A Promised Land

Here are some interesting things from A Promised Land, President Obama’s biography:

  • It was fairly interesting to see how a decent number of leaders that Obama mentions (including himself) got their start in things like working on campaigns or volunteering for causes and candidates they believed in. This might partially be Obama’s bias since he grew up in that environment, but it’s a change from other careers (like law, tech, medicine) where you major in something and know you’ll go into a particular job field after.
  • Obama rise to stardom was fairly lucky, though he seems to not touch too much on that in the book. He ran essentially unopposed for senator of Illinois in 2004 (in the state election, not the primary). His only political experience in the primary for that election was working on the state congress of Illinois. Him giving the speech at the 2004 DNC that was positively received could also somewhat be a stroke of luck. I bring this up because sometimes it does seem like there’s a right time and place for a candidate, and Obama running in the 2008 presidential election certainly seems so. This is especially crazy because his campaign starting in 2007 meant that he had only 3 years total of being a US senator under his belt before being elected as President.
  • His pre-presidential period was certainly a grind. At one point, Obama was working at a law firm, teaching as an assistant professor, and was a member of the Illinois state congress, all while being married with kids. That’s pretty crazy. It’s also interesting to hear him talk about his financial stresses during that period, since now he’s now worth mid-8 digits.
  • I didn’t know Obama had a very strong smoking habit (that he quit the day the ACA was passed, apparently).
  • Campaigning is hard, and is very much a data-science game where you need to figure out the right states to win to add up to the magic number of having enough electoral votes. It’s surprising how visiting like 50 different towns in a state can boost a candidate’s polling numbers there. It feels like in-person visits shouldn’t really matter since it can only touch a small number of the people actually living there, but maybe word-of-mouth spreads it far.
  • Excessive partisanship is a problem not just in 2020, but has been before as well. I’m not sure if this is Obama trying to tie in the themes of today into the past, but I have heard that making your political opponents seem bad has been gaining in popularity since the Gingrich Senate. He definitely talks about this throughout the book, with respect to how the Republican party had strong moments of hypocrisy and and situations where the put party over a commitment to the people. It seems accurate the way he tells the story — after all, it’s in the incentive of the minority party to make the majority party look bad — but I wonder how strong that incentive has changed over time. He also mentions how those of opposing parties that had called for him to do “X” sometimes called for him to no longer do “X” once he did it. However, Obama does point out that the minority party cooperating with the majority party often hurts electability.
  • A lot of being a president is like being a mid-level manager at a company. Obama mentions at a point where he stopped sweating the details since he knew he was surrounded by competent people that did the stuff that was required to fix that. That’s a really interesting mindset shift from doing everything you need yourself (i.e. being a young adult) whether that’s in work or school. He also mentions how if a problem arrived at his desk, there was lots of ambiguity to it, since otherwise someone below him would have solved the issue instead.
  • It’s interesting how decisions that members of Congress make actually affects their electability. Personally, it seems like there haven’t been a lot of congressional decisions that have meaningfully affected my work or life. Congresspeople adding in pork to bills to help out their community was surprising to me because it seems like it really does positively impact their re-electability.
  • There were two major pieces of legislation passed in the wake of the 2007-08 financial crisis. The first was TARP, passed by the Bush administration, which attempted to insure toxic assets that the banks held that were mispriced when originally bought. It turns out that a lot of the economic sector working is trust that it will continue to work. With large number of defaulting mortgages, the issue wasn’t really loss of money but loss of continued investment into the economy, getting the cogs to continue turning. TARP partially helped fix that issue by providing the US government as a stand-in for some of the large losses that these companies might have held.
    • The next was the Recovery Act (ARRA), which was passed by the Obama administration. A large part of this was based on Keynesian economics, which posits that a government spending money on anything is what’s necessary to kickstart the economy. He mentions that the New Deal (passed by FDR) which used a similar premise failed because it didn’t spend enough. That’s somewhat crazy to think, and I don’t know what the truth of that is. He also mentions how the idea of creating jobs that are sustainable and useful to the future instead of blantant spending like paying people to dig up holes, which I thought was a pretty good guiding principle to Recovery Act spending.
    • One anecdote that caught my eye was big bonuses that were paid to Wall Street employees at the start of the recession after their banks had failed (on the order of $100-200MM for all of AIG). Obama remarks how it could be difficult for “a banker making $60MM a year reducing his salary to $4MM a year in the wake of the crisis” to understand how the common person wouldn’t really empathize with that struggle or change.
    • It turns out the unemployment is a “lagging indicator” that’s offset to the economy — it falls only after the real issues have happened, and comes back up slowly as companies hire more. Some of the relevant points I saw mention Republicans talking about how the Recovery Act didn’t change unemployment, with Democrats pointing to the lagging indicator note. Like that “New Deal didn’t spend enough” point, it’s really hard to figure out what’s truth and what’s not when the premises seem pliable enough to get shaped into whatever each party wants.
  • There was quite a bit in the book that talked about the Middle East conflict, but it’s not something that I really understood very well. It seems like though Obama ran on the platform of wanting to pull troops out of Iraq, he needed to keep them there in order to leave the country without proper infrastructure, which would make it easier to overtake and impose a regime for those they’re fighting. Looking through the Wikipedia article for the wars that the US is involved in right now, there’s like 10 different wars in the Middle East that America is involved in in some capacity. The book certainly didn’t shed light on why this was so.
  • It was interesting to hear Obama’s viewpoints on different world leaders in his first term. He talks about how Medvedev was just “keeping the seat warm” for Putin, who had run into a two-term presidential limit. He talked about how Angela Merkel being pretty calm and Hu Jintao being very prepared and kinda shady.
  • Arab Spring was a series of protests in MENA starting in late 2010. The event was precipitated when fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire (!) in response to the unfair way that government officials in Tunisia had been treating him for years. Eventually, these protests spread to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and a few other countries in MENA. Especially in wake of the George Floyd protests this summer, it really does seem like the thing that triggers a revolution after a period of unrest is really just a single event that gears people into action. It’s also interesting that these protests spread from country to nearby country, protesting the corruption in their respective governments. Obama mentions how many of the world leaders rationalized the protests by saying how they were led by terrorists or a minority party that wanted them out instead of bending to the will of the people.


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