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The Outsiders - Obama and Trump - an American story

By Dafydd Rees
25 February 2021

By Dafydd Rees

American politics has a fascination and a drama all of its own. And yet, no one has a story quite like Barack Obama.

As this week’s podcast compelling conversation with that other American legend Bruce Springsteen reveals, the former President was, and still remains, something of an outsider to the political system he once embodied.    

It’s my contention, having read his most recent book, that the fundamental divide in American society highlighted by the Trump years had well-nurtured roots in the Obama years.

Barack Obama, a lot like Donald J Trump, was an antithesis of the Washington establishment. Over a period of just eight years Mr Obama went from being unable to receive a pass to attend the Democratic Party convention to being elected President of the United States. 

His views on that phenomenal rise are contained in his recently published memoir A Promised Land. This 700-page doorstop of a book is driven by a forthright and sometimes disconcerting honesty as well as by his undoubted skills as a creative writer.

The lack of time spent climbing the political career ladder gives him a perspective on the Presidency unlike anyone who went before him.

His one- line character assessments of the other world leaders he encounters are devastating. How about this insight on David Cameron? The Eton-educated Cameron had the “easy command of someone who’d never been pressed to hard by life.”     

And unlike any other senior politician I have ever encountered in thirty years of journalism, he focuses on his own shortcomings.

As I read this remarkable book, I was struck how quickly President Obama’s optimism disappears to be replaced with a weariness with how the American political system operates. He talks time and again of how Democrat and Republican stalemate in Congress breeds public cynicism. He  can hardly hide his contempt for this “grim, unrelenting partisan game.”   

There is a sense of events crowding in and forcing him to be carried along by the flow. From the 2008 financial crisis to health reform, from dealing with Russia and the Middle East he lingers on the unhappy and ultimately unsatisfying compromises required from those in power. As he says, I was “no longer sure which way is up.”

Donald Trump only appears in the last thirty pages of A Promised Land which tells the story of the Obama Presidency only up until May 2011.

There is a sense of Barack Obama trying to restrain his disgust at this brash showman rather to train his fire on those who in the American media enabled Trump’s rise to power.

It is the “symbiotic relationship” between Trump and the media that he seeks to diagnose.

The result was that it no longer mattered in politics whether what was said was true or not, nor was any distinction drawn between those who lied and those who didn’t.

For Barack Obama, if you’re looking to understand January’s shocking attack on Capitol Hill that’s where you need to start.  

When power becomes nothing more than a game of spectacle and an offshoot of showbusiness, democracy proves disconcertingly fragile and brittle. We await with anticipation and fascination Obama’s prescription of how it may be possible to heal a divided America.