A Promised Land

A Promised LandA Promised Land by Barack Obama
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Released: November 17, 2020
Pages: 768
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A riveting, deeply personal account of history in the making—from the president who inspired us to believe in the power of democracy.

In the stirring, highly anticipated first volume of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from young man searching for his identity to leader of the free world, describing in strikingly personal detail both his political education and the landmark moments of the first term of his historic presidency—a time of dramatic transformation and turmoil.

Obama takes readers on a compelling journey from his earliest political aspirations to the pivotal Iowa caucus victory that demonstrated the power of grassroots activism to the watershed night of November 4, 2008, when he was elected 44th president of the United States, becoming the first African American to hold the nation’s highest office.

Reflecting on the presidency, he offers a unique and thoughtful exploration of both the awesome reach and the limits of presidential power, as well as singular insights into the dynamics of U.S. partisan politics and international diplomacy. Obama brings readers inside the Oval Office and the White House Situation Room, and to Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, and points beyond. We are privy to his thoughts as he assembles his cabinet, wrestles with a global financial crisis, takes the measure of Vladimir Putin, overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to secure passage of the Affordable Care Act, clashes with generals about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, tackles Wall Street reform, responds to the devastating Deepwater Horizon blowout, and authorizes Operation Neptune’s Spear, which leads to the death of Osama bin Laden.

A Promised Land is extraordinarily intimate and introspective—the story of one man’s bet with history, the faith of a community organizer tested on the world stage. Obama is candid about the balancing act of running for office as a Black American, bearing the expectations of a generation buoyed by messages of “hope and change,” and meeting the moral challenges of high-stakes decision-making. He is frank about the forces that opposed him at home and abroad, open about how living in the White House affected his wife and daughters, and unafraid to reveal self-doubt and disappointment. Yet he never wavers from his belief that inside the great, ongoing American experiment, progress is always possible.

This beautifully written and powerful book captures Barack Obama’s conviction that democracy is not a gift from on high but something founded on empathy and common understanding and built together, day by day.

I think there are at least two things that pretty much everyone would agree on when it comes to Barack Obama: he’s a great writer, and he can be long-winded. This book is a demonstration of both.

This book was released after the Trump/Biden election, which is fortunate, as I think reading it while being uncertain about the outcome would have been a little too painful. It took all of about five minutes of reading the book to desperately miss the time when Obama was the President of the US. Sure, this is an autobiography, and of course, it was always going to cast the author in a good light, but being transported back to the events of 2008–2012, reading about the decisions Obama had to make, and his thoughts while making them… it felt like lying down on a soft bed after having been incredibly tired for a very long time.

It didn’t take long to figure out why this book is as long as it is. Firstly, the tangents are plentiful and elaborate. For most main threads there will be sub-threads, that often end up having sub-threads of their own. The fact that they mostly end up in the same knot at the end of a chapter is probably a testament to how good Obama is at writing. As long as the tangents related to what Obama was thinking and doing, I was perfectly fine with them. I don’t mind a sidebar about Obama’s challenges with smoking. After all, that’s a story only he could tell, with information and insight only he possesses, and that’s why I’m reading the book.

What I have more of an issue with, in general, are the stretches in which the book reads like a lecture, where pages are devoted to discussing the background and context of issues in ways which could have been lifted from a textbook. This was both a blessing and a curse. For the topics I’m interested in, like health care in the US, various political game playing, and the financial crisis, they were fascinating, concise, summaries of the topic by a gifted, knowledgable writer and communicator. For the topics I care less about (military stuff), it became homework I had to get through before I could read more about what Obama actually thought and did.

Given what the past four years have been like, there was no way that I wasn’t going to like this book. It’s refreshing and faith-restoring in the same way as watching The West Wing is. It struck a very nice balance between filling in gaps of knowledge, giving me some entirely new nuggets of information, as well as being a fun, guilty-pleasure, story about the ever-ongoing US political circus with its heroes (Pelosi) and villains (McConnell) battling it out.

Most of all, A Promised Land was interesting for the same reason that it was always going to be interesting: we get an insight into Barack Obama’s thought process, actions, and reasoning during some historic moments. I’m sure there are plenty of embellishments and a great deal of narrator bias, but that doesn’t make his own account of his presidency any less interesting or significant. Ultimately, this book is an antidote to the past four years, and for that alone it’s very worth reading for anyone with an interest in US politics.

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