Why Barack Obama's memoir is a 'Baburnama' for our times

Originally appeared in the Sunday Lounge | Mint

Barack Obama’s memoir is titled after an African American spiritual which proclaims, “O, fly and never tire…There’s a great camp meeting in the Promised Land”. The image of America, that City on the Hill, as a promised land eludes us today, as the author himself seems to imply at the end of this volume, after four years of trying to create a sense of common purpose in a nation beset by many contradictions.

“Shot from a cannon” to instant fame when he delivered the keynote at the Democratic Party’s National Convention in 2004, Obama’s phenomenal ascent to the highest office in the land thereafter seemed propelled by a velocity difficult to withstand, an impossible dream realised by the sheer audacity of hope. Here was a child of the tropics, reared in the island state of Hawaii, and in the natural splendour of Indonesia, (listening, as he says, “to the epic Hindu tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata”), although his white mother’s parents came from Kansas, literally the fulcrum of the American mid-west that – like our Gangetic states – is crucial to defining identity and our complex histories. And the fact that he was African American added to the mix. This was not the archetypal American politician, to say the least.

Obama, thus, is a Whitmanesque merger of multitudes, a compelling figure for our times. He struggles with his ambitions – what Martin Luther King called the “The Drum Major Instinct” – the desire to “lead the parade”, the selfish impulses that he tries to reconcile “by aligning that quest for greatness with more selfless aims”, striving “to be first in service, first in love”. He is deeply drawn to the life of Mahatma Gandhi who had “set off a moral charge that pulsed around the globe” to become a “beacon for other dispossessed, marginalized groups – including Black Americans in the Jim Crow South” and whose ideas, he claims, have profoundly influenced him.

Politics in the arena of democracy defies easy definition but follows set patterns along partisan lines. Soon after his becoming president, Obama encountered a Republican Party and many of his erstwhile voters, who did not want him to succeed even if the economic wellbeing of the country, the livelihoods of ordinary blue-collar Americans, or, healthcare reform were at stake. Was this also a question engendered by the question of race and the lingering stain it has left on America’s soul? The new president was definitely the target of racial caricaturing and reference. The country refused to rally around what Obama believed passionately was a “progressive agenda” for the establishment of a fair and generous society.

To Obama, the nomination of Sarah Palin to be the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket of Republican Senator John McCain, his rival in the Presidential election of 2008, embodied a premonition. He calls it “a sign of things to come, a larger, darker reality in which partisan affiliation and political expedience would threaten to blot out everything – your previous positions; your stated principles, even what your own senses, your eyes and ears, told you to be true”. Palin’s incoherence did not matter to the vast majority of Republicans, he notes. Through her, “it seemed as if the dark spirits that had long been lurking on the edges of the modern Republican Party – xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, an antipathy toward Black and brown folks – were finding their way to center stage”. And this, one may add, was several years before the emergence of Donald Trump. Jockeying for power and influence also was Mitch McConnell, now the Republican majority leader in the US Senate, a leading Trump acolyte, and a potential Biden-nemesis, of whom Obama writes, “what McConnell lacked in charisma or interest in policy he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness, and shamelessness – all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power.”

Obama has been faulted for not being ruthless enough in dealing with the fatal flaws in the financial system that led to the global financial crisis of 2008 that he inherited as president. His critics say that the crisis offered him a unique opportunity to reset the standards and remake the American economy, that he should have “broken the big banks and sent some white-collar culprits to jail” and created a more equitable system “that served the interests of working families rather than a handful of billionaires.” But he defends his policy decisions on dealing with the crisis saying that more drastic moves would have required “a violence to the social order, a wrenching of political and economic norms”. He says he is not a revolutionary, and that even if, personally he has been willing to disrupt his own life “in pursuit of an idea” he was not willing to take the same risks with the well-being of millions of people. He says his first hundred days in office revealed a basic strand in his political character – that he “was a reformer, conservative in temperament if not in vision”. This tendency to follow the middle path – an unwillingness to break eggs to make that proverbial omelette – and being risk-averse, has been a lightning rod for his critics.

Obama describes Joe Biden, his vice-president, as “all warmth, a man without inhibitions, happy to share whatever popped into his head” with “lack of a filter (that) periodically got him in trouble” but whose occasional gaffes were trivial compared to his strengths. “On domestic issues, he was smart, practical and did his homework. His experience in foreign policy was broad and deep”. (He is equally gracious about Hillary Clinton, his one-time political opponent in the 2008 presidential campaign, and her diligence and “substance”. In fact, he expresses a sensitive understanding of gender issues in his references to women throughout this memoir). Most importantly to Obama, a trustworthy Biden was “decent, honest and loyal” and cared about “ordinary people.” When the question of augmenting U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan was being considered in 2009, Biden expressed strong misgivings, seeing the country as “a dangerous quagmire” and a nation-building exercise as futile. This was in contrast to Secretary of State Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates whose “hawkish instincts” favoured the surge in troop numbers.

Obama would ultimately go along with the latter, against his ‘better’ instincts that were squeamish about America’s propensity “to fight the wrong wars and careen down rabbit holes” (as in the Bush presidency’s disastrous intervention in Iraq post-9/11). But peacemakers will warm to his clarity about “war’s folly”, that leaders cannot “avoid responsibility for lives lost or shattered”. In this he recalls Lincoln during the Civil War, and the penance that is to be paid for the pain of wounded soldiers, for the “clattering and wheezing of impending death” in their midst.

America has acquired a global reputation today of acting unilaterally, of downplaying the importance of alliances and being resistant “to the hard, slow work of building coalitions and consensus.” Obama does not eschew multilateralism, and seems devoted to the idea that anchored his mother, an idea captured in verse by the Persian poet Sa’adi, that “Human beings are members of a whole, in creation of one essence and soul” woven into a tapestry that hangs in the hall of the United Nations General Assembly. But there were exceptions to his unease about American unilateralism as for instance the insistence, on the urging of aides like Antony Blinken (soon to be Biden’s Secretary of State), and Samantha Power (then US Ambassador to the United Nations) on Hosni Mubarak’s stepping down in Egypt after the Tahrir Square protests and the decision to effect regime change in Libya, both flawed for the repercussions and serious instabilities they unleashed.

President-elect Biden’s National Security Advisor-designate Jake Sullivan calls China the “organizing principle” of US foreign policy. Orville Schell, one of America’s leading Sinologists, speaks of Obama spending his first term in office (2009-2012) as “frozen in the aspic of engagement” with China despite being treated with “confusing coolness” during his first visit to Beijing in November 2009. Schell attributes this “lack of solicitude” as being the result of “the growing conviction” on the part of Obama’s Chinese hosts, including then leader Hu Jintao (there is no reference to Xi Jinping in the pages of this first-volume memoir. Hu Jintao is dismissed as rather wooden and uninspiring while former Premier Wen Jiabao is given a more favorable rating), that the US “was now in decline”. Terms like “strategic reassurance” (coined in the Obama years) toward China seems anachronistic now when across the political aisle in the US, China is seen as “strategic competitor”. But seeing the Chinese delegation at the G-20 Summit in the summer of 2009, Obama seemed convinced that any challenge by China to American power and global leadership “was still decades away” and that if such a challenge were to succeed “it would most likely happen as a result of America’s strategic mistakes”. He notes that for the Chinese, foreign policy remains purely transactional, and that how much they gave and how much they got “would depend not on abstract principles of international law but on their assessment of the other side’s power and leverage. Where they met no resistance, they’d keep on taking.” One cannot disagree with this observation.

This memoir has little to say on policy toward India (except to say, like any reader of Kipling, that the country always “held a special place in my imagination”) but Obama is generous in praise for former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, with whom he developed “a warm and productive relationship”, who, despite being cautious and “unwilling to get out too far ahead of an Indian bureaucracy that was historically suspicious of U.S. intentions”, was a man of “uncommon wisdom and decency”. Singh confides in him his fears about rising anti-Muslim sentiment in India. Obama notes how the call for religious and ethnic solidarity can be intoxicating in India as in other parts of the world – even in the United States. He observes that violence, “both public and private” remains a pervasive part of Indian life and that expressing hostility toward Pakistan is “still the quickest route to national unity.” His remarks about Sonia Gandhi – “a striking woman” of “shrewd and forceful intelligence” – contrast with those about Rahul Gandhi – who had a “nervous and unformed quality about him” and who lacked “either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject”.

In one part of the memoir there is an interesting playback of the gatecrashing, dramatic encounter (described by one Obama staffer as “gangster shit”) between Obama and the Chinese, Indian, Brazilian and South African prime ministers at the Climate Change Summit at Copenhagen in end-2009 (an encounter at which I was present) in order “to do a deal”. It ended with Premier Wen telling the US president that the group was prepared to look at the agreement that was being proposed by the Americans. Obama, for his part, felt he had “pulled a rabbit out of a hat” and that he had got China and India to accept that “every country, and not just those in the West, had a responsibility to do its part to slow climate change.” The countries concerned may have felt differently.

This volume concludes with the daring Abbottabad raid inside Pakistan by US Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden, a raid that offered “a catharsis of sorts”. The Pakistan government was not informed of the raid before its execution, since, as Obama notes, “it was an open secret that certain elements inside the country’s military, and especially its intelligence services, maintained links to the Taliban and perhaps even Al-Qaeda, sometimes using them as strategic assets to ensure that the Afghan government remained weak and unable to align itself with Pakistan’s number one rival, India.” That is a telling indictment.

But reviewing the reaction of his own nation to the raid, Obama is introspective. He asks whether “that unity of effort, that sense of common purpose” was possible “only when the goal involved killing a terrorist”. He asks “what America may 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”. He ruefully concludes that such notions may be Utopian, and the fact was “that we could no longer imagine uniting the country around anything other than thwarting attacks and defeating external enemies”. That, then, becomes the measure by which he realises “how far my presidency still fell short of what I wanted it to be – and how much work I had left to do”. Again, that almost Lincoln-like image of penance comes to mind.

Overall, this is a memoir that deep dives into the personality of its charismatic author, the history of his early years and the first term of his presidency, his ideological and philosophical first principles, his approach to politics, and his definition of America’s place in the world. Like Obama, this narrative is reflective, and prescient, and it is an extraordinarily human story, a Baburnama for our times, recalling Babur’s words, “the facts are as stated here. I have set down of good and bad whatever is known.”