Four star review, originally published here on February 21, 2021.
Let no man ever accuse Barack Obama of brevity. Jeeeepers this is a loooong book! And it’s only the first volume! Barack needs to hire Michelle’s editor, or else just get some memoir-writing pointers from her.
I kid! I kid! He was the leader of the free world for 8 years. If he wants to give us a detailed run-down of what he had for breakfast every single day of his presidency, then he can go for it. He’s earned that right. As a reader, though, you have to come to this book prepared. It is a lengthy detailed tome, faithfully chronicling this historic figure’s historic decision-making for posterity. Thankfully, it’s also super interesting and personable, so it’s not a dry book by any means and is perfectly readable (for those with a couple months clear on their schedules).
For those who, like me, have read 3 other Obama books already (2 by Barack and 1 by Michelle), the beginning of this one overlaps a ton with the content of those previous books. But once we get to the election, and especially when we get to the presidency itself, there’s plenty of new content. I’ve always marveled at how much the president and his staff have to juggle at any given moment, how knowledgeable they have to be, and how constantly cautious of upsetting an infinite number of balances between interests and populations. This memoir pretty effectively presents this very idea. What’s more, it emphasizes the need for expertise beyond oneself, and argues for a need for a fully functional and operational government. Here are two of my favorite passages (note: I was listening to the audiobook, which means I had to stop and repeatedly rewind to be able to write these down, which took quite a bit of time. Hopefully this commitment demonstrates just how much these passages hit home for me):
“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 here’s what Obama wanted to say, but didn’t, during the BP Oil Sill in the Gulf:
“That MMS wasn’t fully equipped to do its job, in large part because, for the past 30 years, a big chunk of American voters had bought into the Republican idea that government was the problem, and that business always knew better, and had elected leaders who made it their mission to gut environmental regulations, starve agency budgets, denigrate civil servants, and allow industrial polluters to do whatever the hell they wanted to do.
That the government didn’t have better technology than BP did to quickly plug the hole, because it would be expensive to have such technology on hand, and we Americans didn’t like paying higher taxes, especially when it was to prepare for problems that hadn’t happened yet…
If [Bobby Jindal] and other gulf elected officials were truly concerned about the well-being of their constituents, they’d be urging their party to stop denying the effects of climate change, since it was precisely the people of the gulf who are the most likely to lose homes or jobs as a result of rising global temperatures.”
The first quote is something that seems to obvious to me, and yet… Sometime you just need to hear someone else restate the obvious for you to help safeguard your own sanity. Why of WHY do people NOT want experts informing our policies and staffing our agencies? I wouldn’t dare show up at, say, a NASCAR track and say something like “I’m a racing outsider here to shake things up” and then fire all the mechanics and crash responders. But we think we can do this with the running of our country? People are fucking crazy.
The second quote hit home for many reasons, but at the moment it’s tough to read this and not think of the current disaster in Texas. Ordinary people are suffering because of predictable, preventable circumstances that were exacerbated by their own politicians going out of their way to remove expertise and regulation, and to ignore science and other inconvenient truths. So very, very frustrating.
The book’s not perfect, and neither is Obama himself. I was surprised to read how much weight he assigned to assassinating Osama Bin Laden. And at times he’s a bit cheesy. But after 4 years of complete incompetence (at best) leading our executive branch, I turned to this audiobook because I just needed to hear Obama’s voice, cheese and all. I needed to hear someone making sense of government. I needed to shut out the election denying and the insurrection and slip on the headphones like a nice warm security blanket. It did all that effectively, and got me through January with a semblance of sanity intact. That’s good stuff.