Books, Civil Society, Democracy, Economy / Finance, Populism

The False Promise of Obama’s ‘Promised Land’

Dec 28 2020

By Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins* – Boston Review

In his new memoir the former president makes clear he had no intention of being a savior.

In October 2008, a month before the historical election that would make him the first Black president of the United States, Barack Obama grew worried about the messianic expectations his campaign had invited. For voters electrified by his rallies and political homilies of hope and change, Obama had emerged as MLK 2.0, a savior to deliver the country from the bondage of George W. Bush’s War on Terrorism abroad, from violations of civil rights in the name of national security at home, from the shame of Gitmo, and from the most devastating financial crisis since the Great Depression. He would deliver a new New Deal, restore the country’s international reputation, and cool a warming planet.

In his new memoir, Obama reveals that he viewed expectations of radical hope and change not only as unfair but also as a threat to his own vision of America as “a promised land.”

These expectations were not uninvited: in his speeches Obama carefully deployed populist, D.C.–outsider rhetoric and channeled the Black prophetic political tradition. Yet in his new memoir, A Promised Land, which covers his turbulent first two years in office, Obama recalls—at the peak of his election campaign—wanting nothing to do with these hopes. “It was personally disorienting,” he writes, “requiring me to constantly take stock to make sure I wasn’t buying into the hype.” Many of his supporters did buy into the hype—which left Obama thinking, before he even entered the White House, that “it would be impossible to meet the outsized expectations now attached to me.”

It was also in October 2008 that Obama first recognized that it was not just political liberals and leftists who were succumbing to populist messianism. In August, John McCain chose the Governor of Alaska and self-proclaimed hockey mom, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. For all her clear weaknesses, Obama saw Palin as an effective populist who also galvanized the masses, but who did so by “enthusiastically gassing them up with nativist bile.” Before his defeat of McCain, Obama already sensed in Palin’s populism the nativist fringe making its way toward center stage in the Republican Party—a trend that would foretell Trump’s future presidency.

The new book makes plain that Obama viewed expectations of radical hope and change not only as unfair but also as a threat to his own vision of America as “a promised land.” His early premonitions about a savior syndrome mobilizing both left and right play out from beginning to end in this memoir. But how exactly does Obama envision the promised land? Despite the title, these seven hundred pages never say: the words “promised land” appear only once in the book as an epigraph, in an African American spiritual. The omission is striking; such vagueness can only be considered intentional.

The ghost of the 1990s haunt this new book and help to explain how Obama’s administration came to be seen by so many as both a great disappointment and a grave mistake—one we must avoid making again today.

The only place where readers might be able to tease out any substance is in the book’s very brief preface. There Obama tells us that despite the dark political forces that have arisen in recent years, he has yet to give up on “the direction of the America we’ve been promised”—on the idea of “liv[ing] up to the meaning our creed.” By this Obama apparently means the country’s founding documents that proclaim all people equal before the law. In stoic language, Obama envisions a slow but steady march toward the fulfillment of founding values.

What is less clear in the book is that behind this faint residue of a political ideal lurks the influence of post–Cold War liberalism. The ghost of the 1990s haunt this new book and help to explain how Obama’s administration came to be seen by so many as both a great disappointment and a grave mistake—one we must avoid making again today.

Whatever a promised land might be for Obama, it is clear that it has no space for today’s ideological currents on either the left or the right. Concerning the former, Obama condemns as “revolutionaries” those who criticized the Affordable Care Act for leaving private insurance intact and who panned Obama’s anodyne handling of the financial crisis—failing to nationalize banks, prosecute bank executives, or reset the standards for “economic normalcy.” More radical change, Obama remarks, “would have required a violence to the social order,” which violated his vision of the American promise. Somebody with “a more revolutionary soul,” Obama writes, believes that such actions would have been worth it. But he “was a reformer, conservative in temperament if not in vision” and thus unwilling to put at risk “the well-being of millions of people.” He refuses to be their savior.

Obama envisions a slow but steady march toward the fulfillment of founding values. What is less clear in the book is that behind this faint residue of a political ideal lurks the influence of post–Cold War liberalism.

As for the right, Obama blames his failure to establish a new New Deal on a conservative backlash. The reason he could not rally the nation as Franklin Roosevelt had done, he contends, is that a reactionary message “demonized” not simply Obama’s policies but his very character and identity. The reactionary fringe that Obama observed during Palin’s campaign rallies had coalesced into the Tea Party and eventually moved toward the center of GOP politics. Ironically, just as Obama criticized left revolutionaries for their desire to overturn the social order, nativists denounced the “socialism” of Obama’s Affordable Care and Recovery Acts for having “disrupted” the “natural order.” As they awaited a savior to restore it, Senate leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner would hold down the fort.

Obama freely admits that in both instances his presidency played a defining role in awakening both the revolutionary and reactionary forces that prevented the cooperation necessary to make the kind of liberal progress he had envisioned. But why did these forces arise so strongly under his watch? Obama’s own answer seems to be that both political extremes had renounced the liberal vision of post-ideological consensus and cooperation in the name of freedom and equality. The revolutionary left turned its back on these ideals, finding them inseparable from imperialism, economic exploitation, and structural racism. The reactionary right, meanwhile, denies that they should extend to religions, races, and identities they deem not to be true members of the body politic.

But here is where Obama’s vision of an ideologically neutral promised land needs to be historicized. It was common in the run up to his 2008 campaign for pundits and scholars to suggest that Obama’s policies and speeches were undergirded by a civil religious tradition that could be traced back to the nation’s founding document, to Puritan notions of America being a “City on a Hill” and “A Promised Land,” and to the black prophetic tradition most famously expressed by Martin Luther King, Jr. No one argued this view with more conviction than Philip Gorski, a Yale sociologist who praised Obama for reviving a tradition of American “civil religion” that drew inspiration both from the Bible and the Western heritage of civil republicanism. Obama’s civil religion, Gorksi contended, allowed a way for the country to move beyond the political impasses that had divided it since the 1960s. The Harvard intellectual historian James Kloppenberg presented a similar perspective using different language. He argued that as a student at Harvard Law School, Obama imbibed the political liberalism of John Rawls. As such, he sought to implement a pragmatic version of Rawls’s notion of an overlapping consensus—the idea that despite the country’s cultural, religious, and political diversity, there are values that citizens share in common when it comes to the political and economic advancement of the country.

Obama thought the road to the promised land had already arrived in the 1990s—its quirks just needed to be worked out at home and abroad.

Both of these perspectives root Obama’s promised land, to use the words of Kloppenberg, in the “long unfinished project” of American democracy, spanning from the seventeenth century through the civil rights movement up until the present. But by the end of Obama’s first term, Gorski proved frustrated with Obama’s failure to live up to the prophetic elements of the civil religion tradition, while Kloppenberg criticized those who believed Obama’s desire for a bipartisan overlapping consensus amounted to a “vulgar pragmatism” embraced by politicans desiring merely “expedient compromise.” Perhaps part of the problem is where they located the crux of Obama’s political thought within intellectual history.

An alternative way of understanding the idea of Obama’s promised land is to place it in the context of the 1990s. Obama’s time at Harvard Law School coincided with the end of the Cold War. After graduating in 1991, his career rapidly advanced at a time of nearly unparalleled liberal optimism. This was the decade of post–Cold War liberal triumphalism that heralded the end of history, in political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s famous phrase. Social scientists and politicians proclaimed a “Third Way” liberalism that would move beyond the ideological divisions of yesteryear, putting the United States on the path to realizing its promises of liberty and equality on both the domestic and international stages. Obama’s dream of consensus politics emerged precisely at this moment of political reconfiguration.

In The Audacity of Hope (2006), for instance, Obama praises the presidency of Bill Clinton for its singular contribution of transcending the ideological deadlock of what “had come to be meant by the labels of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’,” which Obama deemed as “categories inadequate to address the problems we faced.” Clinton’s Third Way, as Obama defined it, demonstrated that free markets and fiscal responsibility could promote social justice. Obama’s own vision of a post-racial America took root in this post-ideological context. What prevented Clinton from achieving more, Obama argues, was the anti-liberal demagogy of Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist. A Promised Land essentially retells this story of the Clinton years, but this time Obama directs the narrative at his own presidency—in a context in which the ideological stakes have grown immensely.

It was also in the 1990s that Obama attended Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, pastored by Jeremiah Wright. Through this experience Obama became steeped in the Black Church tradition. Wright embraced James Cones’s black liberation theology, which prioritized the Black predicament: God had a preferential option for those who suffer the most. Though Obama famously denounced Wright’s diatribes that damned American hypocrisy—a move he deemed necessary to win the Democratic nomination—his sermons proved so influential that Obama channeled them in his electrifying speeches, most notably his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The very title of The Audacity of Hope was a borrowing from Wright.

It is clear, then, that Obama thought the road to the promised land had already arrived in the nineties—its quirks just needed to be worked out at home and abroad. The emerging liberal international order would realize that dream around the world; Obama aimed to put the country back on this promising path, which George W. Bush’s presidency had derailed. As the country’s first Black president, Obama viewed his own life as demonstration of the end of the ideological age. Contrary to Wright and others who believed that radical structural change was necessary to overcome racism and economic exploitation, Obama thought the post-ideological eschaton had already arrived. What many would come to lament as his administration’s bait and switch—both a betrayal of his promises and a paving of the road for Trump—was in reality there from the beginning, as Obama transposed the radical key of the prophetic political tradition into the more muted liberal register of moderate aims and normative consensus.

The most self-reflective moment in Obama’s memoir involves him questioning whether he should have implemented a radical economic plan in his handling of the financial crisis. “To this day,” he observes, “I survey reports of America’s escalating inequality, its reduced upward mobility. . . I wonder whether I should have been bolder in those early months, willing to exact more economic pain in the short term in pursuit of permanently altered and more just economic order.” He wonders, but he ultimately answers in the negative. Harsher alternatives, he says—letting the banking system collapse, prosecuting banking executives—would have made things worse.

The new book makes clear that perhaps the most important commitment, for Obama, was the “preservation of normalcy.”

We have no way of knowing whether he is right: we cannot run historical experiments. But we can certainly see the political commitments that led him to draw this conclusion. And this new memoir makes clear that perhaps the most important commitment, for Obama, was the “preservation of normalcy.” It may not have been popular, he says, but it did steer the country away from disaster.

Those who see Trump’s administration as four long years of disaster will not agree, of course, nor will those who point out all the ways “normalcy” over the last several decades has only worked for the wealthy. And as many have pointed out, Joe Biden’s promise of a return to normalcy—already being realized by his heavy reliance on former Obama staffers—can all too easily pave the way for another Trump, if not Trump himself, in 2024. To keep that from happening we must harness the forces that Obama unleashed but reneged on—leading us not to the dead end of 1990s liberal consensus, but to a broad-based coalition representing the interests of the working-class majority of the country. It is for them to make good on the meaning of the promised land.

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*Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at Dartmouth College and the managing editor of Modern Intellectual History.

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