A Promised Land by Barack Obama

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“If you wanted good government, then expertise mattered. You needed public institutions stocked with people whose job it was to pay attention to important stuff so the rest of us citizens didn’t have to. And it was thanks to those experts that Americans could worry less about the quality of the air we breathed or the water we drank, that we had recourse when employers failed to pay us the overtime we were due, that we could count on over-the-counter drugs not killing us, and that driving a car or flying on a commercial airplane was exponentially safer today than it had been just twenty or thirty or fifty years ago. The ‘regulatory state’ conservatives complained so bitterly about had made American life a hell of a lot better.

“That’s not to say that every criticism of federal regulation was bogus. There were times when bureaucratic red tape burdened businesses unnecessarily or delayed innovative products from getting to market. Some regulations really did cost more than they were worth.”

As you’d expect from a book written by a president, Barak Obama idolizes the idea of America, although he does acknowledge America can be improved.

While Obama was a community organizer in the 1980s, the first black mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, couldn’t get much done as he was continually blocked by the white alderman. If this were a work of fiction, I’d call this foreshadowing.

During his early days as a state senator in Illinois, Obama learned that most politicians care less about making good policy than about financial incentives, getting endorsements, and getting reelected. It’s kind of depressing that the stereotypical view most people have of politicians is mostly true.

Obama thought the slogan “Yes We Can” was corny at first, but grew to like it later. His run for US Senate seemed like a long shot, but his being against the Iraq war early and opponents dropping out due to scandals led to victory. This led to a speech at the Democratic National Convention that drew nationwide attention. However, Democrats were in the minority his first year as senator and they could only watch as Republicans passed bills hurting education and the environment. He was willing to be patient at first, but after Hurricane Katrina and a visit to Iraq revealed the dangers of leisurely government response, he decided he needed to move faster.

While running for president, Obama learned that it’s a bad idea to actually answer the question the moderator asks at debates. There’s not enough time for nuance or complicated answers and the moderator is trying to trip you up anyway. People are moved by emotion, not facts. It’s more important to signal to voters that you’re on their side than to give a complex answer to a question.

Due to his promise to raise taxes for the rich, Obama lost a few big donors, but made up for it by getting lots of small donations from regular people. This also allowed him to be more independent and less reliant on interest groups for funding.

I didn’t know that Reverend Jeremiah Wright was part of the medical team caring for Lyndon Johnson or that he was a former Marine and member of the Navy. Reverend Wright grew a church with fewer than 100 members to one with six thousand, most of whom were white. Obama didn’t agree with everything Wright said, of course, and he admits that he didn’t attend church all that often. After things Rev. Wright said were taken out of context and the media dragged him through the mud, Obama disinvited him from leading a prayer. Unfortunately, explaining the nuance of Wright’s statements to millions of Americans wasn’t possible due to how simplified politics is presented in the news and Wright became collateral damage due to his association with Obama.

In order to win the primary, John McCain had to compromise on his moderate conservative values by promising irresponsibly huge tax cuts and acting equivocal towards climate change in order to appeal to the extremists of his party. He might have won in 2008 if he had remained moderate, but since extremists are more likely to vote in primaries, he had to appeal to them to get the nomination, even though primary voters don’t represent the average voter in the general election.

It’s worth noting the hypocrisy of conservatives who said Obama wasn’t experienced enough, but praised Palin for being inexperienced. Any time she showed her ignorance of basic questions concerning finance, the supreme court, or foreign policy, Republicans viewed it as proof of a liberal conspiracy. Palin’s popularity was a harbinger of Republicans discounting facts and creating their own reality. There’s no doubt that Palin paved the way for Trump years later. McCain at least pushed back against Palin supporters who tried to make people afraid of Obama.

The subprime mortgage crisis caused a recession in the lead up to the presidential election. Although Democrats weren’t blameless, Republicans who did everything they could to weaken financial regulations had the gall to criticize regulators for failing to catch the problem sooner. Some companies were considered too big to fail, because if they failed, several other companies that depended on them would also fail, resulting in massive unemployment. A bailout was necessary to keep the recession from becoming a depression. Both parties knew a bailout was needed, but with an election coming up, neither wanted to do it.

McCain admitted he didn’t know much about economic policy. He even admitted to a reporter that he didn’t know how many homes he owned (eight). He even claimed the economy was strong during the crisis! He would be against bailouts one day and in favor the next.

Obama, of course, won the presidential election, although it was bittersweet because his grandmother died on the eve of election day. Bush made the transition smooth, including passing a financial bailout before Obama took office. Bush also coordinated with Obama regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, beginning plans for withdrawal from Iraq before Obama took office and delaying increasing troops in Afghanistan. Obama repeats the myth that Clinton staffers removed the W key from computers when Bush became president, but at least he says it was just a rumor.

Obama kept Bush’s Defense Secretary to signal bipartisanship, but also because he agreed with Bush’s strategy of withdrawing from Iraq to strengthen efforts in Afghanistan. Obama also didn’t want to surround himself with yes men. Appointing Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State after their bitter primary campaign also contributed to his team of rivals.

In another effort to be bipartisan, Obama nominated a Republican to be his commerce secretary. He accepted, but then withdrew, after other Republicans, including Barbara Bush, pressured him to leave. The governor of Florida lost his reelection bid due to working with Obama. Voters claim they want politicians to reach across the aisle, but they vote out any politicians who actually do.

Due to receiving more death threats than the Secret Service had ever seen before, Obama was given a secret service detail early in his campaign. When he went surfing in Hawaii before inauguration, he was surrounded by Navy Seals in wet suits. He felt like he was living in a ghost town whenever he went somewhere since the Secret Service emptied the streets ahead of him. He often had the desire to just disappear into the crowd like a regular person.

There was credible evidence Somali terrorists would try to attack during his inauguration, but it’s part of the job to act like everything is normal when there’s potential danger. Even though I knew everything would turn out OK, I still felt some amount of second-hand stress while reading this.

Obama describes the weirdness of suddenly having butlers and maids. He’s a regular guy in many ways who likes playing basketball and listening to hip hop. I didn’t realize the First Family pays for its own groceries, furniture, and such, but it makes sense. Obama is frank about the stress his political campaigns put on his marriage and family life and his struggle to stop smoking with all the stress.

Most of a president’s job is dealing with problems created by the previous administration and crises that come up. He didn’t get as much time as he’d like to implement his own policies. Another hard part of the job involved ordering people killed, such as the teenage Somali pirates who took an American hostage. Another difficulty of being president is that he couldn’t always say what he wanted to in public, needing to take strategic concerns into mind.

Of the tens of thousands of letters addressed to the president every day, Obama made it a point to read ten of them every day to stay in touch with people outside his bubble. All throughout the book, he shows a lot of humility by mentioning all the people who helped him along the way. He wasn’t able to accomplish anything by himself.

Right after becoming president, Obama signed an executive order banning torture. Early on, he also ended the ban on stem cell research. The first bill he signed into law was a fair pay act for women to get paid the same as men.

He makes the observation that older senators maintained friendships across the aisle, but not so much the younger senators. Congress was bipartisan before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but that started a polarization process that continued to intensify, making voting across party lines more and more difficult. Gerrymandering and splintering of the media intensified the effect. Republicans grew more extreme and less willing to compromise due to the purge of moderates from their party. Even though Democrats had majorities in both House and Senate when Obama took office, Republicans had the filibuster, so they were still able to obstruct progress.

Mitch McConnell lacked charisma and didn’t seem to have any close friends. McConnell had no strong political opinions, only wanting power for its own sake. John Boehner was more reasonable, but after having a leadership position taken away after not kowtowing enough to Gringrich, he rarely deviated from talking points, fearing another similar humiliation.

Obama makes a good point that liberals are more willing to flay politicians on their own side than conservatives. As Democrats have a more diverse makeup and aversion to authority, they tend to disagree amongst themselves more than Republicans who are better at presenting a united front and sticking to their talking points.

Most House Republicans voted against Bush’s unpopular but necessary bailout, so of course they’d be against Obama’s stimulus plan which also included a bailout. Obama did his best to work with them, modifying the stimulus plan at their suggestion, but McConnell told Republicans not to even talk to the White House. However, in the press, they claimed they weren’t being consulted! They cared more about scoring cheap political points than helping Americans impacted by the economic crisis that they caused. They weren’t arguing in good faith and had no intention of being bipartisan. They lied about what the Recovery Act contained and the press didn’t bother to correct the lies. Even Republicans who genuinely wanted America to succeed couldn’t be seen working with Democrats or they’d be replaced by an extremist in the next election.

Even big conservative donors, like the Chamber of Commerce who were in favor of the Recovery Act because it would save several businesses, were overruled by the Koch brothers who wanted Obama to fail more than they wanted American businesses to succeed.

Obama managed to pass the Recovery Act anyway. Comparable to FDR’s New Deal, it helped the unemployed and provided food assistance, medical assistance, the biggest middle class tax cut since Reagan, funding for infrastructure and transportation, investment for clean energy, education reform, modernized medical records, and it extend broadband access to schools and rural areas. Less than a month into office, he accomplished an entire presidential term’s worth of work.

Wall Street executives gave themselves more than a billion dollars in bonuses after accepting bailout money, making the American people hate them even more than they already did. As much as he wanted to, Obama couldn’t condemn Wall Street since that would scare away needed investors and hurt the economy even more. He also couldn’t put bank executives in jail despite public calls for it, because they hadn’t technically broken any laws.

Despite this, the plan worked and the nine largest banks paid back the US Treasury with interest a few months later. Investors returned and the panic appeared to be over. The US banking sector stabilized faster than its European counterparts. The economy returned to growth faster than just about any other nation in history after such a significant shock, and the bailout actually ended up making taxpayers money. Not bad for his first 100 days in office.

When Obama proposed programs to help homeowners impacted by the financial crisis, Rick Santelli, a CNBC business commentator, staged a theatrical performance to rant against this and falsely claimed it would pay off the mortgages of irresponsible homeowners. Santelli’s supposedly off-the-cuff rant was actually the planned beginning of the astroturf Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party claimed to be a grassroots movement, but it was actually funded by the Koch brothers and others like them. It didn’t bring anything new to the table as they just repeated standard Republican talking points from years past. The increased incivility and overt racism within their ranks was troubling though.

Ever since 1912, presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Truman have been pushing for universal healthcare, but despite how well it works in Europe, it has been opposed by people equating it with Communism. Companies began offering health insurance during FDR’S WWII wage freeze in order to attract workers. LBJ had partial success passing Medicaid and Medicare. Even so, the US spends a lot more money on healthcare than any other advanced economy, over a 100 percent more than Canada, France, and Japan for the same results.

Even though Republicans weren’t needed to pass healthcare reform, Obama wanted to work with Republicans to get the bill passed so it would be less likely to go away in the future. Thus, Obama’s health plan was patterned after Romneycare, the Massachusetts health plan which Mitt Romney called “the ultimate conservative idea.”

When delivering a speech about healthcare, Obama debunked the false claim that it would insure undocumented immigrants. An obscure Republican named Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” He apologized for his outburst the next day, but his rude outburst caused contributions to his reelection campaign to go up. It pays to be antagonistic.

Democrats stood in the way of healthcare reform to an extent, since campaign contributions sometimes were at stake if certain changes were made. I didn’t realize animosity between Senate and House Democrats was one of the major hurdles to healthcare reform. Since Republicans were in the minority in both, their votes ultimately didn’t matter.

Ted Kennedy, a long-time proponent of healthcare reform, died before the bill could be passed. To add insult to injury, he got replaced by a Republican, meaning the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority. It was still possible to pass healthcare reform if the House voted on the Senate’s bill, then tweaked it through a process called reconciliation.

Healthcare reform passed, meaning millions who didn’t have health insurance before could now get it. Due to all the compromises necessary in politics, it wasn’t perfect, but it was at least a step in the right direction.

Generals actually tend to counsel restraint when it comes to the use of force. The civilians who didn’t see the fighting on the ground, both Democrats and Republicans, tended to be more hawkish. Like Lincoln, Obama felt that he should visit wounded soldiers to get a better idea of the cost of war.

Afghanistan was going badly largely due to the Taliban getting aid from Pakistan, a supposed US ally. Although anti-war, Obama had to increase troops in Afghanistan to provide security for their upcoming election. Throughout his presidency, he often found himself having to choose the lesser of two evils because there’s no such thing as a perfect solution.

The US had suffered reputation loss in the international community due to the invasion of Iraq and Bush not defending Georgia from Russian invasion. Obama had to rebuild that trust. As bad as the Iraq war had been, at least Bush didn’t involve indiscriminate bombing that harmed civilians like WWII had. While he didn’t agree with what Bush did, he doesn’t completely condemn him either, pointing out things he did right.

The war in Afghanistan had no end in sight. The Pentagon advised more troops and a lot more money and went to the media to make their case, in order to pressure Obama into accepting their request. He did eventually send more troops, though not as much as they wanted, and he made sure there was a withdrawal plan, as well as achievable goals.

Obama was as confused as everybody else when he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Another instance of people putting lots of pressure on him to change the world even though he’s just one person. It was even awarded as he was sending more troops to Afghanistan, which made things awkward, but he tempered this a bit by making his acceptance speech about the necessity of war.

I hadn’t realized the Defense Department, FBI, and Joint Terrorism Task Force all had indications the mass shooter at Fort Hood was becoming radicalized before the shooting took place. It could have been avoided if the intelligence community had been more alert.

Foreign policy was tricky as well. In 1951, England and the US deposed Iran’s democratically elected prime minister and put the shah in charge in order to profit off Iran’s oil. It should have been no surprise when Iran took American hostages in 1979. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Reagan publicly backed Iraq while secretly selling weapons to Iran, making enemies of both sides. After 9-11, Iran offered to help the US with the war in Afghanistan, but Bush refused their offer of help and named them part of the axis of evil.

By the time Obama took office, Iran didn’t like us very much. And they had a nuclear program. They increased the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges from a hundred to thousands, more than a peaceful nuclear program would need. They didn’t have nuclear weapons yet, but they were getting close. Meanwhile Israel, which likely had secret nuclear weapons themselves, were considering a preemptive strike against Iran. It took time, but Obama and his team eventually got Russia and China to agree to sanction Iran.

Republicans haven’t always been anti-environment. Nixon created the EPA and George H.W. Bush strengthened the Clean Air Act. However, by the time George W. Bush was president, denying climate science had become a necessity for Republicans to win in the primaries.

A big chunk of the Recovery Act went to renewable energy. This was necessary since fossil fuels had received trillions of dollars from the government, so clean energy needed similar funding to compete. Obama launched ARPA-E, a research program like DARPA but for energy rather than defense. The Recovery Act included loans to companies like Tesla. Factories that were closed down reopened to build wind turbines. The Recovery Act probably saved the solar and wind industries, but things with long-term benefits rarely make headlines. Slow, gradual progress isn’t exciting enough.

A regulation to raise fuel efficiency met with no pushback from auto makers, probably due to the bailout they received. Obama’s team also updated efficiency standards for other things like washers, dryers, and refrigerators, further lowering greenhouse gases. Funny that Congresswoman Michele Bachmann thought improved light bulb efficiency was part of a secret Democrat plot.

As much as regulations can help, they can be undone by a future president. To really make lasting change requires Congress. Since a few Democrats in the Senate came from oil and coal producing states, they’d need a few Republican votes to get past the filibuster. McCain was initially interested in a bipartisan climate bill, but backed off when it looked like doing anything bipartisan would hurt his reelection chances. The bill included cap and trade, just like George H.W. Bush did in 1990 to fix the acid rain problem. Bush also signed the first UN climate change agreement in 1992. In the end, the House bill actually passed with 8 Republican votes.

The most cinematic moment is Obama trying to get world leaders to agree to a new climate agreement at Copenhagen. The Chinese Premier hid and a storm approached, requiring leaving for the airport early. Obama crashed a private meeting the Premier was having, convinced him and other countries to sign on to the plan, and got to the airport with only minutes to spare.

Obama quit smoking the day he signed the ACA. He also helped coach his daughter’s basketball team. One of Sasha’s best friends was Biden’s granddaughter. When his daughters got too old to be read bedtime stories, he switched to playing pool at night.

Interesting that one thing McConnell didn’t try to block Obama on was Wall Street reform, to make sure another big financial crisis doesn’t happen again. Although, publicly McConnell said he’d vote against it along with most Republicans, secretly, he’d allow a few Republicans to vote for it. It was another big win, but one most people didn’t notice as it prevented future calamities, not improved things in the here and now.

The secretary of energy, Noble-prize winning physicist Steve Chu, put together a team of scientists to fix the underwater BP oil leaks when BP didn’t know how to do it. Oil leaked for 87 days before it was capped.

As Midterm elections came up, Republicans refused to help the economy with a stimulus package because they knew a bad economy meant more votes for them.

Obama had promised to close Gitmo, but found it difficult. It was hard to try high-value detainees in court since chain of custody and records on them weren’t very good. Also, most of them had been tortured, making their confessions inadmissible in court. Obama couldn’t try them and he couldn’t let them go. Some low value detainees couldn’t be released because they’d be killed if sent back to their native countries (like the Uighurs who fled China to Afghanistan) or they might just get recruited back into al-Qaeda.

Obama was able to give lower and middle class people a tax cut by agreeing to McConnell’s desire to extend the Bush tax cut for the wealthy for two more years. Since Republicans won the House in 2010, it was the best he could do at the time.

Michelle’s child nutrition bill passed as did New START, a nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and Obama repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (with 8 Republican votes). This surprised me since my impression at the time was the Republicans blocked everything, but a small number of them were actually bipartison some of the time.

Netanyahu sounds like a jerk. He promised to stop constructing new buildings on Palestinian territory and then didn’t do it. He whined to the press that Obama was mean to him anytime Obama asked if peace with Palestine was a possibility. He also claimed Obama snubbed him when he hadn’t.

During the Arab Spring in Egypt, Mubarak started killing protestors and detaining reporters and Obama pressured him to step down from power. Obama also authorized military action against Gaddafi to keep him from slaughtering his own people in Libya. It wasn’t a decision he took lightly as the US was already involved in two wars, but he made sure the US involvement would be short and decisive with the long term action being handled by European and Arab allies. It was a success, although predictably, Republicans who called for the military action were suddenly against it once Obama did it.

Trump’s conspiracy theory claim that Obama wasn’t born in the US was an obvious dog whistle to rally racists. I didn’t know that Trump was originally pro-Obama for the first two years of his presidency and even offered to help plug the BP oil leak and build a ballroom on the White House grounds (offers which were politely declined). Trump’s lies were the natural continuation of the GOP’s putting short term political gain ahead of the long term good of the country. Obama didn’t address the birther claims at first, thinking it would die down, but the media was obsessed with the story, so as ridiculous as it was, Obama released the long-form birth certificate and made a statement, scolding the media for ignoring real news and focusing on nonsense.

The book ends with a bang as Osama bin Laden is found and taken out.

There’s nice details throughout the book like a fox sometimes showing up in the White House’s backyard and Obama working with a microbrewer to become the first presidential brewmaster. Michelle’s garden inspired community gardens across the country. There are cute moments like his daughters asking him to save tigers from extinction. In order to make good on a promise he made to his daughters, he got Bo the dog from Ted Kennedy. There’s also a lot of funny moments.

At the time of his presidency, my impression was that Obama wasn’t able to get much of anything done due to Republican obstructionism, with the one exception of healthcare reform. I’m glad I read this book and learned of all the other amazing things he managed to accomplish despite the overwhelming hostility directed against him.

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