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Politics & Policy

A (Relatively) Fair Review of Obama’s New Memoir

Earlier this week, former president Barack Obama began to make the rounds to promote A Promised Land, his new book, a third (!) memoir. (It is the first of two promised volumes.) I have not read it, so I will withhold firm judgments on its quality. But the return of Obama to the public eye has served as a useful reminder of some of the reasons why his presidency aggravated conservatives so much.

Two of these reasons have been most evident this week: the complete willingness of media outlets to roll over on his behalf; and his seeming inability to understand that people who disagree with him might have reasons for doing so that aren’t rooted in grievance, prejudice, or some other explained-away force. Obama was not a Marxist, but the idea that one’s ideological opponents can only have such material reasons for disagreeing bears some whiff of the Marxist notion of false consciousness. (It is a notion that has pervaded sufficiently beyond its Marxist origins that some conservatives can be guilty of as well.)

At any rate, John Harris, the founding editor of Politico, deserves credit for writing just about one of the most fair and honest reviews of the book that I have seen beyond the Right. It still appears to take the former president’s side, but primarily turns on the question of whether Obama was the “great” president he wanted to be or merely a “good” president. Harris seems to be of the latter view. And in one particularly perceptive passage, he identifies a character trait of Obama that helps to explain why:

Obama as a writer makes clear: He spends a lot of time in his own head, and Obama as politician and president did the same. He plainly believes if he can adequately explain himself—how smart he is, how conscientiously he agonized over questions, and with such keen perceptiveness about differing points of view—this will cause people to look sympathetically at the decisions he did make.

It worked on me.

Along similar lines, Harris notes that many of Obama’s attempts at self-criticism come up short:

Sometimes his self-criticism about being too cerebral or detail-oriented in speeches or debates comes off sounding a bit superior, like those people who, when asked to describe weakness, say they care too much or are too impatient with colleagues whose standards are not as high.

Harris also claims that Obama “almost always demonstrates that he understands the perspective even of those who criticize him,” which seems far less obvious to me than to Harris (to say the least), so this review is not a complete dissent from the familiar resurgence of Obama friendliness in the media. But it is still a more bracing appraisal of Obama’s book and his legacy than one might have expected.

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