Among the reviews of Barack Obama’s new memoir, “A Promised Land,” a theme has emerged: Obama thinks too much. That Obama thinks is no surprise to anyone following his career or holding this book, which weighs in at 768 pages. But how does he think too much?
For some, Obama’s mind is exhausting because it is exhaustive. The “degree of detail” with which the president revisits policy debates might, Julian Borger speculates, leave readers searching for “a sweet spot between Trump’s presidency by blurt and Obama’s earnest prolixity.”
Reviewers not wearied by Obama’s thinking are concerned with it. Obama’s “prose is freighted with uncertainty,” writes Eli Stokols. Readers encounter “an acutely self-aware individual.” Jennifer Szalai describes “700 pages that are as deliberative, measured and methodical as the author himself.” The towering text signals “faith on the part of the former president — that if he just describes his thinking in sufficient detail, and clearly lays out the constellation of obstacles and constraints he faced, any reasonable American would have to understand why he governed as he did.”
But in 2020 we know how that book ends. Donald Trump became president, and this year — in spite of it all — he garnered nearly 74 million votes. Obama’s faith in words, in explanations, in all that thinking, may seem misplaced. What if, instead of being thoughtful, Obama had been more forceful?
When Obama was president, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would say in exasperation to her friend, “You’re doing an Obama. Take a damn stand.” This friend “saw 73 sides of every issue, and he aired them and detailed them and it felt to me like subterfuge, a watery considering of so many sides that resulted in no side at all.” In “A Promised Land,” “Barack Obama does an Obama”; he “turn[s] to see every angle.” As Nate Marshall puts it, Obama “never kicked that tendency to offer four perspectives rather than one response.” This toggling among perspectives was, Szalai writes, Obama’s process: “Decisions that were made after taking into account a variety of perspectives reassured him that he wasn’t blinkered by his own.” The passive voice there sounds telling. When you take every perspective, do you lose your own? When you adopt so many vantage points do you still stand for — or even in — one yourself?
Accounting for every perspective includes one’s critics. The doubt then comes from inside the building. Obama “acknowledges his shortcomings as a husband, he mourns his mistakes and broods still on his choice of words during the first Democratic primaries,” Adichie observes. “How much of this is a defensive crouch, a bid to put himself down before others can?” Sensing pain, we may escape it by flying upward into abstractions or downward into minutiae. Obama does both. His mind and its “proclivity toward over-considering every detail” is, Marshall writes, “Obama’s primary defensive tool.”
If too much thinking is a defense mechanism, it’s also an evasive maneuver. These reviewers are not the first to see in Obama the evasion of emotion — an evasion tactically necessary for a Black man in the United States, born of intellectual detachment, or both. “So much is still at a polished remove,” Adichie writes. “It is as if, because he is leery of exaggerated emotion, emotion itself is tamped down.”
Marshall, more cutting, suggests that Obama evades political commitment. While promoting public service, Obama “has never been clear, to himself or to us, on what values he meant us to be in service of.” Marshall requires of Obama not thought but clarity. These reviews call into question whether thinking — of the inveterate, ranging, reflexive kind that Obama almost alone represents in public life — ever leads to clarity.
Marshall identifies as a disillusioned Obama supporter — a college student from the heady days of 2008. For him, in the end, Obama “the man, like the book, like the movement, carried no meaningful slogans or central principles.” It was sound but no fury; “it all meant something, but what it meant we could not say.”
Slogans are important in American politics, as any MAGA-merch peddler might attest. Central principles are too. But so are exemplars, whose way of being in this world prefigures what a better world might be like. Their persons are significant; their presence is a principle.
And what was Obama’s example? He was not only defensive; he was vulnerable. He was not only analytical; he was careful — full of care. That much thought, that much concern, that much care may well be immobilizing. But it is not passivity.
We see the world differently now than we did in 2008. The MAGA-verse has bulldozed, bullied and belittled. Why wouldn’t we who oppose it want a bulldozer of our own? Instead of bulldozing the most vulnerable, those we love, those who have been bulldozed for generations, our bulldozer would plow through all the brutality, the inequity, the injustice that are painfully, urgently clear. Right now.
Obama wasn’t a bulldozer. Obama thought too deeply and perhaps too much. Obama cried.
But when I think not about the earth I want to move but the earth I want to inhabit — when I think, in other words, not about the land as it is but about a promised land — I see Obama. He is the kind of person who lives there.
In the closing months of 2020, the undertone of these reviews reverberates. What if Obama had been more combative, more certain and more angry at it all? In other words, what if Obama had been more like the rest of us?
Maybe, though, there is a further question: What if the rest of us had been more like Obama?
Michael J. Brown is assistant professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of “Hope and Scorn: Eggheads, Experts, and Elites in American Politics.” He wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune.