Barack Obama and the Cunning of American Exceptionalism

Image by History in HD.

Barack Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land, came out as the world was looking at the US with anticipation and mistrust. It was published as the world awaited the results of the US presidential elections, between the clownish Donald Trump and the visibly incompetent Joseph Biden. The book trumpets the American model as the “promised land” against the failures of the American system that appeared most clearly in the last four years: a corrupt, populist, and maniacal leader at the top of US executive power; the colossal failure of the US medical system to respond to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic— even after Obama’s much-celebrated expansion of the healthcare system through the “Affordable Care Act”; and the general deterioration and defunding of the already rudimentary public services sector in the country. The book coincidentally came out shortly before the failures of the American system played out in the circus of January 6th, when demonstrators, clothed in outlandish costumes and carrying a mesh of medieval, confederate, white supremacist, and Nazi symbols, stormed Capitol Hill to block the ratification of the presidential elections, forcing the world to look at America not as a model but as a spectacle of failures, a farce.

Ideals Against Reality

The book’s readers are thus likely to experience dissonance. On the one side we have the realities, shortcomings, failures, and injustices that characterize the American system and model, and, on the other side the diametrically opposite promised America Obama paints. This dissonance is native to the text of A Promised Land, wherein Obama contradicts his propaganda for the American model with a constant (though generally moderate and shallow) criticism of the American system that did not allow him to implement the change he putatively espoused. Obama resolves this general dissonance through the false dichotomy between the reality of America and American ideals, America “that was promised,” or the American Dream.

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Ahmed Dardir holds a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia University. His forthcoming book is titled Licentious Topographies: Global Counterrevolution and Bad Subjectivity in Modern Egypt. His personal blog can be found at

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