He’s back with a vengeance. After four years lying low as Donald Trump occupied the White House, Barack Obama is suddenly everywhere again —on TV, on radio, online and in bookshops.
The 44th US president’s memoir, A Promised Land, published in November, sold nearly 890,000 copies in its first 24 hours, and is likely to become the bestselling presidential memoir in modern American history. It topped his wife Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, which sold 725,000 copies on day one.
As he promotes the 768-page tome, Obama is being asked what influence he and his allies may wield when his former deputy, Joe Biden, assumes the presidency this month. It is a double-edged sword. Biden knows that he will always be able to call on his old boss for advice – but he has big shoes to fill and could suffer by comparison.
At fifty-nine, Obama is still in his political prime. He writes in the book that, in the month after he and Michelle Obama left the White House, they “slept late, ate leisurely dinners, went for long walks, swam in the ocean, took stock, replenished our friendship, rediscovered our love, and planned for a less eventful but hopefully no less satisfying second act”.
That second act will include another volume of memoirs and a $500 million presidential centre in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago. Obama demonstrated a model of it to the 60 Minutes programme on the CBS network, explaining that it will include a mock-up of the Oval Office as well as Michelle Obama’s dresses, “which will be very popular no doubt,” he said.
But the former commander-in-chief’s run of interviews — including a piercing diagnosis of how division and disinformation threaten democracy— has also reminded supporters of his rare political gifts and raised the tantalizing prospect of a return to the arena .
In an interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Obama said: “Biden doesn’t need my advice, and I will help him in any ways that I can. Now, I’m not planning to suddenly work on the White House staff or something.” Asked if he would consider a cabinet position, Obama replied: “There are some things I would not be doing because Michelle would leave me. She’d be like, ‘What? You’re doing what?’”
Biden, seventy-eight, was a senator from Delaware from 1973 to 2009, then Obama’s vice-president until 2017. Obama has lavished praise on Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, as the country’s best hope of restoring stability after the turmoil of the Trump years.
But he did not always see Biden as his heir apparent. In 2015 he is said to have anointed Hillary Clinton and discouraged Biden from entering the race. When Biden did run in 2020 —his third attempt —Obama was reportedly sceptical again and did not endorse him until he was the presumptive nominee in mid-April.
As Biden contemplates a daunting inbox that includes the coronavirus pandemic, an economic slump and racial unrest, Obama could prove an invaluable source of advice. That would be in keeping with John F. Kennedy consulting Dwight Eisenhower during the Cuban missile crisis and a tradition of presidents —with the exception of Trump— sharing the burden with their predecessors. One potentially crucial factor in Biden’s thinking could be how Obama is perceived not by the Democratic base but the seventy-three million people who voted for Trump —a man who broke into politics by pushing the racist conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in America. The pragmatic Biden has pledged to heal the bitter schism between red and blue states.
Some commentators suggest that Obama could be a valuable bulwark for the moderate Biden as he faces pressure from his left flank on issues such as police reform and the climate crisis.
Biden spent eight years in Obama’s shadow. He is about to discover whether, even with the powers of the presidency, he can truly emerge from it. But given the multiple crises he faces from the moment he steps into the Oval Office, it could prove a nice problem to have.
By Alex Phillis
A PROMISED LAND
While, despite speculation, the former US president Barack Obama will not return to a position in the White House, he has chosen this pivotal moment to release his memoir. A Promised Land, translated into twenty-five languages, is an enlightening, entertaining and, most importantly, honest account of his years as president. As he explains in a presentation for the book, his aim was to make his experiences relatable:
Barack Obama (American accent): I want to give an honest reckoning of my time as president, the events and people that shaped those eight years and give some insight into the decision-making process that we went through. I’m also hoping that it gives people some idea of what it’s like to be President of the United States and some of the highs and lows that are involved in that. I’d like to give people a sense of what Michelle and I as a family went through. Maybe most of all I want to give young people some inspiration. To remind people that our government and democracy is not something that is apart from us, but as something that belongs to us.
And, Obama says, real American values based on cooperation, opportunity and respect for human rights reflect the aspirations of people around the world.
Barack Obama: We’ve been on a trajectory of increased freedom, human rights, tolerance, and mutual understanding —but none of that’s a given. Democratisation is not a given, greater recognition of the rights of women is not a given. Rising living standards, and greater educational opportunities and reduced violence, those things aren’t a given. How we deal with globalization, technology, greater interconnectedness, and our impulse towards nationalism, tribalism, racial prejudice... it’s an on-going process and one in which each of us has a role to play.
Published in The Guardian on November 22, 2020.Reprinted with permission.