“A Promised Land” review

I finished this book around 10am today, but I felt like I needed some time for it to sink in. This book is in and of itself a great read due to the quality of the writing, but the content makes me think so much about my life and what is going on in the US. I’ll try to lay out my thoughts below, but overall, I do recommend this book, whether you are a Democrats, Republican, Independent, American or a foreigner. It’s quite lengthy and I skipped some personal anecdotes from the President, but I do think he did a good job taking the readers through his journey and laying out the context for key moments in his presidency.

Obama is a decent man

Whether anyone agrees or disagrees with what President Obama did while he was in office, it’s hard to argue that he is a decent man. Yes, I am aware that making this statement after his own book carries a degree of bias, but there is no better evidence than comparing him against his successor. In the book, he talked about the time when the Birthism scandal got started and how Republicans, Trump and the media, in one way or another, added life to that ridiculous scandal. The President didn’t want to dignify it with a response for while, but after so much distraction, he finally hosted a press conference where he addressed the issue. Here is how it went:

“I know that there’s going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest. But I’m speaking to the vast majority of the American people, as well as to the press. We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We’ve got better stuff to do. I’ve got better stuff to do. We’ve got big problems to solve. And I’m confident we can solve them, but we’re going to have to focus on them—not on this.”

“The room was quiet for a moment. I exited through the sliding doors that led back into the communications team’s offices, where I encountered a group of junior members of our press shop who’d been watching my remarks on a TV monitor. They all looked to be in their twenties. Some had worked on my campaign; others had only recently joined the administration, compelled by the idea of serving their country. I stopped and made eye contact with each one of them.”

“We’re better than this,” I said. “Remember that.”

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

“We’re better than this. Remember that”. That’s a presidential response. Despite the tough coverage from the press during his years as the President, Barack Obama never called the press “The enemies of the people” like someone did the last four years. He didn’t use language or resort to actions that were beneath his office. Instead, he told his staff to live up to what the Americans people expected from the government. Just think about what has transpired in the last four years and what Obama did there. They can’t be any more different.

Another example was that you didn’t see in his administration the types of scandals that we have grown so accustomed to in the last 4 years. In his book, the President wrote

“Without exception, we avoided scandal. I’d made clear at the start of my administration that I’d have zero tolerance for ethical lapses, and people who had a problem with that didn’t join us in the first place. Even so, I appointed a former Harvard Law School classmate of mine, Norm Eisen, as special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, just to help keep everybody—including me—on track. Cheerful and punctilious, with sharp features and the wide, unblinking eyes of a zealot, Norm was perfect for the job—the kind of guy who relished the well-earned nickname “Dr. No.” When asked once what sorts of out-of-town conferences were okay for administration officials to attend, his response was short and to the point:

“If it sounds fun, you can’t go.”

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

The US government attracts scrutiny and media coverage rivaled by none. It’s easy to verify the appointment and existence of Dr No. Plus, if that had been true, you would have heard from it on the news already from former staff in Obama’s time. I don’t remember reading about all corruption scandals on a daily basis under Obama, but that has become somewhat a disappointing and dangerous routine under Trump. Regardless of differences in ideologies and party affiliations, I just don’t understand how Americans could hate a President, who worked to uphold the dignity of the Office of the President, and love someone, who has been essentially destroying it.

The system is currently set up to aid the obstructionists

While reading the book, I couldn’t help but being angry at how Republicans cared about nothing, but how to obstruct the President in doing his job. Not that they had better ideas or contributed to the issues at hand. They just obstructed because they could and wanted to. Mitch McConnell infamously said that his number one goal was to make Barack Obama a one-term president. His brazen obstructionist attitude was on display in this incident:

“As far as anyone could tell, he had no close friends even in his own caucus; nor did he appear to have any strong convictions beyond an almost religious opposition to any version of campaign finance reform. Joe told me of one run-in he’d had on the Senate floor after the Republican leader blocked a bill Joe was sponsoring; when Joe tried to explain the bill’s merits, McConnell raised his hand like a traffic cop and said, “You must be under the mistaken impression that I care.” But what McConnell lacked in charisma or interest in policy he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness, and shamelessness—all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power.”

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

President Obama inherited the 2008 economic downturn right after he took office. He tried to work with Republicans for the Recovery Act to save the country, the economy and the citizens. Yet, he ran into a resilient lack of cooperation from the other side of the aisle. There wasn’t any debate to make the proposal better. Just flat out obstruction.

“GOP members of the House Appropriations Committee boycotted hearings on the Recovery Act, claiming that they weren’t being seriously consulted. Republican attacks on the bill in the press became less restrained. Joe reported that Mitch McConnell had been cracking the whip, preventing members of his caucus from even talking to the White House about the stimulus package, and Democratic House members said they’d heard the same thing from their GOP counterparts.”

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

When the President was trying to get his landmark healthcare bill to pass Congress, here was how GOP tried to sabotage his effort

“McConnell and Boehner had already announced their vigorous opposition to our legislative efforts, arguing that it represented an attempted “government takeover” of the healthcare system. Frank Luntz, a well-known Republican strategist, had circulated a memo stating that after market-testing no fewer than forty anti-reform messages, he’d concluded that invoking a “government takeover” was the best way to discredit the healthcare legislation. From that point on, conservatives followed the script, repeating the phrase like an incantation. Senator Jim DeMint, the conservative firebrand from South Carolina, was more transparent about his party’s intentions. “If we’re able to stop Obama on this,” he announced on a nationwide conference call with conservative activists, “it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

“Unsurprisingly, given the atmosphere, the group of three GOP senators who’d been invited to participate in bipartisan talks with Baucus was now down to two: Chuck Grassley and Olympia Snowe, the moderate from Maine. My team and I did everything we could to help Baucus win their support. I had Grassley and Snowe over to the White House repeatedly and called them every few weeks to take their temperature”…

“The only upside to all this was that it helped me cure Max Baucus of his obsession with trying to placate Chuck Grassley. In a last-stab Oval Office meeting with the two of them in early September, I listened patiently as Grassley ticked off five new reasons why he still had problems with the latest version of the bill.

“Let me ask you a question, Chuck,” I said finally. “If Max took every one of your latest suggestions, could you support the bill?”

“Well…”

“Are there any changes—any at all—that would get us your vote?”

There was an awkward silence before Grassley looked up and met my gaze.

“I guess not, Mr. President.”

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

This is how Congress actually works, it seems. To be clear, Democrats aren’t innocent angels either. I am sure they did their fair share of obstruction when a Republican President was in charge. But this is the kind of challenges that hold America back. The way Congress is set up, I believe, to foster collaboration and avoid an authoritarian party with all the power. Yet, over the years, it has grown into a mechanism perfectly set up to aid those who want to exploit it for political and personal gain. The filibuster which requires 60 votes in the Senate to advance a bill gives a minority of Senators enhanced power in negotiations. If those Senators acted out of compassion and real care about the fate of the country and all Americans, there wouldn’t be any issues. Unfortunately, some Senators just vote for special interests that keep them in power. How could someone like Mitch McConnell be voted in office for the 7th term? After all those years when he was in office, Kentucky is still the worst state in the country in so many areas and the country, like it or not, is in the worse shape now than it was in the past. How could one man hold up the progress of the entire country and do damages that would take years and years to fix, if possible?

I have been following the American politics for a while and here is how I have seen it work. Some lawmakers do everything possible to appeal to special interests whose money allows them to campaign regardless of facts. Because there is so much noise on the media on a daily basis, voters can’t keep up. They cannot tell what is real and what is not. I can’t blame them. But exploitative lawmakers rely on the deluge of information (and misinformation) and money from donors to bend the truth in their favor and scare voters from voting in voters’ interest. Because of how the Senate is set up, voters from a less populated state like Idaho or Kentucky can vote in a Senator with enormous power, power that is often used to protect donors’ interests, not those of Americans overall. As long as rich and powerful donors are pleased, country be damned, democracy be damned. We have seen it over the years.

From a policy perspective, we were pleased with the outcome. While it was painful to keep the tax cuts for the wealthy in place for another two years, we’d managed to extend tax relief for middle-class families while leveraging an additional $212 billion worth of economic stimulus specifically targeted at those Americans most in need—the kind of package we’d have no chance of passing through a Republican-controlled House as a stand-alone bill.

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

The system really needs overhauling. But what happened to Obama is happening now. The Republican-controlled Senate already signaled that they would not let Joe Biden appoint his staff, unless they are conservative enough. What Obama should have done is, and he actually admitted in his book, to eliminate the filibuster and change the Senate rules. But that’s a stopgap measure for a problem that runs deeper than that.

The flip side of a diverse population

America often boasts about the diversity in this country, the source of creativity and ideas that propel this country into another level, compared to many nations on Earth. Yet, nothing is perfect and even diversity has its downside. Different backgrounds and upbringings shape different points of view. Such a difference leads to the lack of homogeneity. A lot of people resist changes in this country simply because: why do I have to make sacrifices for strangers? Think about all the issues in this country, from taxes, health care, immigration, etc…and you can see it mostly boils down to people not feeling the need to look out for one another, even though they are all Americans. White voters, Asian Americans (Indian Americans are very different from Vietnamese Americans), Latino Americans, European Americans and African Americans have different priorities and when it comes to changes, many of them resist because of the question: why should I have to go and sacrifice first, and not others?

Exploitative lawmakers don’t try to fix this issue. They take advantage of it, appeal to a portion of voters and rely on the flawed system we have here for their own interests. Those lawmakers, in many cases, contribute to the divisiveness that is plaguing this country. Were voters more united and were the system designed to encourage inclusion, not the winner-takes-all mentality, the country wouldn’t be in the shape that it is now.

Reading this book, I was a bit emotional. I love this country and am grateful for what it has given me. President Obama talked about how lucky he always feels when he became the President with Hussein as his middle name. He talked about the endless possibilities that America offers. Those are what brought me here. I also appreciate his book, because his stories are proof that it matters to do the right things and to be a good person. I am sure he has flaws and his presidency wasn’t all perfect. Nonetheless, given what he stood for and what Trump stood for, I don’t think there is any question which model children should follow. Also, President Obama singled out some Democrats and Republicans who did the right thing and voted the tough votes, even though it meant the end of their political careers. The last lawmaker I saw from this breed is Doug Jones. He voted to impeach Trump even though it meant the final nail in his political coffin. He lost the Senate seat in Alabama. But that’s the kind of courage we need. Sadly, it becomes rare in the government.

Having lived in the US since 2016, I felt sad by the fact that we moved from having a President like Barack Obama to Trump. Sad by the fact that the country now is more polarized and divided than when I came over and it was already worse when I followed the 2012 Election Night, 8 years ago. As I think about my future in the US, I ponder whether I should stay here for the long term given all the things I have read and come to know. Even if I become an American, would it matter? Would the things I have seen be fixed fast enough for me to live in a society true to the values I endorse? I don’t and shouldn’t need this book to have all these thoughts, but they just came to me through out my reading and when I finished the last page. Good books do that and this is one of them.

“Each person held aloft a single lit candle—the city’s traditional way to express its appreciation for that year’s peace prize winner. It was a magical sight, as if a pool of stars had descended from the sky; and as Michelle and I leaned out to wave, the night air brisk on our cheeks, the crowd cheering wildly, I couldn’t help but think about the daily fighting that continued to consume Iraq and Afghanistan and all the cruelty and suffering and injustice that my administration had barely even begun to deal with. The idea that I, or any one person, could bring order to such chaos seemed laughable; on some level, the crowds below were cheering an illusion. And yet, in the flickering of those candles, I saw something else. I saw an expression of the spirit of millions of people around the world: the U.S. soldier manning a post in Kandahar, the mother in Iran teaching her daughter to read, the Russian pro-democracy activist mustering his courage for an upcoming demonstration—all those who refused to give up on the idea that life could be better, and that whatever the risks and hardships, they had a role to play.

Whatever you do won’t be enough, I heard their voices say.

Try anyway.

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

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