Barack Obama laid out his concerns about picking Joe Biden as his running mate in the summer of 2008. The senator from Delaware loved to hear himself talk, he didn’t have a filter, and “he wasn’t always self-aware,” Obama writes in his new memoir.
While “we couldn’t have been more different,” Obama writes, he “found the contrast between us compelling,” along with what he called Biden’s good heart, foreign policy expertise and appeal to the working class.
So, with the choice finalized, Obama and Biden awaited Republican nominee John McCain’s announcement of his vice-presidential pick. Biden learned of the decision in a meeting with Obama from a text message on an adviser’s BlackBerry.
“Who the hell is Sarah Palin?” Biden said.
The story of the competing vice-presidential choices is one of many anecdotes in Obama’s new book, “The Promised Land,” in which he defends his legacy and explains what motivated him and at times left him distraught.
As Palin created a surge of interest in the Republican ticket, Obama briefly worried that he had been outfoxed by McCain, and that Palin would pull away enough undecided voters to swing the race to the GOP. But he soon figured the choice would backfire because “on just about every subject relevant to governing the country she had absolutely no idea what the hell she was talking about.”
In the end, Obama writes, the most troubling aspect of the Palin pick was what it said about the devolving direction of the nation’s politics. Obama found Palin’s ineptitude “troubling on a deeper level … her incoherence didn’t matter to the vast majority of Republicans,” who saw questioning her knowledge of issues “as proof of a liberal conspiracy.”
In response, Palin on Friday posted a comment on her Facebook page in which she thanked Obama for crediting her with shaping Republican politics, adding, “It’s pleasurable to know I’ve lived rent free in your head these past twelve years.”
The book, the first of an expected two volumes on Obama’s presidency, will be publicly available on Tuesday. An advance copy was provided to The Washington Post by publisher Penguin Random House.
Obama writes of both the job’s loneliness and the importance of a trusted circle of confidants who saw him through it, including his wife Michelle and Biden, adviser David “Axe” Axelrod, campaign manager David Plouffe and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. He heaps praise on all of them.
At the same time, he settles scores, scorns Republicans and directs some unexpected zingers at fellow Democrats. Sizing up his 2008 primary rival Sen. John Edwards, for example, Obama writes that he was never impressed; the North Carolinian’s “newly minted populism sounded synthetic and poll-tested to me, the political equivalent of one of those boy bands dreamed up in a studio marketing department.”
Throughout the book, as Obama elaborates on the roadblocks he faced in pushing his agenda, he acknowledges that his inspirational campaign talk of hope and “yes, we can” was privately accompanied by bouts of doubt, despair and regret. Time and again, he writes, he wondered whether he was the man for the moment, whether he was driven too much by ego and not his lofty ideals, and whether he was sacrificing too much of his family life for the political mire.
“I confess,” Obama says in the preface, “there have been times during the course of writing this book, as I reflected on my presidency and all that’s happened since, when I’ve had to ask myself whether I was too tempered in speaking the truth as I saw it, too cautious in either word or deed, convinced as I was that by appealing to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature, I stood a greater chance of leading us in the direction of the America we been promised.”
The book was completed in August, before Biden became president-elect. Nonetheless, read in the aftermath of the 2020 election, it serves as a preamble, laying out the divisions that resulted in the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the pitfalls that Biden is bound to encounter after taking office.
Obama recounts the difficulty of dealing with Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican then and now. Obama writes that Biden told him how McConnell had blocked one of his bills. When Biden tried to explain the bill’s merits, McConnell responded, “You must be under the mistaken impression that I care,” according to Obama, recounting the Kentucky senator’s “shamelessness” and “dispassionate pursuit of power.”
Obama came into office vowing to work with Republicans, but he tells with increasing fury and frustration how the opposition party was just that — almost always in opposition. He recounts how he spent countless hours seeking to woo Republicans to support his health care plan.
In an atmosphere poisoned by false charges that he was not born in America, that he was a Muslim, and that he supported “death panels” that would determine the fate of older Americans, Obama says, it was hard enough to win GOP support. But he thought he had a chance with some Republican moderates such as Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who supported the health plan in committee but voted against it on the floor.
He writes how he asked Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley whether any changes in the bill would win the Iowan’s vote. “I guess not, Mr. President,” Grassley responded, according to Obama. Grassley’s office released a statement Friday that said, “Neither Sen. Grassley nor his senior staff at the time have any record or recollection of that and it’s unlikely that is something Sen. Grassley would say.”
The legislation passed without support from Republicans, many of whom have spent years trying to kill it.
Similarly, writing of efforts to court the support of Sen. Lindsey Graham for climate change legislation, he said the South Carolina Republican “liked to play the role of the sophisticated, self-aware conservative, disarming Democrats and reporters with blunt assessments of his party’s blind spots” but then found ways to “wriggle out” of proposed compromises. He was like the character in a spy movie “who double-crosses everyone to save his own skin,” Obama writes.
Edwards, McConnell and Graham did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.
Obama’s grievances with the media are a constant theme. He portrays himself as a victim of unfair reportage and political commentary from every corner, including from liberals whom he said never understood the need for him to make compromises to win passage of legislation. At one point, he recounts how he said that when some people in small Pennsylvania towns “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
While he acknowledges that he “screwed up” by making the comment, he seeks to shift some of the blame to a writer for The Huffington Post, who accurately quoted his words. “This is what separates even the most liberal writers from their conservative counterparts — the willingness to flay politicians on their own side,” Obama writes. He wishes he could take back the remarks and “make a few simple edits.”
Obama has particular scorn for “conservative pundits” who framed efforts to help the disadvantaged in society into partisan attack lines. “The problem is no longer discrimination against people of color, the argument goes; it’s ‘reverse racism,’ with minorities ‘playing the race card’ to get unfair advantage. The problem isn’t sexual harassment in the workplace; it’s humorless ‘feminazis’ beating men over the head with their political correctness,” he writes.
Obama pushes back against such rhetorical “sleight of hand,” recounting how the country’s history of openly racist policies and the aftermath of the Civil War and the Great Depression were followed by measures to create a social contract that lifted the disadvantaged and created a more equal society — the theme that Obama puts forward in the book’s title of “A Promised Land.”
His message throughout the book is that the constant personal attacks on him, and the widening gap between the two main political parties, severed the bond of trust that is needed for Washington to improve the lives of all Americans.
It was “the fault line of race,” Obama writes, that constantly threatened his progress and that of the country.
“Accepting that African Americans and other minority groups might need extra help from the government — that their specific hardships could be traced to a brutal history of discrimination rather than immutable characteristic or individual choices — required a level of empathy, of fellow feeling, that many white voters found difficult to muster,” Obama writes.
Foreshadowing issues that led to Trump’s election, Obama writes that Republicans pushed the idea that one group of people were being shortchanged at the expense of another, fostering the politics of grievance and the belief that “government couldn’t be trusted to be fair.” The result was that “A deep and suffocating cynicism took hold.”
While the book ends before Trump’s 2016 presidential race, Obama scorns how the New York City developer had earlier peddled the false assertion that he wasn’t born in the United States. “For millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House, he promised an elixir for their racial anxiety.”
Obama recounts how Trump in 2010 suggested to Axelrod that he be put in charge of plugging the massive oil leak from the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico and then proposed that he build a “beautiful ballroom” on White House grounds. Both offers were rejected.
The irony of his presidency, Obama writes, is that he was often misunderstood. On foreign policy, he says, he was an admirer of former President George H.W. Bush, whom he says adroitly ended the Cold War and deftly managed the first Gulf War. On the economy, he says, he says he rejected proposals by some on his left to respond to the Great Recession with sweeping efforts to nationalize the banks and what he called “stretching the definition of criminal statutes to prosecute banking executives.” He worries that such moves would have “required a violence to the social order.”
“Someone with a more revolutionary soul might respond that all this would have been worth it,” Obama writes, but he wasn’t willing to take the risk, and that “revealed a basic strand of my political character. I was a reformer, conservative in temperament if not in vision. Whether I was demonstrating wisdom or weakness would be for others to judge.”