A Promised Land Highlights

by Barack Obama

Chapter 12

MORE THAN A DECADE has passed since those perilous days at the start of my presidency, and although the details are hazy for most Americans, my administration’s handling of the financial crisis still generates fierce debate. Viewed narrowly, it’s hard to argue with the results of our actions. Not only did the U.S. banking sector stabilize far sooner than any of its European counterparts; the financial system and the overall economy returned to growth faster than those of just about any other nation in history after such a significant shock. If I had predicted on the day of my swearing in that within a year the U.S. financial system would have stabilized, almost all TARP funds would be fully repaid (having actually made rather than cost taxpayers money), and the economy would have begun what would become the longest stretch of continuous growth and job creation in U.S. history, the majority of pundits and experts would have questioned my mental fitness—or assumed I was smoking something stronger than tobacco.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 5765


Chapter 13

On US Foreign Policy after WW2

AMERICA HAD HELD a dominant position on the world stage for the better part of the past seven decades. In the wake of World War II, with the rest of the world either impoverished or reduced to rubble, we had led the way in establishing an interlocking system of initiatives, treaties, and new institutions that effectively remade the international order and created a stable path forward: The Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Pacific alliances to serve as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and bind former enemies into an alignment with the West. Bretton Woods, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to regulate global finance and commerce. The United Nations and related multilateral agencies to promote the peaceful resolution of conflicts and cooperation on everything from disease eradication to protection of the oceans.
Our motivations for erecting this architecture had hardly been selfless. Beyond helping to assure our security, it pried open markets to sell our goods, kept sea-lanes available for our ships, and maintained the steady flow of oil for our factories and cars. It ensured that our banks got repaid in dollars, our multinationals’ factories weren’t seized, our tourists could cash their traveler’s checks, and our international calls would go through. At times, we bent global institutions to serve Cold War imperatives or ignored them altogether; we meddled in the affairs of other countries, sometimes with disastrous results; our actions often contradicted the ideals of democracy, self-determination, and human rights we professed to embody.

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On global events following the fall of the Soviet Union

Whatever resistance there might have been to America’s global vision seemed to collapse with the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. In the dizzying span of little more than a decade, Germany and then Europe were unified; former Eastern bloc countries rushed to join NATO and the European Union; China’s capitalism took off; numerous countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America transitioned from authoritarian rule to democracy; and apartheid in South Africa came to an end. Commentators proclaimed the ultimate triumph of liberal, pluralistic, capitalist, Western-style democracy, insisting that the remaining vestiges of tyranny, ignorance, and inefficiency would soon be swept away by the end of history, the flattening of the world. Even at the time, such exuberance was easy to mock. This much was true, though: At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the United States could legitimately claim that the international order we had forged and the principles we had promoted—a Pax Americana—had helped bring about a world in which billions of people were freer, more secure, and more prosperous than before.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 6230

On hypocritical American policy

Imagine, then, the consternation of these same countries when they learned that even as America lectured them on prudential regulations and responsible fiscal stewardship, our own high priests of finance had been asleep at the switch, tolerating asset bubbles and speculative frenzies on Wall Street that were as reckless as anything happening in Latin America or Asia. The only differences were the amounts of money involved and the potential damage done. After all, having assumed that U.S. regulators knew what they were doing, investors from Shanghai to Dubai had poured massive sums into subprime securities and other U.S. assets. Exporters as big as China and as small as Lesotho had premised their own growth on a stable and expanding U.S. economy. In other words, we had beckoned the world to follow us into a paradisiacal land of free markets, global supply chains, internet connections, easy credit, and democratic governance. And for the moment, at least, it felt to them like they might have followed us over a cliff.

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Chapter 15

On Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia had always been different. Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the nation’s first monarch and the father of King Abdullah, had begun his reign in 1932 and been deeply wedded to the teachings of the eighteenth-century cleric Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab. Abd al-Wahhab’s followers claimed to practice an uncorrupted version of Islam, viewing Shiite and Sufi Islam as heretical and observing religious tenets that were considered conservative even by the standards of traditional Arab culture: public segregation of the sexes, avoidance of contact with non-Muslims, and the rejection of secular art, music, and other pastimes that might distract from the faith. Following the post–World War I collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Abdulaziz consolidated control over rival Arab tribes and founded modern Saudi Arabia in accordance with these Wahhabist principles. His conquest of Mecca—birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and the destination for all Muslim pilgrims seeking to fulfill the Five Tenets of Islam—as well as the holy city of Medina provided him with a platform from which to exert an outsized influence over Islamic doctrine around the world.
The discovery of Saudi oil fields and the untold wealth that came from it extended that influence even further. But it also exposed the contradictions of trying to sustain such ultraconservative practices in the midst of a rapidly modernizing world. Abdulaziz needed Western technology, know-how, and distribution channels to fully exploit the kingdom’s newfound treasure and formed an alliance with the United States to obtain modern weapons and secure the Saudi oil fields against rival states. Members of the extended royal family retained Western firms to invest their vast holdings and sent their children to Cambridge and Harvard to learn modern business practices. Young princes discovered the attractions of French villas, London nightclubs, and Vegas gaming rooms.

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On his speech in 2009 Cairo speech

IN LATER YEARS, critics and even some of my supporters would have a field day contrasting the lofty, hopeful tone of the Cairo speech with the grim realities that would play out in the Middle East during my two terms in office. For some, it showed the sin of naïveté, one that undermined key U.S. allies like Mubarak and thus emboldened the forces of chaos. For others, the problem was not the vision set forth in the speech but rather what they considered my failure to deliver on that vision with effective, meaningful action. I was tempted to answer, of course—to point out that I’d be the first to say that no single speech would solve the region’s long-standing challenges; that we’d pushed hard on every initiative I mentioned that day, whether large (a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians) or small (the creation of training programs for would-be entrepreneurs); that the arguments I made in Cairo were ones I’d still make.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 6872


Chapter 16

On the Supreme Court

For the bulk of constitutional cases coming before the Court, the theory holds up pretty well. Justices have for the most part felt bound by the text of the Constitution and precedents set by earlier courts, even when doing so results in an outcome they don’t personally agree with. Throughout American history, though, the most important cases have involved deciphering the meaning of phrases like “due process,” “privileges and immunities,” “equal protection,” or “establishment of religion”—terms so vague that it’s doubtful any two Founding Fathers agreed on exactly what they meant. This ambiguity gives individual justices all kinds of room to “interpret” in ways that reflect their moral judgments, political preferences, biases, and fears. That’s why in the 1930s a mostly conservative Court could rule that FDR’s New Deal policies violated the Constitution, while forty years later a mostly liberal Court could rule that the Constitution grants Congress almost unlimited power to regulate the economy. It’s how one set of justices, in Plessy v. Ferguson, could read the Equal Protection Clause to permit “separate but equal,” and another set of justices, in Brown v. Board of Education, could rely on the exact same language to unanimously arrive at the opposite conclusion.
It turned out that Supreme Court justices made law all the time.
Over the years, the press and the public started paying more attention to Court decisions and, by extension, to the process of confirming justices. In 1955, southern Democrats—in a fit of pique over the Brown decision—institutionalized the practice of having Supreme Court nominees appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to be grilled on their legal views. The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision focused further attention on Court appointments, with every nomination from that point on triggering a pitched battle between pro-choice and anti-abortion forces. The high-profile rejection of Robert Bork’s nomination in the late 1980s and the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings in the early 1990s—in which the nominee was accused of sexual harassment—proved to be irresistible TV drama. All of which meant that when it came time for me to replace Justice Souter, identifying a well-qualified candidate was the easy part. The hard part would be getting that person confirmed while avoiding a political circus that could sidetrack our other business.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 7279


Chapter 17

On the Tea Party mouvement

It was hard for me to decide what to make of all this. The Tea Party’s anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-government manifesto was hardly new; its basic story line—that corrupt liberal elites had hijacked the federal government to take money out of the pockets of hardworking Americans in order to finance welfare patronage and reward corporate cronies—was one that Republican politicians and conservative media had been peddling for years. Nor, it turned out, was the Tea Party the spontaneous, grassroots movement it purported to be. From the outset, Koch brother affiliates like Americans for Prosperity, along with other billionaire conservatives who’d been part of the Indian Wells gathering hosted by the Kochs just after I was inaugurated, had carefully nurtured the movement by registering internet domain names and obtaining rally permits; training organizers and sponsoring conferences; and ultimately providing much of the Tea Party’s financing, infrastructure, and strategic direction.
Still, there was no denying that the Tea Party represented a genuine populist surge within the Republican Party. It was made up of true believers, possessed with the same grassroots enthusiasm and jagged fury we’d seen in Sarah Palin supporters during the closing days of the campaign. Some of that anger I understood, even if I considered it misdirected. Many of the working- and middle-class whites gravitating to the Tea Party had suffered for decades from sluggish wages, rising costs, and the loss of the steady blue-collar work that provided secure retirements. Bush and establishment Republicans hadn’t done anything for them, and the financial crisis had further hollowed out their communities. And so far, at least, the economy had gotten steadily worse with me in charge, despite more than a trillion dollars channeled into stimulus spending and bailouts. For those already predisposed toward conservative ideas, the notion that my policies were designed to help others at their expense—that the game was rigged and I was part of the rigging—must have seemed entirely plausible.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 7574

More practically, I saw no way to sort out people’s motives, especially given that racial attitudes were woven into every aspect of our nation’s history. Did that Tea Party member support “states’ rights” because he genuinely thought it was the best way to promote liberty, or because he continued to resent how federal intervention had led to an end to Jim Crow, desegregation, and rising Black political power in the South? Did that conservative activist oppose any expansion of the social welfare state because she believed it sapped individual initiative, or because she was convinced that it would benefit only brown people who’d just crossed the border? Whatever my instincts might tell me, whatever truths the history books might suggest, I knew I wasn’t going to win over any voters by labeling my opponents racist.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 7606

But most of the conversations weren’t transactional. In a roundabout way, what representatives were looking for was clarity—about who they were and what their consciences demanded. Sometimes I just listened as they ran through the pros and cons. Often, we compared notes about what had inspired us to get into politics, talking about the nervous excitement of that first race and all the things we’d hoped to accomplish, the sacrifices we and our families had made to get where we were and the people who’d helped us along the way.
This is it, I’d say to them finally. The point of it all. To have that rare chance, reserved for very few, to bend history in a better direction.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 7953


Chapter 18

On winning the Nobel Peace Prize

In the Rose Garden, I told the assembled press corps that less than a year into my presidency, I didn’t feel that I deserved to be in the company of those transformative figures who’d been honored in the past. Instead, I saw the prize as a call to action, a means for the Nobel committee to give momentum to causes for which American leadership was vital: reducing the threats of nuclear weapons and climate change; shrinking economic inequality; upholding human rights; and bridging the racial, ethnic, and religious divides that so often fed conflict. I said I thought the award should be shared with others around the world who labored, often without recognition, for justice, peace, and human dignity.
Walking back into the Oval, I asked Katie to hold the congratulatory calls that were starting to come in and took a few minutes to consider the widening gap between the expectations and the realities of my presidency. Six days earlier, three hundred Afghan militants had overrun a small U.S. military outpost in the Hindu Kush, killing eight of our soldiers and wounding twenty-seven more. October would become the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the start of the war eight years earlier. And rather than ushering in a new era of peace, I was facing the prospect of committing more soldiers to war.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 8216

NINE DAYS LATER, I flew to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The image of those young cadets weighed on me. Rather than ignore the tension between getting a peace prize and expanding a war, I decided to make it the centerpiece of my acceptance address. With the help of Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power, I wrote a first draft, drawing on the writings of thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr and Gandhi to organize my argument: that war is both terrible and sometimes necessary; that reconciling these seemingly contradictory ideas requires the community of nations to evolve higher standards for both the justification and the conduct of war; and that avoidance of war requires a just peace, founded on a common commitment to political freedom, a respect for human rights, and concrete strategies to expand economic opportunity around the world. I finished writing the speech in the dead of night aboard Air Force One as Michelle slept in our cabin, my weary eyes drawn away from the page every so often by the sight of a spectral moon over the Atlantic.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 8312


Chapter 19

Still, there were limits to what a diplomatic charm offensive could accomplish. At the end of the day, each nation’s foreign policy remained driven by its own economic interests, geography, ethnic and religious schisms, territorial disputes, founding myths, lasting traumas, ancient animosities—and, most of all, the imperatives of those who had and sought to maintain power. It was the rare foreign leader who was susceptible to moral suasion alone. Those who sat atop repressive governments could for the most part safely ignore public opinion. To make progress on the thorniest foreign policy issues, I needed a second kind of diplomacy, one of concrete rewards and punishments designed to alter the calculations of hard, ruthless leaders. And, throughout my first year, interactions with the leaders of three countries in particular—Iran, Russia, and China—gave me an early indication of how difficult that would be.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 8394

On the fallout of Iran's 1978 revolution

But it’s hard to overstate just how much, thirty years later, the fallout from these events still shaped the geopolitical landscape of my presidency. Iran’s revolution inspired a slew of other radical Islamic movements intent on duplicating its success. Khomeini’s call to overthrow Sunni Arab monarchies turned Iran and the House of Saud into bitter enemies and sharpened sectarian conflict across the Middle East. Iraq’s attempted 1980 invasion of Iran and the bloody eight-year war that followed—a war in which the Gulf states provided Saddam Hussein with financing while the Soviets supplied Khomeini’s military with arms, including chemical weapons—accelerated Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism as a way to offset its enemies’ military advantages. (The United States, under Reagan, cynically tried to have it both ways, publicly backing Iraq while secretly selling arms to Iran.) Khomeini’s vow to wipe Israel off the map—manifest in the IRGC’s support for armed proxies like the Lebanon-based Shiite militia Hezbollah and the military wing of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas—made the Iranian regime Israel’s single greatest security threat and contributed to the general hardening of Israeli attitudes toward possible peace with its neighbors. More broadly, Khomeini’s rendering of the world as a Manichaean clash between the forces of Allah and those of “the Great Satan” (America) seeped like a toxin into the minds not just of future jihadists but of those in the West already inclined to view Muslims as objects of suspicion and fear.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 8431

On Vladimir Putin

I’d mostly been cured of that optimism by the time I became president. It was true that Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, who had come to power in 1999, claimed no interest in a return to Marxism-Leninism (“a mistake,” he once called it). And he had successfully stabilized the nation’s economy, in large part thanks to a huge increase in revenues brought about by rising oil prices. Elections were now held in accordance with the Russian constitution, capitalists were everywhere, ordinary Russians could travel abroad, and pro-democracy activists like the chess master Garry Kasparov could get away with criticizing the government without an immediate trip to the Gulag.
And yet, with each year that Putin remained in power, the new Russia looked more like the old. It became clear that a market economy and periodic elections could go hand in hand with a “soft authoritarianism” that steadily concentrated power in Putin’s hands and shrank the space for meaningful dissent. Oligarchs who cooperated with Putin became some of the world’s wealthiest men. Those who broke from Putin found themselves subject to various criminal prosecutions and stripped of their assets—and Kasparov ultimately did spend a few days in jail for leading an anti-Putin march. Putin’s cronies were handed control of the country’s major media outlets, and the rest were pressured into ensuring him coverage every bit as friendly as the state-owned media had once provided Communist rulers. Independent journalists and civic leaders found themselves monitored by the FSB (the modern incarnation of the KGB)—or, in some cases, turned up dead.
What’s more, Putin’s power didn’t rest on simple coercion. He was genuinely popular (his approval ratings at home rarely dipped below 60 percent). It was a popularity rooted in old-fashioned nationalism—the promise to restore Mother Russia to its former glory, to relieve the sense of disruption and humiliation so many Russians had felt over the previous two decades.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 8535

Burns hadn’t been kidding when he said the man [Putin] had a few things to get off his chest. I’d barely finished the question before Putin launched into an animated and seemingly endless monologue chronicling every perceived injustice, betrayal, and slight that he and the Russian people had suffered at the hands of the Americans. He’d liked President Bush personally, he said, and had reached out after 9/11, pledging solidarity and offering to share intelligence in the fight against a common enemy. He’d helped the United States secure airbases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for the Afghan campaign. He’d even offered Russia’s help in handling Saddam Hussein.
And where had it gotten him? Rather than heed his warnings, he said, Bush had gone ahead and invaded Iraq, destabilizing the entire Middle East. The U.S. decision seven years earlier to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and its plans to house missile defense systems on Russia’s borders continued to be a source of strategic instability. The admission of former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO during both the Clinton and Bush administrations had steadily encroached on Russia’s “sphere of influence,” while U.S. support for the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan—under the specious guise of “democracy promotion”—had turned Russia’s once-friendly neighbors into governments hostile to Moscow. As far as Putin was concerned, the Americans had been arrogant, dismissive, unwilling to treat Russia as an equal partner, and constantly trying to dictate terms to the rest of the world—all of which, he said, made it hard to be optimistic about future relations.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 8666


Chapter 20

On the United Nations

Men and women who anchored their lives to the same idea that had anchored my mother, an idea captured in a verse woven into a tapestry that hung in the great-domed General Assembly hall:
Human beings are members of a whole
In creation of one essence and soul.
Ben informed me that those lines were written by the thirteenth-century Persian poet Sa’adi, one of the most beloved figures in Iranian culture. We found this ironic, given how much of my time at UNGA was devoted to trying to curb Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Apparently, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad didn’t share the poet’s gentle sensibilities.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 8774

On China

Even across oceans, Chinese surveillance capabilities were impressive. During the campaign, they’d hacked into our headquarters’ computer system. (I took it as a positive sign for my election prospects.) Their ability to remotely convert any mobile phone into a recording device was widely known. To make calls involving national security matters from our hotel, I had to go to a suite down the hall fitted with a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF)—a big blue tent plopped down in the middle of the room that hummed with an eerie, psychedelic buzz designed to block any nearby listening devices. Some members of our team dressed and even showered in the dark to avoid the hidden cameras we could assume had been strategically placed in every room. (Marvin, on the other hand, said he made a point of walking around his room naked and with the lights on—whether out of pride or in protest wasn’t entirely clear.)
Occasionally, the brazenness of Chinese intelligence verged on comedy. At one point, my commerce secretary, Gary Locke, was on his way to a prep session when he realized he’d forgotten something in his suite. Upon opening the door, he discovered a pair of housekeepers making up his bed while two gentlemen in suits carefully thumbed through the papers on his desk. When Gary asked what they were doing, the men walked wordlessly past him and disappeared. The housekeepers never looked up, just moved on to changing out the towels in the bathroom as if Gary were invisible. Gary’s story generated plenty of head shakes and chuckles from our team, and I’m sure that someone down the diplomatic food chain eventually filed a formal complaint. But no one brought up the incident when we sat down later for our official meeting with President Hu Jintao and the rest of the Chinese delegation. We had too much business to do with the Chinese—and did enough of our own spying on them—to want to make a stink.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 8818

Beijing wasn’t as flashy as Shanghai, though driving from the airport we passed what seemed like twenty straight miles of newly built high-rises, as if ten Manhattans had been erected overnight. Business districts and residential areas gave way to government buildings and imposing monuments once we reached the city’s core. As usual, my meeting with President Hu Jintao was a sleepy affair: Whatever the topic, he liked to read from thick stacks of prepared remarks, pausing every so often for translations to English that seemed to have been prepared in advance and, somehow, always lasted longer than his original statement. When it was my turn to speak, he’d shuffle through his papers, looking for whatever response his aides had prepared for him. Efforts to break the monotony with personal anecdotes or the occasional joke (“Give me the name of your contractor,” I told him after learning that the massive, columned Great Hall of the People had been built in less than a year) usually resulted in a blank stare, and I was tempted more than once to suggest that we could save each other time by just exchanging papers and reading them at our leisure.

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Chapter 21

In fact, just about every renewable energy company, from advanced vehicle manufacturers to biofuel producers, faced the same dilemma: No matter how good their technology was, they still had to operate in an economy that for more than a century had been constructed almost entirely around oil, gas, and coal. This structural disadvantage wasn’t simply the result of free-market forces. Federal, state, and local governments had invested trillions of dollars—whether through direct subsidies and tax breaks or through the construction of infrastructure like pipelines, highways, and port terminals—to help maintain both the steady supply of and the constant demand for cheap fossil fuels. U.S. oil companies were among the world’s most profitable corporations and yet still received millions in federal tax breaks each year. To have a fair chance to compete, the clean energy sector needed a serious boost.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 9169

On the GOP's stance on regulations

After all, GOP leaders considered the rollback of federal regulations a tier-one priority, right up there with lowering taxes on the rich. Business groups and big conservative donors like the Koch brothers had invested heavily in a decades-long campaign to make “regulation” a dirty word; you couldn’t open the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal without finding some attack on an out-of-control “regulatory state.” To the anti-regulation crowd, the pros and cons of higher mileage standards mattered less than what a new rule symbolized: yet another example of unelected Washington bureaucrats trying to micromanage people’s lives, sap America’s economic vitality, violate private property rights, and undermine the Founding Fathers’ vision of representative government.
I didn’t put a lot of stock in such arguments. As far back as the Progressive Era, oil trusts and railroad monopolies had used similar language to attack government efforts to loosen their stranglehold on the U.S. economy. So had opponents of FDR’s New Deal. And yet throughout the twentieth century, in law after law and in cooperation with presidents of both parties, Congress had kept delegating regulatory and enforcement authority to a host of specialized agencies, from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The reason was simple: As society grew more complex, corporations grew more powerful, and citizens demanded more from the government, elected officials simply did not have time to regulate so many diverse industries. Nor did they have the specialized knowledge required to set rules for fair dealing across financial markets, evaluate the safety of the latest medical device, make sense of new pollution data, or anticipate all the ways employers might discriminate against their employees on account of race or gender.
In other words, if you wanted good government, then expertise mattered. You needed public institutions stocked with people whose job it was to pay attention to important stuff so the rest of us citizens didn’t have to. And it was thanks to those experts that Americans could worry less about the quality of the air we breathed or the water we drank, that we had recourse when employers failed to pay us the overtime we were due, that we could count on over-the-counter drugs not killing us, and that driving a car or flying on a commercial airplane was exponentially safer today than it had been just twenty or thirty or fifty years ago. The “regulatory state” conservatives complained so bitterly about had made American life a hell of a lot better.
That’s not to say that every criticism of federal regulation was bogus. There were times when bureaucratic red tape burdened businesses unnecessarily or delayed innovative products from getting to market. Some regulations really did cost more than they were worth. Environmental groups, in particular, hated a 1980 law that required an obscure executive branch subagency called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to perform a cost-benefit analysis on every new federal regulation. They were convinced that the process favored corporate interests, and they had a point: It was a lot easier to measure a business’s profits and losses than it was to put a price on preserving an endangered bird or reducing the probability that a kid got asthma.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 9230

Meanwhile, I set Steve Chu on a mission to update every efficiency standard he could find, using the power of a little-enforced 1987 law that gave the Department of Energy authority to set energy-efficiency standards on everything from lightbulbs to commercial air conditioners. The man was like a kid in a candy store, regaling me with detailed explanations of his latest standard-setting exploits. (“You’d be amazed at the environmental impact of just a five percent improvement on refrigerator efficiency!”) And although it was hard to match his excitement over washers and dryers, the results really were pretty amazing: By the time I left office, those new appliance standards were on track to remove another 210 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere annually.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 9282

On taxing carbon emissions

There were other ways to put a price on greenhouse gas pollution. Some economists thought it was simpler, for example, to impose a “carbon tax” on all fossil fuels, discouraging their use by making them more expensive. But one of the reasons everyone had converged on a cap-and-trade proposal was that it had already been successfully tried—and by a Republican president, no less. Back in 1990, George H. W. Bush’s administration had put a cap-and-trade system in place to curb the sulfur dioxide coming out of factory smokestacks and contributing to acid rain, which was destroying lakes and forests across the East Coast. Despite dire predictions that the measure would lead to factory closures and mass layoffs, the offending companies had quickly figured out cost-efficient ways to retrofit their factories, and within a few years, the problem of acid rain had all but disappeared.
Setting up a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions involved a whole new level of scale and complexity. The fights over each detail promised to be fierce, with lobbyists swarming and every member of Congress whose vote we needed angling for this or that concession. And as the struggle to pass healthcare legislation was also teaching me, the mere fact that Republicans had once supported a policy idea championed by one of their own did not mean they’d support the exact same idea coming from a Democratic president.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 9347

On signing a Climate Change resolution

It was progress, but just barely. The afternoon evaporated as negotiating sessions continued. We managed to extract a draft agreement endorsed by E.U. members and a number of other delegates, but we got nowhere in follow-up sessions with the Chinese, as Wen declined to attend and instead dispatched junior members of his delegation who were predictably inflexible. Late in the day, I was led to yet another room, this one crowded with unhappy Europeans.
Most of the key leaders were there, including Merkel, Sarkozy, and Gordon Brown, all wearing the same bleary-eyed look of frustration. Now that Bush was gone and Democrats were in charge, they wanted to know, why couldn’t the United States ratify a Kyoto-style treaty? In Europe, they said, even the far-right parties accept the reality of climate change—what is wrong with Americans? We know the Chinese are a problem, but why not wait until a future agreement to force their hand?
For what felt like an hour, I let them vent, answering questions, sympathizing with their concerns. Eventually the reality of the situation settled over the room, and it was left to Merkel to say it out loud.
“I think what Barack describes is not the option we had hoped for,” she said calmly, “but it may be our only option today. So…we wait to see what the Chinese and the others say, and then we decide.” She turned to me. “You’ll go meet them now?”
“Yep.”
“Good luck, then,” Merkel said. She shrugged with a tilt of the head, a downward pull of the mouth, a slight raising of the eyebrows—the gesture of someone experienced with getting on with unpleasant necessities.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 9551


Chapter 22

On the American public's response to the 2008 bailouts

If Americans were understandably frustrated with the recovery’s glacial pace, the bank bailout sent them over the edge. Man, did folks hate TARP! They didn’t care that the emergency program had worked better than expected, or that more than half of the money given to the banks had already been repaid with interest, or that the broader economy couldn’t have started healing until the capital markets were working again. Across the political spectrum, voters considered the bank bailouts a scam that had allowed the barons of finance to emerge from the crisis relatively unscathed.
Tim Geithner liked to point out that this wasn’t strictly true. He would list all the ways Wall Street had paid for its sins: investment banks gone belly-up, bank CEOs ousted, shares diluted, billions of dollars in losses. Likewise, Attorney General Holder’s lawyers at the Justice Department would soon start racking up record settlements from financial institutions that were shown to have violated the law. Still, there was no getting around the fact that many of the people most culpable for the nation’s economic woes remained fabulously wealthy and had avoided prosecution mainly because the laws as written deemed epic recklessness and dishonesty in the boardroom or on the trading floor less blameworthy than the actions of a teenage shoplifter. Whatever the economic merits of TARP or the legal rationale behind the Justice Department’s decisions not to press criminal charges, the whole thing reeked of unfairness.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 9693

On dinner parties at the White House

we began hosting small dinner parties in the residence every few months, inviting artists, writers, scholars, business leaders, and others whose paths we’d crossed and wanted to know better. Usually the dinners would last until well past midnight, full of wine-fueled conversations that inspired us (Toni Morrison, at once regal and mischievous, describing her friendship with James Baldwin); instructed us (the co-chair of my Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Dr. Eric Lander, describing the latest breakthroughs in genetic medicine); enchanted us (Meryl Streep leaning over to softly recite in Mandarin the lyrics to a song about clouds that she’d learned for a part years ago); and generally made me feel better about humanity’s prospects.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 10075

On regulation the financial industry

McConnell’s concession to the public mood was significant, but it didn’t mean we’d have an easy time getting Wall Street reform through Congress. Banking industry executives continued to show no remorse for the economic havoc they’d caused. Nor did bankers show gratitude for all we’d done to yank them out of the fire (accusations that I was “anti-business” had become a regular feature in the financial press). On the contrary, they viewed our efforts to tighten regulations on their operations as unacceptably burdensome, if not downright offensive. They also retained one of the most powerful lobbying operations in Washington, with influential constituencies in every state and the deep pockets to spread campaign donations across both parties.
Beyond all-out opposition from the banks, we had to confront the sheer complexity of trying to regulate the modern financial system. Gone were the days when most of America’s money ran in a simple, circular loop, with banks taking in customers’ deposits and using that money to make plain vanilla loans to families and businesses. Trillions of dollars now moved across multiple borders in the blink of an eye. The holdings of nontraditional financial operations like hedge funds and private equity firms rivaled those of many banks, while computer-driven trading and exotic products like derivatives had the power to make or break markets. Within the United States, oversight of this diffuse system was split among an assortment of federal agencies (the Fed, Treasury, FDIC, SEC, CFTC, OCC), most of which operated independently and fiercely protected their turf. Effective reform meant corralling these different players under a common regulatory framework; it also meant syncing up U.S. efforts with those made by regulators in other countries so that firms couldn’t simply run their transactions through overseas accounts to avoid more stringent rules.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 10158

To many on the left, this sort of targeted approach to reform fell woefully short of what was needed and would merely put off a long-overdue reckoning with a system that failed to serve the interests of ordinary Americans. They blamed some of the economy’s most troubling trends on a bloated, morally suspect financial sector—whether it was the corporate world’s preference for cost cutting and layoffs over long-term investments as a way of boosting short-term earnings, or the use of debt-financed acquisitions by certain private equity firms to strip down existing businesses and resell their spare parts for undeserved profit, or the steady rise in income inequality and the shrinking share of taxes paid by the über-rich. To reduce these distorting effects and stop the speculative frenzies that so often triggered financial crises, they urged, we should consider a more radical overhaul of Wall Street. The reforms they favored included capping the size of U.S. banks and reinstating Glass-Steagall, a Depression-era law that had prohibited FDIC-insured banks from engaging in investment banking, which had been mostly repealed during the Clinton administration.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 10180

Rather than efficiently allocate capital to productive uses, Wall Street really did increasingly function like a trillion-dollar casino, its outsized profits and compensation packages overly dependent on ever-greater leverage and speculation. Its obsession with quarterly earnings had warped corporate decision-making and encouraged short-term thinking. Untethered to place, indifferent to the impact of globalization on particular workers and communities, the financial markets had helped accelerate the offshoring of jobs and the concentration of wealth in a handful of cities and economic sectors, leaving huge swaths of the country drained of money, talent, and hope.
Big, bold policies could make a dent in these problems, most of which had to do with rewriting the tax code, strengthening labor laws, and changing the rules of corporate governance. All three items were high on my to-do list.
But when it came to regulating the nation’s financial markets to make the system more stable, the Left’s prescription missed its mark. The evidence didn’t show that limiting the size of U.S. banks would have prevented the recent crisis or the need for federal intervention once the system began to unravel. JPMorgan’s assets dwarfed those of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, but it was those smaller firms’ highly leveraged bets on securitized subprime mortgages that had set off a panic. The last major U.S. financial crisis, back in the 1980s, hadn’t involved big banks at all; instead, the system had been rocked by a deluge of high-risk loans by thousands of small, poorly capitalized regional savings and loan associations (S&Ls) in cities and small towns across the country. Given the scope of their operations, we thought it made sense for regulators to give mega-banks like Citi or Bank of America extra scrutiny—but cutting their assets in half wouldn’t change that. And since the banking sectors of most European and Asian countries were actually more concentrated than they were here, limiting the size of U.S. banks would put them at a big disadvantage in the international marketplace, all without eliminating the overall risk to the system.
For similar reasons, the growth of the non-bank financial sector made Glass-Steagall’s distinction between investment banks and FDIC-insured commercial banks largely obsolete. The largest bettors on subprime mortgage securities—AIG, Lehman, Bear, Merrill, as well as Fannie and Freddie—weren’t commercial banks backed by federal guarantees. Investors hadn’t cared about the absence of guarantees and poured so much money into them anyway that the entire financial system was threatened when they started to fail. Conversely, traditional FDIC-insured banks like Washington Mutual and IndyMac got into trouble not by behaving like investment banks and underwriting high-flying securities but by making tons of subprime loans to unqualified buyers in order to drive up their earnings. Given how easily capital now flowed between various financial entities in search of higher returns, stabilizing the system required that we focus on the risky practices we were trying to curb rather than the type of institution involved.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 10191

Having already signed legislation reforming the credit card industry, I agreed with my team that the aftermath of the crisis offered us a unique chance to make more progress on the consumer protection front. As it happened, Harvard law professor and bankruptcy expert Elizabeth Warren had come up with an idea that might deliver the kind of impact we were looking for: a new consumer finance protection agency meant to bolster the patchwork of spottily enforced state and federal regulations already in place and to shield consumers from questionable financial products the same way the Consumer Product Safety Commission kept shoddy or dangerous consumer goods off the shelves.
I was a longtime admirer of Warren’s work, dating back to the 2003 publication of her book The Two-Income Trap, in which Warren and her coauthor, Amelia Tyagi, provided an incisive and passionate description of the growing pressures facing working families with children. Unlike most academics, Warren showed a gift for translating financial analysis into stories that ordinary folks could understand. In the intervening years, she had emerged as one of the financial industry’s most effective critics, prompting Harry Reid to appoint her as chair of the congressional panel overseeing TARP.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 10253

Republican Scott Brown, fresh off a victorious campaign in which he’d railed against Harry Reid’s various “backroom deals” to get the healthcare bill passed, indicated a willingness to vote for Wall Street reform—but not without a deal of his own, asking if we could exempt a pair of favored Massachusetts banks from the new regulations. He saw no irony in this.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 10324


Chapter 23

On the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

“What does he think I’m supposed to do?” I growled at Rahm after hearing of Carville’s broadside. “Put on my fucking Aquaman gear and swim down there myself with a wrench?”
The chorus of criticism culminated in a May 27 White House press conference that had me fielding tough questions on the oil spill for about an hour. I methodically listed everything we’d done since the Deepwater had exploded, and I described the technical intricacies of the various strategies being employed to cap the well. I acknowledged problems with MMS, as well as my own excessive confidence in the ability of companies like BP to safeguard against risk. I announced the formation of a national commission to review the disaster and figure out how such accidents could be prevented in the future, and I reemphasized the need for a long-term response that would make America less reliant on dirty fossil fuels.
Reading the transcript now, a decade later, I’m struck by how calm and cogent I sound. Maybe I’m surprised because the transcript doesn’t register what I remember feeling at the time or come close to capturing what I really wanted to say before the assembled White House press corps:
That MMS wasn’t fully equipped to do its job, in large part because for the past thirty years a big chunk of American voters had bought into the Republican idea that government was the problem and that business always knew better, and had elected leaders who made it their mission to gut environmental regulations, starve agency budgets, denigrate civil servants, and allow industrial polluters do whatever the hell they wanted to do.
That the government didn’t have better technology than BP did to quickly plug the hole because it would be expensive to have such technology on hand, and we Americans didn’t like paying higher taxes—especially when it was to prepare for problems that hadn’t happened yet.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 10597


Chapter 24

On the hurdles to democracy

It wasn’t Singh’s fault. He had done his part, following the playbook of liberal democracies across the post–Cold War world: upholding the constitutional order; attending to the quotidian, often technical work of boosting the GDP; and expanding the social safety net. Like me, he had come to believe that this was all any of us could expect from democracy, especially in big, multiethnic, multireligious societies like India and the United States. Not revolutionary leaps or major cultural overhauls; not a fix for every social pathology or lasting answers for those in search of purpose and meaning in their lives. Just the observance of rules that allowed us to sort out or at least tolerate our differences, and government policies that raised living standards and improved education enough to temper humanity’s baser impulses.
Except now I found myself asking whether those impulses—of violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others—were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain. For they seemed to lie in wait everywhere, ready to resurface whenever growth rates stalled or demographics changed or a charismatic leader chose to ride the wave of people’s fears and resentments. And as much as I might have wished otherwise, there was no Mahatma Gandhi around to tell me what I might do to hold such impulses back.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 11214

HISTORICALLY, CONGRESSIONAL ambitions tend to be low during the six- or seven-week stretch between Election Day and the Christmas recess, especially with a shift in party control about to happen. The dispirited losers just want to go home; the winners want to run out the clock until the new Congress gets sworn in. On January 5, 2011, we’d be seating the most Republican House of Representatives since 1947, which meant I’d be unable to get any legislation called for a vote, much less passed, without the assent of the incoming Speaker of the House, John Boehner. And if there was any question about his agenda, Boehner had already announced that the first bill he’d be calling to a vote was a total repeal of the ACA.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 11225

This gave us leverage.
I’d long opposed my predecessor’s signature domestic legislation, laws passed in 2001 and 2003 that changed the U.S. tax code in ways that disproportionately benefited high-net-worth individuals while accelerating the trend of wealth and income inequality. Warren Buffett liked to point out that the law enabled him to pay taxes at a significantly lower rate—proportionate to his income, which came almost entirely from capital gains and dividends—than his secretary did on her salary. The laws’ changes to the estate tax alone had reduced the tax burden for the top 2 percent of America’s richest families by more than $130 billion. Not only that, but by taking roughly $1.3 trillion in projected revenue out of the U.S. Treasury, the laws had helped turn a federal budget surplus under Bill Clinton into a burgeoning deficit—a deficit that many Republicans were now using to justify their calls for cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the rest of America’s social safety net.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 11245


Chapter 25

On Israel-Palestine relations

Given everything that was already on my plate when I became president, it would have been tempting to just do my best to manage the status quo, quash any outbreaks of renewed violence between Israeli and Palestinian factions, and otherwise leave the whole mess alone. But taking into account the broader foreign policy concerns, I decided I couldn’t go that route. Israel remained a key U.S. ally, and even with the threats reduced, it still endured terrorist attacks that jeopardized not only its citizens but also the thousands of Americans who lived or traveled there. At the same time, just about every country in the world considered Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian territories to be a violation of international law. As a result, our diplomats found themselves in the awkward position of having to defend Israel for actions that we ourselves opposed. U.S. officials also had to explain why it wasn’t hypocritical for us to press countries like China or Iran on their human rights records while showing little concern for the rights of Palestinians. Meanwhile, the Israeli occupation continued to inflame the Arab community and feed anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 11620

Looking back, I sometimes ponder the age-old question of how much difference the particular characteristics of individual leaders make in the sweep of history—whether those of us who rise to power are mere conduits for the deep, relentless currents of the times or whether we’re at least partly the authors of what’s to come. I wonder whether our insecurities and our hopes, our childhood traumas or memories of unexpected kindness carry as much force as any technological shift or socioeconomic trend. I wonder whether a President Hillary Clinton or President John McCain might have elicited more trust from the two sides; whether things might have played out differently if someone other than Netanyahu had occupied the prime minister’s seat or if Abbas had been a younger man, more intent on making his mark than protecting himself from criticism.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 11765

On Muammar Gaddafi and Libya

FOR FORTY-TWO YEARS, Muammar Gaddafi had ruled Libya with a viciousness that, even by the standards of his fellow dictators, spilled into madness. Prone to flamboyant gestures, incoherent rants, and odd behavior (in advance of the 2009 UNGA meetings in New York, he’d tried to get approval to erect a massive Bedouin tent in the middle of Central Park for himself and his entourage), he had nevertheless been ruthlessly efficient in stamping out dissent in his country, using a combination of secret police, security forces, and state-sponsored militias to jail, torture, and murder anyone who dared to oppose him. Throughout the 1980s, his government had also been one of the leading state sponsors of terrorism around the world, facilitating such horrific attacks as the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed citizens of twenty-one countries, including 189 Americans. Gaddafi had more recently tried to wrap himself in the cloak of respectability by ending his support for international terrorism and dismantling his nascent nuclear program (which led Western countries, including the United States, to resume diplomatic relations). But inside Libya itself, nothing had changed.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, loc. 12121