Reading Obama: Roasting Trump and Killing bin Laden

Barack Obama’s memoir about his first term, “A Promised Land,” ends with the odd juxtaposition of two events on one weekend in May 2011: roasting Donald Trump and killing Osama bin Laden.

Killing bin Laden was a great achievement. Roasting Trump may have been a big mistake.

That Saturday night, Obama made Trump the butt of his jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Trump silently fumed in the audience. Some people say that’s when he resolved to run for President.

Obama had just given the go-ahead for the bin Laden raid. He wasn’t excited about going to the dinner and having to be funny, “but I couldn’t afford to raise any suspicions (about the bin Laden raid) by skipping out…at the last minute.”

Trump had spent months – and won tons of media play – questioning Obama’s birthplace. Obama took him on:

“Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

“But all kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. For example — no, seriously, just recently, in an episode of ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ — at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir. Well handled.”

Then Obama recounts hours of tension waiting for the bin Laden raid, dramatic moments watching it in real time on video, and the explosion of relief and joy at the terrorist’s death, with crowds chanting “USA! USA!” outside the White House and across America.

Obama’s book is like he was as President: sometimes lyrical and lofty, sometimes long-winded and a bit boring, but always candid, reflective and insightful.

You have to wade through detailed accounts of policy debates, personnel decisions and frustrating deliberations with divided Democrats and recalcitrant Republicans in Congress. You see why President Biden has gone big, bold and fast on his stimulus plan rather than waiting for Republican support

Obama is a gifted writer. He deftly portrays people:

“Built like a linebacker, with a square jaw, broad features, and a gray combover, (Benjamin) Netanyahu was smart, canny, tough, and a gifted communicator in both Hebrew and English.”

“Physically, he (Vladimir Putin) was unremarkable; short and compact – a wrestlers’ build – with thin, sandy hair, a prominent nose, and pale, watchful eyes. I noticed a casualness to his movements, a practiced disinterest in his voice that indicated someone accustomed to being surrounded by subordinates and supplicants. Someone who’d grown used to power.”

Of Trump, Obama writes:

“…he was a spectacle, and in the United States of America in 2011, that was a form of power. Trump trafficked in a currency that, however shallow, seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day. The same reporters who laughed at my jokes would continue to give him airtime. Their publishers would vie to have him sit at their tables.

“Far from being ostracized for the conspiracies he’d peddled, he in fact had never been bigger.”

Obama doesn’t spare himself from his discerning, descriptive eye, owning up to “uneven debate performances, unconventional positions (and) clumsy gaffes” during his campaign.

He is restrained but blunt about race: “…maybe I’m bothered by the care and delicacy with which one must state the obvious: that it’s possible to understand and sympathize with the frustrations of white voters without denying the ease with which, throughout American history, politicians have redirected white frustration about their economic or social circumstances toward Black and brown people.”

He captures the loneliness and strangeness of a President’s life. The book ends with him returning to the White House after visiting the SEAL team that killed bin Laden. As Marine One flew by the Lincoln Memorial, “I looked down at the street below, still thick with rush-hour traffic – fellow commuters, I thought, anxious to get home.”

“A Promised Land,” Barack Obama, Crown Publishing Group, November 2020. Read an excerpt:


Leave a Reply