence. I was convinced that the logic of healthcare was so obvious” (p. 378). A single-payer system was doable and cost-effective (like Medicare for All) but politically not feasible. Obama came up with the ACA (not much different from Romney Care in Massachusetts or Hillary’s plan from the 1990s), but this required 60 votes in the Senate. Republicans gamed the system and mediocre bills passed in both chambers, resulting in “Democrat capitulation” according to critics. [See chapter 17.]

Pandemic time. First a flu outbreak in Mexico which spread to the US: H1N1 (the 1918 flu was a strain of H1N1), declared a global pandemic by the WHO. There had been a swine flu during the Ford administration. Ford called for a vaccine and fast-track delivery (that is, without thorough testing). This was done, but the side effects included a neurological disorder worse than the flu. So much for hasty testing. The pandemic was over by mid-2010. “The nature of the presidency: sometimes your most important work involved the stuff nobody noticed” (p. 387).

Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to replace Justice David Souter, based in part on her “kind of intelligence, grit, and adaptability required to get to where she was. A breadth of experience, familiarity with the vagaries of life, the combination of brains and heart” (p. 390). Obama also mentioned “high credentials morons.”

Henry Louis Gates was handcuffed and arrested trying to get into his own house. When Obama suggested the cops acted “stupidly” (which seemed reasonable to me) there was immediately backlash. “The reaction to my comments on Gates surprised us all. It was my first indicator of how the issue of Black folks and the police was more polarizing than just about any other subject in American life” (p. 398). Obama was forced to apologize.

Chapter 17. The ACA was branded a “government takeover,” based on market testing by Frank Luntz, to discredit the bill. “Tea Party summer” meant right-wing political agenda: anti-tax, anti-regulation: “corrupt liberal elites had hijacked the federal government … to finance welfare patronage and corporate cronies. … How much nativism and racism explained the Tea Party’s rise had become a major topic of debate” (p. 404), much of it financed by the Koch Brothers’ organizations. Obama figured it was multiple motives. Plus “death panels;” no pretense by Republicans to negotiate. “Pre-existing conditions” became important later.

The House passed the bill quickly. In the Senate, it was the “Louisiana Purchase” and “Cornhusker Kickback” for needed logrolling. The “public option” was gone (insurance companies did not like it; why would anyone buy their insurance?). Democrats claimed “I treated enemies better than allies and was turning my back on the progressives who’d put me in office” (p. 415). The reduced Senate bill passed with 60 votes. Ted Kennedy died (possibly vote number 60). Consequently, the only way to get a reconciled bill was for both houses to pass the Senate version (now required only 51 votes in the Senate). That’s how it passed.

Part Five: The World as it Is.

Chapter 18. Military issues meant dealing with Robert Gates as Defense Secretary. Iraq did not work well, but US troops were scheduled to leave, which was alright with Obama. The country would still need support. Afghanistan just got worse with violence and instability. “President Karzai’s reelection strategy mainly consisted of buying off local power brokers … Diplomatically, our high-level outreach to Pakistani officials appeared to have had no effect on their continued tolerance of Taliban safe havens” (p. 431). McChrystal’s assessment said it was going from bad to worse and demanding a full-blown counterinsurgency—Obama suggested “bait and switch.” “Joe and a sizable number of NSC staffers viewed McChrystal’s proposal as just the latest attempt by an unrestrained military to drag the country deeper into a futile wildly expensive nation-building exercise. … There was no clear exit strategy” (p. 433). But what was the alternative?

“Rahm remarked that in all his years in Washington, he’d never seen such an orchestrated, public campaign by the Pentagon to box in a president. … It was the first instance during my presidency when I felt as if an entire agency under my charge was working its own agenda” (p. 434). The military expected to get what it wanted (remember Eisenhower’s description of the “military-industrial complex”).

Obama’s team came up with “a set of achievable objectives: reducing the level of Taliban activity so they didn’t threaten major population centers; pushing Karzai to reform a handful of key departments, like the Ministries of defense and finance … Accelerating the training of local forces” (p. 442).

Then, Obama won the Nobel Prize. He thought it was premature—hope over accomplishments.

Chapter 19. “I was determined to shift a certain mindset that had gripped not just the Bush administration but much of Washington—one that saw threats around every corner, took a perverse pride in acting unilaterally, and considered military action as an almost routine means of addressing foreign policy challenges” (p. 447). In other words, not trying to build consensus and coalitions. Hillary was part of that as Secretary of State. “We’ve got to show them we’re taking their perspective into account—or at least can find them on a map” (p. 448). This was difficult, especially with Iran, Russia and China. Obama details the overthrow of the Iranian government through Project Ajax and placing the Shah on the throne; what Obama called “mistaking nationalist aspirations for Communist plots; equating commercial interest with national security; subverting democratically elected governments” (p. 451). Then the Shah fell in 1979, replaced by Khomeini. The US invasion of Iraq improved Iran’s position in the region. The more general idea is Cold War thinking resulted in the US betraying its ideals.

Then the USSR fell and Putin came to power in 1999. The country was stabilized mainly because of rising oil prices, but repression grew as Putin increased his power and Oligarchs (those allied with Putin) ruled, media became effectively state-run. Putin demonstrated a nationalism (restoring Mother Russia) that kept him popular. Russia was no longer a superpower, but Putin played his hand well: invading Georgia, taking over Crimea, invading Ukraine, maintaining the Russian orbit (e.g., Belarus), raising tensions in Syria and the rest of the Middle East. It did resemble machine politics from earlier centuries in the US: a zero-sum game focusing on yourself. “In such a world, a lack of scruples, a contempt for any high-minded aspirations beyond accumulating power, were not flaws. They were advantages” (p. 467).

Chapter 20. “The UN played a role in more than eighty former colonies becoming sovereign nations. Its agencies helped lift tens of millions of people out of poverty, eradicated smallpox, and very nearly wiped out polio and Guinea worm” (p. 470). Obama described the diplomacy for the Iran nuclear deal, including convincing Russia to support it; Medvedev was still president and Obama came to think of him as a reliable partner. “Turns out avoiding a war is harder than getting into one” (p. 472). UN Resolution 1929 imposed new sanctions on Iran.

Dealing with China, who hacked into Obama’s campaign headquarters, plus trade, espionage, and general questions of Chinese resurgence in the international order. “Chinese government had faithfully followed Deng Xiaoping’s counsel to ‘hide your strength and bide your time.’ It prioritized industrialization over a massive military buildup. It invited US companies searching for low-wage labor to move their operations to China and cultivated successive US administrations to help it obtain World Trade Organization membership in 2001. … It made no effort to export its ideology; China transacted business with all comers” (p. 474). “This strategic patience … helped obscure how systematically China kept evading, bending or breaking just about every agreed-upon rule of international commerce. … It had used state subsidies, as well as currency manipulation and trade dumping, to artificially depress the price of exports … Its disregard for labor and environmental standards … China used non-tariff barriers like quotas and embargoes; it also engaged in the theft of US intellectual property and placed constant pressure on US companies doing business in china to surrender key technologies” (p. 474).

There was very little response from Washington; organized labor did object. “As globalization shifted into overdrive during the Clinton and Bush years, these voices found themselves in the minority. There was too much money to be made” (p. 474): reduced labor costs for business, new Chinese buyers for soybeans and pork. China held hundreds of billions of US debt. Japan, and South Korea depended on Chinese markets. China later overplayed its hand (kind of like Trump), increasing multinational resentment; a good opportunity for the Trans-Pacific Partnership but Trump killed that.

“China’s economic success had made its brand of authoritarian capitalism a plausible alternative to Western-style liberalism in the minds of young people not just in Shanghai but across the developing world. … Winning over this new generation depended on my ability to show that America’s democratic, rights-based, pluralistic system could still deliver on the promises of a better life” (p. 481). There was corruption in China, including family patronage and offshore accounts. Foreign policy was transactional based on power and leverage (long-term, unlike Trump’s short-term approach).

Chapter 21. Obama reviewed climate change to begin the chapter, but it was not much of a concern to Democrats, and Republicans could be hostile. The EPA was passed under Nixon and strengthened by George HW Bush. Then big oil focused on it as a job-killing con job, using think tanks and lobbyists. Nobel Prize winning Energy Secretary Steven Chu focused on scientific frontiers; he and Climate Czar Carol Browner wanted a hard cap on carbon emissions. Businesses were not much interested, preferring cheap oil. Obama used stimulus money for clean energy programs such as new battery storage, solar panels (one recipient was Solyndra, which failed—another PR nightmare).

Congress tended to delegate regulation and enforcement authority to various agencies. Cass Sunstein (with a “high nerd quotient”) was the cost-benefit expert. He found multiple unnecessary regulations, often involving paperwork. Steve Chu reviewed energy-efficiency standards. Obama wanted a “cap-and-trade” plan like the one for sulfur dioxide. The Kyoto Protocol for international action went into full effect in 2008, but the US was not a party to the agreement. Obama would agree to the Paris Accord (later overturned by Trump).

Part Six: In the Barrel.

Chapter 22. The economy continued to be bad. The stimulus was working but unemployment is a lagging indicator. Plus, people did not like the bank bailouts, with almost no foreclosure relief. “FDR understood that to be effective, governance couldn’t be so antiseptic that it set aside the basic turf of politics: You had to sell your program, reward supporters, punch back against opponents, and amplify the facts that helped your cause while fudging the details that didn’t” (p. 525). Greece imploded and the EU continued in recession (their safety nets were more generous). The Mediterranean countries had difficulty borrowing. Germany was in okay shape. “Angela Merkel, I found steady, honest, intellectually rigorous and instinctually kind” (p. 527). Conservative David Cameron became Prime Minister and focused on deficit reduction, meaning a deeper recession. Greek sovereign debt threatened to unravel the EU (low productivity, bloated public sector, tax avoidance, and big pension liabilities). As part of the EU, it couldn’t devalue, meaning a rescue package was necessary. It was forthcoming, but required austerity that made the Greek recession deeper.

“McConnell … made a career of opposing any and all forms of government regulation … that might constrain corporate America’s ability to do whatever it damn well pleased. … Banking executives continued to show no remorse for the economic havoc they’d caused. Nor did bankers show gratitude for all we’d done to yank them out of the fire” (p. 546). Instead, Obama was called “anti-business.” “The goals of reform were defined narrowly: Put guardrails around the system to reduce the most excessive forms of risk-taking, ensure transparency in the operations of major institutions and make the system safe for failure” (p. 547). This included streamlining federal agencies, continued stress tests, increasing capital, and regulating derivatives. Elizabeth Warren wanted a consumer protection agency which was forthcoming. The Volcker Rule was added to limit private equity by banks. Then it was up to Barney Frank and Chris Dodd and the usual sausage making (e.g., exemption for car dealers). Useful addons included increased disclosure of executive compensation, more transparency of credit-rating agencies, and claw-back mechanisms. Dodd-Frank passed in July 2010.

Chapter 23. Deepwater Horizon story in Gulf, gas leak turned into an explosion of BP rig (15 days after Massey Coal explosion killed 29 miners). BP took full responsibility, but Obama also sent in Coast Guard, EPA and Interior. BP /CEO Tony Hayward “a walking PR disaster.” Poor regulation by MMS, including kickbacks and drugs—partly because of budget cuts. Obama sent in Steven Chu who said “They don’t know what they’re dealing with.” Chu recruited geophysicists and hydrologists. He insisted on a smaller blowout preventer on top of the one that failed. On July 15, BP engineers shut down the stack’s valves. Much of the criticism focused on Obama.

Rolling Stone on McChrystal in Afghanistan (“The Runaway General”) indicating that Obama had been rolled to double down on a hopeless cause. McChrystal and staff claimed: “once war began, those who fought it shouldn’t be questioned, that politicians should just giver them what they ask for and get out of the way” (p. 570). Obama accepted McChrystal’s resignation. He was replaced by Petraeus.

Obama’s summary of the first two years: “We had saved the economy from a likely depression. We had stabilized the global financial system and yanked the US auto industry back from the brink of collapse. We had put guardrails on Wall Street and made historic investments in clean energy and the nation’s infrastructure; protected lands and reduced air pollution; connected rural schools to the internet and reformed student loan programs” (p. 590). Obama took immense criticism from Republicans and a good bit from the mainstream media.

Election Day, November 2, 2010. Democrats lost both the House and Senate by a substantial amount.

Chapter 24. Obama’s team did lots of stuff, but the midterm was a disaster. He claimed: “In the rush to get things done, we’d neglected our promise to change Washington—by sidelining special interests, and increasing transparency and fiscal responsibility across the federal government” (p. 595). Doing that could reclaim those themes. Republicans uniformly resisted everything Obama, no matter how moderate—then were portrayed as radical and controversial.

Trip to India: “an estimated two thousand distinct ethnic groups, and more than seven hundred languages spoken” (p. 598). “Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seemed like a fitting emblem of this progress: a member of the tiny, often persecuted Sikh religious minority … bringing about a higher living standard and maintaining a well-earned reputation for not being corrupt” (p. 600). Singh followed “the playbook of liberal democracies across the post-Cold War world: upholding the constitutional order; attending to the quotidian, often technical work of boosting the GDP; and expanding the social safety net. … Not revolutionary leaps or major cultural overhauls. … Just the observance of rules that allowed us to sort out or at least tolerate our differences” (p. 602).

Last minute stuff: new START treaty, repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” passing the Dream Act; repealing the Bush tax cuts on families earning more than $200,000. Immigration was broken. Billions were spent on fencing, cameras, drones, more border patrol. The major result was the use of coyotes (smugglers) transporting people for big bucks. Then people arriving legally and overstaying their visas. The total was estimated at 11 million.

Part Seven: On the High Wire.

Chapter 25. The Palestinian problem, with 700,000 living in occupied territories, mainly in refugee camps under the Israel Defense Force., which resulted in the PLO. Carter’s Camp David accords brought peace between Israel and Egypt and return of the Sinai to Egypt. Then the Oslo Accords during the Clinton administration. Then violence after the right-wing Likud Party took control. The PLO was corrupt and incompetent. Israel became an economic powerful and built a wall. AIPAC in the US became more right-wing as well. “Netanyahu was smart, canny, tough and a gifted communicator in both Hebrew and English” (p. 630). Obama wanted a settlement freeze, which Netanyahu rejected. Obama helped Israel on the “Iron Dome” defense system, but he still got attacked by Netanyahu and the AIPAC. Al Jazeera (from Qatar) and Fox News fanned the flames. Ditto when Obama temporarily ended a conservation with Netanyahu for another commitment. Media said he “snubbed Netanyahu.” “That was a rare instance when I out-cursed Rahm” (p. 634). This compared to the relationships with Canada and European allies that didn’t come at a political cost.

The repressive Arab governments: “restricted political participation and expression, pervasive intimidation and surveillance … dysfunctional judicial systems and insufficient due process protections, rigged elections, an entrenched military, heavy press censorship, and rampant corruption” (p. 637). The US focused on oil supply and keeping out the Soviets. Autocrats were allies. Samantha Power to Obama: “So, what ideals have we betrayed lately?” Obama tried to encourage reforms, while veteran diplomats were skeptical.

The Arb Spring happened after cart seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia, which was under repressive dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Demonstrations made Ben Ali flee to Saudi Arabia, then the protests spread across the Middle East, with only limited success. Mubarak stepped down in Egypt with encouragement from Obama. Even after protests (calling for “bread, freedom, and dignity”), he did not see any need for reform. “Outside the military, the most powerful and cohesive force in the country was the Muslim Brotherhood which wanted sharia law—not likely to be an American ally. After enough violence in Tahrir Square, Mubarak called in quits and went into “retirement,” only to be arrested and charged. A caretaken government replace him. [Then the Muslim Brotherhood, which proved to be inept enough for a military coup and General Al-Sisi replacing him. Repression remained.] Most other Arab states did make some reforms, including Algeria and Jordan; Syria essential went to war with itself. Bashar al-Assad proved to be as dictatorial as his father. Ditto Gaddafi in Libya. The US and Europe bombed his army before a bloodbath in Benghazi. Gaddafi did not survive, but war tensions remained.

Chapter 26. More details on the bombing in Libya to stop the Benghazi attack. After destroying the air defense, Europe (under NATO) and Arab states would take over. Like Mubarak, Gaddafi seemed to have no sense of reality. “Some of the same Republicans who had demanded that I intervene in Libya had decided that they were now against it” (p. 667).

Obama set up the Bowles/Simpson commission for long-term deficit reduction. The result seemed okay, but dead on arrival. “The election results seemed to have turned all of Washington into deficit hawks” (p. 671). Republicans lawmakers wanted to cut entitlement spending. Apparently, Republican voters don’t know this means Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Then Trump rehashed the birther conspiracy, that Obama was born in Kenya—plus he was a Muslim. Polls indicated about 40% of Americans thought that was true. Trump became a media star with the Apprentice and his busines brand name. “The New York developers and business leaders I knew uniformly described him as all hype, someone who’d left a trail of bankruptcy filings, breached contracts, stiffed employees, and sketchy financing arrangements in his wake, and whose business now in large part consisted of licensing his name to properties he neither owned nor managed” (p. 673).

Chapter 27. This chapter ends the book on a high note, the killing of Osama Bin Laden using McRaven’s Navy SEAL team, possibly Obama’s only nonpartisan win: “Geronimo ID’d … Geronimo EKIA” (p. 695). Even Pakistani president Zardari thought it was good news. And in Washington: “USA! USA! USA!”

“I found myself imagining what America might look like if we could rally the country so that our government brought the same level of expertise and determination to educating our children or housing the homeless as it had to getting bin Laden; if we could apply the same persistence and resources to reducing poverty or curbing greenhouse gases or making sure every family had access to decent day care” (p. 699).


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