Barack Obama’s presidential legacy is a complicated issue for the current Democratic Party, alongside all those who consider themselves liberal or left-wing. He is personally beloved, admired and respected throughout the world for his professionalism, grace and wisdom with which he carried out his presidency. People long to return to the stability of the Obama Administration, the security which came with knowing that the President of the United States knew what he was doing (or at least appeared to); that progressive politics had a home inside the White House. That we were alive to see America, a country founded by slavery and which continues to operate within its structural and cultural framework of white supremacy, twice elect an African-American, remains a source of great pride for many (black as well as white).
But such affection grows fraught when considering the reality of his administration and the legacy left behind. Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, has been rolled back by Donald Trump and the Republicans; his efforts to get gun control failed, as did those to nominate a liberal judge to the Supreme Court; eight years on from “yes we can,” a hopeless and angry minority of voters – many of whom voted for Obama – succeeded against incredibly unlikely odds in electing a white supremacist in a direct rebuke to the apparently beloved president. All of this is the fault of the Republican Party, admittedly, but the lack of other substantive reforms and the increase in international drone strikes and migrant deportations sit uncomfortably with current progressive thinking.
In an attempt to wrestle with my own thoughts on Obama and his presidency, of course I had to go and read his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father.
The book is a time capsule: it’s an image of Barack Obama before he was anywhere near national politics, (it was published as he began his campaign for the Illinois Senate) before he had to undertake meticulous image control and before he had to worry about communicating to 329 million people, and billions beyond. As such, it’s hard not to review Dreams in this context: of an Obama grappling deeply with personal and racial identity, interweaving mixed heritages with anecdotes across hundreds of pages. The level of detail is sometimes painstaking, with entire conversations from years prior reproduced; indeed, it’s a level of detail one suspects Obama may be uncomfortable with venturing to were it written today (which extends to the book’s content, like the mentions of smoking marijuana and getting into fights with other kids at school).
The dialogue is fascinating because it demands some explanation. Obama either has a really good memory (he does break cover and references his memory throughout the book, admittedly), or he kept copious diaries throughout his youth (possible), or much of the dialogue is recreated and fictionalised, an approach which can also apply to the descriptive prose. More often than not I felt I was reading fiction, so clear was the thematic journey which Obama undergoes, and so prevalent do all the events seem in aiding this journey. The act of narrativising our lives is hardly uncommon, and Obama no doubt cut numerous periods and interactions which distracted from the central story of understanding his racial heritage and who his father was as any literary editor would instruct him to do. Many of the characters are composites, too.
Though it can sometimes prove distracting when the flow of storytelling is broken by remembering this was all real life, it’s ultimately an asset and broadens the book’s appeal (context is important, again, for who’s gonna read the memoirs of a young, unknown politician?). For all of that, it is fundamentally, bruisingly honest and erudite. Obama checks himself, again and again, drawing in knowledge from all manner of unconventional sources, willing to consider political positions, such as the matter of black nationalism and the causes of poverty, at a time when he had the luxury of doing so.
Places and people are vividly described and characterised to the full: the calm serene of Hawaii, the bustling lyricism of Chicago and their ultimate combination in Kenya, the most sharply illustrated location of them all. At 442 pages, it’s a breezy and insightful read with long, sprawling segments of rhetoric and wondering aloud about his fate and those who have come before him. It’s profoundly melancholic (Nicholas Britell’s Moonlight soundtrack, with its scratching of strings, echoed in my ears throughout reading) and often deeply sad, with many of those whom Obama recounts similarly haunted by questions of their own desires and destinies. Nobody has any answers, save for the authority figures, and even they are always shown to be making it up as they go along, troubled with their own questions. It’s dream-like. How fitting.
So, how did it make me feel about Obama the politician? I was asking the wrong question. This is a deeper insight into Barack Obama the man, and Dreams from My Father serves to reaffirm my existing view that Obama is an interesting man with a profoundly interesting story to tell. I eagerly anticipate the sequel.
A side note: the cast of characters is so vast that names often blur into one and it can grow a little confusing, particularly in relation to Obama’s family, but several key people do make their marks such as his half-brother, Roy, who is written about with considerable thought and affection. To my shock and surprise, Roy is Malik Obama, the more-than-slightly-crazy Trump supporter. I wonder if he’ll make it into that sequel.