In ‘A Promised Land,’ Barack Obama Thinks — and Thinks Some More — Over His First Term
The most audacious thing about Barack Obama’s new memoir, “A Promised Land,” is the beaming portrait on its cover: There he is, the 44th president, looking so serenely confident that it’s as if the book weren’t arriving on the heels of a bitter election, amid a cratering economy and a raging pandemic.
贝拉克·奥巴马(Barack Obama)的新回忆录《应许之地》(A Promised Land)的最大胆之处，就是封面上他那容光焕发的肖像：这位第44任总统看上去是如此平静自信，仿佛这本书并非是在一场痛苦的选举之后，在经济萧条和疫情肆虐的情况下出版的。
The ebullient image also stands at odds with the narrative inside — 700 pages that are as deliberative, measured and methodical as the author himself. Obama says that he initially planned to write a 500-page memoir and be done in a year; what he ended up with instead is a hefty volume (now the first of an anticipated two) that stops in May 2011, shortly after his roasting of Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 30 and the killing of Osama bin Laden the day after.
他兴高采烈的样子也与书中的叙述格格不入——这700页的作品与作者本人一样审慎、有分寸、有条不紊。奥巴马说他最初计划写一本500页的回忆录，并在一年内完成；但他最终完成的是一本长篇巨制（现在上市的是预计的两卷本的上卷），时间线停止在2011年5月，即他在4月30日的白宫记者晚宴上嘲讽唐纳德·特朗普(Donald Trump)以及次日奥萨马·本·拉登(Osama bin Laden)被击毙后不久。
Obama’s extraordinary first book, “Dreams From My Father,” was published in 1995, a year before he was elected to the Illinois senate, and traced his family history alongside his own coming-of-age. “A Promised Land” is necessarily less intimate and more political, offering close-up views of the major issues that Obama faced during his first term, including the economic stimulus, health care, immigration, the environment and the forever war in Afghanistan.
奥巴马的杰出处女作《我父亲的梦想》(Dreams From My Father)出版于1995年，那是他当选伊利诺伊州参议员的前一年，他在追溯自己成长历程的同时，也追溯了他的家族史。《应许之地》必然没有那种亲密，而更具政治色彩，对奥巴马在首个任期内面临的主要问题提供了近距离描写，包括经济刺激、医保、移民、环境和永无止境的阿富汗战争。
Presumably left for the future volume are, among other fraught subjects: the 2016 election, his abdication of his own “red line” in Syria, the entrenchment of the surveillance state and a discussion of drone strikes. This isn’t to say that “A Promised Land” reads like a dodge; if anything, its length testifies to what seems to be a consistently held faith on the part of the former president — that if he just describes his thinking in sufficient detail, and clearly lays out the constellation of obstacles and constraints he faced, any reasonable American would have to understand why he governed as he did.
Nearly every president since Theodore Roosevelt has written a memoir that covers his years in office; this one contains some inevitable moments of reputation-burnishing and legacy-shaping, though the narrative hews so closely to Obama’s own discursive habits of thought that any victories he depicts feel both hard-won and tenuous. An adverb he likes to use is “still” — placed at the beginning of a sentence, to qualify and counter whatever he said just before. Another favorite is “maybe,” as he reflects on alternatives to what happened, offering frank confessions of his own uncertainties and doubts. At a time of grandiose mythologizing, he marshals his considerable storytelling skills to demythologize himself. He addresses the book to the “next generation,” to young people who seek to “remake the world,” but the story he tells is less about unbridled possibility and more about the forces that inhibit it.
He periodically reminds us how he inherited a state of emergency. As one of his friends said after Obama’s historic win in 2008, when the economy was getting devoured by the Great Recession: “Two hundred and thirty-two years and they wait until the country’s falling apart before they turn it over to the brother!”
Once in office, Obama sought the help of experienced insiders instead of “fresh talent,” deciding that the dire circumstances “demanded it.” Obama says he had ambitious ideas for structural change, but that his team insisted that any attempts to mete out some “Old Testament justice” to the banks whose avarice and recklessness had pushed the financial system to the brink would send skittish markets into a full-blown panic.
But quelling markets did little to quell anger and fear — something that conservatives, Obama noticed, were quick to seize on and use to their advantage, while the president deemed it perilous to tap into such incendiary emotions. (This seemed to be an ingrained sensibility: David Maraniss’s 2012 biography of Obama has one of his mentors recalling with a touch of exasperation how even when they were doing community organizing in Chicago, Obama was “reluctant to do confrontation, to push the other side because it might blow up.”) What could have been politically beneficial to him, Obama takes pains to spell out, would have risked degrading the institutions that needed to be repaired, not demolished.
There’s a dynamic that Obama describes again and again in “A Promised Land”: establishment Republicans shrewdly finding ways to appropriate and exploit the feelings of helplessness and resentment that their own deregulatory policies had helped to bring about in the first place. “If all this seems obvious to me now, it wasn’t at the time,” Obama writes. “My team and I were too busy.” He recalls a Republican senator telling him, “I hate to say it, but the worse people feel right now, the better it is for us.” (This senator may have hated to say it, but he loved to see it.) The result was a drubbing in the 2010 midterms, when Democrats lost an astounding 63 seats in the House.
About the substance of those first two years in office, Obama expresses few regrets. “We had saved the economy,” he writes. “We had stabilized the global financial system and yanked the U.S. auto industry from the brink of collapse.” The Affordable Care Act made health care available to another 20 million Americans. The midterms “didn’t prove that our agenda had been wrong. It just proved that — whether for lack of talent, cunning, charm or good fortune — I’d failed to rally the nation, as F.D.R. had once done, behind what I knew to be right.”
The tone that Obama strikes in lines like these is almost mournful. He shows how a certain kind of blunt candor seemed all but unavailable to him as the first Black president. After he offered the mildest rebuke of the police officer who arrested the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his own front porch, saying that the officer acted “stupidly,” his support among white voters plunged. In public, Obama was unfailingly conciliatory, telling reporters he “could have calibrated my original comments more carefully,” even as he began to realize that the issue of Black people and the police was a reminder “that the basis of our nation’s social order had never been simply about consent; that it was also about centuries of state-sponsored violence by whites against Black and brown people.”
在这样的段落里，奥巴马字里行间的语气几乎是悲哀的。他展现出身为第一位黑人总统期间几乎用不上的那种直率坦诚。那一次，他对那名在小亨利·路易斯·盖茨(Henry Louis Gates Jr.)自家门廊逮捕这位学者的警察做了最温和的斥责，说他表现得很“愚蠢”，随后他在白人选民中的支持率大幅下降。在公开场合，奥巴马总是表现出和解的态度，他告诉记者，他“本可以更谨慎地调整我最初的言论”，尽管他开始意识到，黑人和警察的问题是在提醒人们，“我们国家社会秩序的基础从来都不是简单的知情同意；它还涉及到几个世纪以来白人对黑人和棕色人种的国家支持的暴力。”
As much as he knew this, he couldn’t say it. His almost zealous commitment to moderation rankled some progressives, who had assumed that his soaring campaign rhetoric meant he was a visionary bent on overturning the status quo. Whenever he felt stuck, he fell back on empathy and “process.” They sound like incommensurate traits — one is inventive and literary, the other is bland and technocratic. But for Obama — who in this book demonstrates an almost compulsive tendency to imagine himself into the lives of others (whether it’s Hillary Clinton, John McCain, or, in one passage, a Somali pirate) — a sound process “was born of necessity.” Decisions that were made after taking into account a variety of perspectives reassured him that he wasn’t blinkered by his own.
虽然他知道这一点，但他不能说出来。他对缓和态度的承诺近乎狂热，这激怒了一些进步人士，他们曾经以为他高调的竞选言辞意味着他深具远见，一心想要改变现状。每当他觉得陷入困境时，他就会求助于同理心和“程序”。二者看上去是两种完全不相称的特质——“同理心”是创造性的、文学性的，“程序”则是乏味的、技术性的。但对奥巴马来说——他在这本书中表现出一种近乎强迫性的倾向，去想象自己过着他人的生活，无论是希拉里·克林顿(Hillary Clinton)、约翰·麦凯恩(John McCain)，还是其中一段中提到的索马里海盗——一个健全的程序“源于必要性”。考虑到各种观点后做出的决定让他确信，他没有被自己的观点所蒙蔽。
“A Promised Land” isn’t entirely about the presidency. The first 200 pages move (comparatively) briskly through Obama’s early years to his life in Chicago, when his burgeoning political career put a strain on his marriage to Michelle, who had curtailed some of her own ambitions so that one of them would be present for the couple’s daughters. Of course, becoming president didn’t yield anything that resembled a work-life balance, though it did mean that rather than commute between Chicago and Springfield, Ill., or between Chicago and Washington, he could usually be home for dinner by 6:30 before returning to the Oval Office. He would receive his President’s Daily Brief (or as Michelle called it, “The Death, Destruction and Horrible Things Book”) at the breakfast table.
《应许之地》并不完全是关于他的总统任期。全书（相对）轻快的前200页，从奥巴马的早年生活谈到他在芝加哥的日子，当时他的政治生涯正在起步，给他和米歇尔的婚姻带来了压力，米歇尔抑制了自己的一些抱负，以便夫妻中能有一人可以陪伴女儿。当然，成为总统根本不能让工作与生活更加平衡，尽管这确实意味着他可以不用往返于芝加哥和伊利诺伊州斯普林菲尔德之间，或是芝加哥和华盛顿之间。他通常可以在6:30之前回家吃晚饭，然后返回椭圆形办公室。他会在早餐桌上收到总统的《每日简报》（President’s Daily Brief，或者用米歇尔的话说，是一份《死亡、毁灭与恐怖之书》[The Death, Destruction and Horrible Things Book]）。
He happened to be at home in April 2010 when he first got word that an explosion had torn through the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig off the Louisiana coast, belching fire and smoke and gushing oil — the worst oil spill in the country’s history. An underwater video feed showed “the oil pulsing in thick columns from the surrounding wreckage,” Obama writes, “like emanations from hell.”
The novelty and enormity of the disaster shook him. (The technology for ultradeep underwater drilling made the Exxon Valdez look like a Tinkertoy by comparison.) Until then, Obama had maintained a “fundamental confidence” that he “could always come up with a solution through sound process and smart choices.” But those “plumes of oil rushing out of a cracked earth and into the sea’s ghostly depths” seemed of another order, unassimilable to his generally imperturbable worldview. Even after the hole was plugged and the cleanup was proceeding apace, something awful had been unleashed, with the true extent of the poisoning not yet known.
A hundred pages later, Obama remembers how Republicans seemed to get increasingly petulant at the prospect of working with his administration. “It was as if my very presence in the White House had triggered a deep-seated panic,” he writes, “a sense that the natural order had been disrupted.” Trump had been peddling a birtherist conspiracy theory that some conservatives seemed eager to accept.
Obama doesn’t force the metaphor, but the events described in “A Promised Land” suggest that something very old and toxic in American politics had been unleashed too. It was as if the Republican Party, having sidled up to the jagged shores of white grievance, was starting to founder on them. As he writes of the Deepwater disaster: “Where the rest of the oil ended up, what gruesome toll it took on wildlife, how much oil would eventually settle back onto the ocean floor, and what long-term effect that might have on the entire Gulf ecosystem — it would be years before we’d have the full picture.”