Tuesday, November 24

When I met Obama, he expressed his belief in the “possibility of America.” But the reality is harrowing | Barack Obama


The streets of downtown Washington DC are lined with plywood. Stores, restaurants, banks, spas and gyms have boarded up their windows. The capital looks like a city reeling from an economic calamity or preparing for a natural disaster. But behind the wooden partitions, Washington’s high-end stores and expensive restaurants are still open. Small signs on the plywood tables direct customers to the plywood doors and at the tables outside the restaurants with tables, diners place their orders and drink their coffee. Despite outward appearances, everything is still as usual in DC, or at least as usual in 2020.

Most of the plywood boards were lifted towards the end of October, not in the wake of an economic crisis, but out of fear of an impending political crisis. Business owners in Washington, like those in other cities in the United States, came to the reasonable conclusion that violence and civil unrest could erupt in the wake of bitterly divisive elections this month. The unspoken assumption that elections will be held peacefully in the United States, the world’s oldest democracy, has manifestly evaporated.

The fact that even two weeks after that vote, and despite calls from city leaders and offers of free removal of the tons of lumber, Washington’s plywood walls largely remain in place is a testament to the fact that the transition of power, like the election, is proving uncertain and destabilizing. I have been to many developing nations where the rich and the connected close the blinds and leave the cities during election time. I never imagined that something similar would happen in the United States.

Along with images of bodies laden in makeshift Covid morgues, children crying in cages, and white supremacist torchlight demonstrations, the bricked-up businesses of Washington DC in the fall of 2020 is a sight that would have seemed unimaginable four years ago. years, absolutely inconceivable. a decade ago.

In the United States, elections are supposed to be peaceful and defeated presidents must yield. And the convention requires former presidents to spend an indeterminate number of years in the political shadows, leaving the successive administration to rule free of any presidential backseat driving or intimidation from the gangs. It is widely presumed that when Donald Trump is finally honored in the Oval Office, he will ignore that convention of US presidential policy, just as he has neglected most of the others. On the contrary, adherence to the convention is the reason why Barack Obama has remained largely, though not entirely, silent for the past four years.

In the same week that city leaders tried to cajole reluctant businessmen into tearing down their fortifications, the former president returned and appeared on screens around the world to promote the publication of A promised land, the first volume of his presidential memoirs, a book that reportedly sold 890,000 copies on the day of its release.

Spanning 768 detailed and often heavily argued pages, Obama’s presidential memoirs do what those books are supposed to do: reveal the thinking and personalities behind the big decisions. But A promised land it is also a meditation on Obama’s faith in what he calls “America’s possibility.”

His long absence and the timing of his return, at the end of Trump’s presidency, make it impossible to avoid comparing Obama to his successor. Never has the gulf between the 44th and 45th presidents of the United States been more marked and manifest. In A promised land, Obama describes President Trump as “someone diametrically opposed to everything we stand for,” but Obama’s return to the television studios draws attention to the differences between character of the two men as well as the political gulf between them.

For many, the renewed exposure to the former president has the feel of a “return to normalcy,” a nostalgic glimpse at what US presidents and US politics were like. After four years of presidential tweets and capital letters, Obama’s long, determined sentences and literary references are something Americans have not gotten used to. At interview I conducted with the former president of the BBC, referred to or paraphrased Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and F Scott Fitzgerald; the last reference went over my head and was only later brought to my attention by humanities and arts scholar Sarah Churchwell.

After a presidency like no other, after a corrosively sour election, and in the midst of a transition that is still being obstructed by the incumbent, Obama seems almost like a time-traveling visitor from an earlier era, a man whose old-fashioned ways and old-fashioned sense. of decorum they remind us of how things were once done and how far we have wandered. The Obama of 2020 speaks, at times, with a slight tone of controlled exasperation. He has the air of a disappointed father as he examines the damage caused by a raucous teenage party that took place while he was out of town.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that a man famous for his public speaking can display words as effectively on the page as on the podium. What is unexpected in A promised land It is not his literary elegance but the frankness of the former president. It is Obama himself who defends his own faith in America and his faith in progress.

He writes about how the sight of a black man in the Oval Office inspired an “almost visceral reaction,” a fanatical opposition to his presidency and to himself. It acknowledges that the presence of a first African-American family in the White House unleashed a storm of hatred, much of it directed at Michelle Obama, revealing the true fiery intensity of American racism. In interviews since the book’s publication, he has acknowledged the crisis facing American democracy, dangerously undermined by the ongoing struggle “to distinguish what is true from what is false.”

Yet the “possibility of America,” Obama’s conviction that America is a nation capable of doing what he believes “no other nation has ever done” and finding a way to “really live up to it. meaning of our creed, “remains intact. . The question in 2020 is whether that faith is justified or dangerously misplaced.

* David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster. His latest book is Blacks and Brits: A Short and Essential History

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