I would normally say something like “I got this for Christmas and finally got around to reading it” but in fact, I got this for my partner for Christmas and read it before he did. I decided to go for it, despite it being the hefty 700 pages it was, because it had gotten so many positive reviews amongst people I like. I am now another one of those people agreeing that it was a very good book.
The first reason I liked it was that Obama is definitely a people person and it really shows. Every person who is introduced, from his staff, to soldiers he meets, to foreign leaders get a paragraph about that person. He loves his staff and the people in the White House and he talks about them with genuine warmth and affection. I imagine you have to be good with people to pass the legislation that he did, even when losing the ability to basically pass legislation a couple years into his first term. I really appreciated a passage early on in his presidency where he confronts his male staff about how their way of working (shouting, cutting people off) had sidelined the women that he relied on to advise him. Not going to lie that I’ve recognised the same behaviour in places I’ve worked. He asked them to change, and they did, which would be great if that was the way it worked in ever office in the land.
The other thing it did was remind me of all the stuff that did happen, as right now it just feels like an endless stream of ridiculous stuff that just seems absolutely unreal. No, it was ridiculous then too. The 2008 financial crash, Deep Water Horizon, Arab Spring etc etc etc. The pace of change is relentless and maybe it’s just getting older that makes the most recent stuff feel so over the top (or maybe that’s just endless lockdown).
One of the chapters that was just really interesting and well told was on the Deep Water Horizon disaster. What it brought to the fore was the exacting competence of people in the public sector. The fact that BP were unable to cap the wells and stop the millions of gallons of oil being released into the sea, undercut the years of private sector knows best mantra. The story about the Secretary of Energy Steven Chu (also a Nobel Prize winning physicist) bringing together people to finally stop the disaster was amazing. I love how Obama just mentions that hardworking civil servants every day, just toiling away trying to make things better. I mean, I’m biased but he’s got my vote.
The other theme throughout the book is his absolutely low opinion of the modern Republican Party. It comes out every time he has to interact with them over legislation, or because they go from championing something, but about facing when he’s suggesting it or when an intervention seems successful. It’s the only time when I don’t feel very hopeful about the prospects in the United States. If you have one side of the chamber unwilling to make government work, how do you govern except with an absolute majority. Sure, some of it could be politics, but some of it is just clear destructive behaviour that doesn’t benefit normal people in anyway. It feels like the antithesis to governing.
I think the final thing that I loved was just the way he describes making hard choices. How you have to make decisions between ideals and the practical reality of what’s going on. I think this must be an answer to critics of his time in office, sure, but it’s still compelling. The narrowing down of what choices are possible, reasonable and achievable vs the idealised version shouts from the sidelines. But it’s also the balance of interests, domestic and foreign policy goals, tradition, wider global issues – all which he has to nudge and cajole in a direction that is more progressive.
My only minor critique is that he does use the same rhetorical devices maybe a few times too often (“we were riding high and hoping things were turning a corner, but that something even worse happened”). I didn’t notice it as much in the second half though, so maybe it really did feel like that in the first couple years. Anyway, I found it very compelling and managed to get through it relatively fast (a week and a bit maybe), so maybe one to buy for a present for someone else and then cheekily read it yourself (or you know, get it for yourself because books are great).