A Promised Land, by Barack Obama
Is it even worth reviewing former President Barack Obama’s book? What can I add to any discussion? It sells itself; you probably already knew before it came out whether you would read it or not. I struggled with whether I had anything meaningful to say about it, or if I even deserved to try.
I read it as the year closed and a new one opened, but as we already know, things haven’t gotten better. Why would they, year-ends and beginnings are just arbitrary markers. But there’s something to be said for clinging to what inspires you and renews hope in dark, uncertain times, and maybe it’s weird that I felt that so strongly in a book by a politician, but there you go. So if you need that kind of reassurance, that steady voice of reason and hope despite a whole lot of setbacks, you must read this.
I’ve always admired Obama and found his way of thinking aspirational — his ability to remain calm, rational, and blend empathy with logic. In such troubled times for our country and the world at large, it helps to have a voice like his explaining some of the problems we face and what their genesis was, and get a tour through his thinking in how he approached problem solving and applied his nuanced views of how things work. I feel a little smarter just for having seen things from his perspective, and I gained an even deeper respect for him. I can hardly even fathom some of the catch-22s he was faced with, and to see close-up how politicking is both infuriating and a sadly necessary evil of our current system.
I feel it’s worth mentioning that I rarely if ever read politician’s memoirs — they’re just so fakey and platitude-packed, doling out the carefully controlled messages that align with their own lane of politicking. I haven’t even read Obama’s other books. But this is worth reading even if you avoid this genre. It speaks to something much bigger than politics. It has its moments that screech a bit too closely to grandstanding or empty-but-beautiful words, but he always saves it and delivers a truly profound message.
The format is basically Obama walking through his time deciding to enter politics, with a comparatively quick overview of his life preceding that, and running until May 2011 and the SEAL Team mission that killed Osama bin Laden. He covers the 2008 campaign, his relationships to Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Sarah Palin (with his insights into the writing so clearly on the wall of what the Tea Party movement would become), the 2008 financial crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Deepwater Horizon spill, the START treaty with Russia, and all of his administration’s major policy attempts and achievements. The gang’s all here!
Obama is wordy, hence a 700-pager that doesn’t even hit the end of his first term, but he’s also a polished writer and measured, careful thinker, so his words feel well chosen. I worried when I heard the length that this wouldn’t have been touched by an editor and although it could’ve been streamlined or organized a bit more neatly (frequent time-jumps threw me off), it’s mostly quite elegantly done. (He also has a personal quirk of telling you exactly how old people are, which bugs me when it’s not especially pertinent to the topic at hand.)
But the upside of his descriptive quirks are the mini-portraits he composes of well-known figures, like other world leaders: George W. Bush, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Manmohan Singh. They are as insightful as they are delightful. We’ve already formed our own impressions of these people but to get the pithy, often humorous spin from him was such a highlight.
I’ll admit it pained me to read this with all the knowledge of what followed his presidency, and the juxtaposition of Obama to Trump is mind-boggling to consider — just the way Obama addresses his perceived failures, shortcomings, mistakes and misjudgements alone. Can you imagine Trump admitting anything less than godlike perfection in his behavior and choices, even when drowning in evidence to the contrary? We don’t have to wallow in our mistakes, but it’s a mark of an accomplished, intelligent person who has the humility to examine them with hindsight and introspection, to admit when they came up short and how they’ve learned to do better.
I do think Obama can be a bit hard on himself, especially considering the rock-and-hard-place circumstances he often found himself in, but I was awed and humbled by how he talked about these things with such transparency and self-analysis. We could all take a page from his book on this skill alone.
Weird bonus: I absolutely did not expect to be moved to tears over anecdotes involving Ted Kennedy, but it happened more than once. He had a close friendship with the Obamas, and was heartened by the work Obama did to advance the state of healthcare in the US, even if we’ve still fallen short of universal healthcare, Kennedy’s lifetime goal. (Obama’s explanation behind why it’s so hard for us to get there was the darkest part for me. I understand better why all attempts have failed and why it’s going to remain hard to change. I hope I’m wrong about the eventual outcome, but I get what’s happening thanks to his insights.) There were quite a few tearjerky moments, especially around his descriptions of his daughters growing up and the bittersweetness of it, considering their unconventional lives, and remembering his grandmother.
On improving at speech-giving: “You’ve tapped into some collective spirit, a thing we all know and wish for — a sense of connection that overrides our differences and replaces them with a giant swell of possibility — and like all things that matter most, you know the moment is fleeting and that soon the spell will be broken.”
On his grandmother’s death: “Once Toot was gone, there would be no one left who remembered that life, or remembered me in it.”
On how he’s very funny (if a bit dad-jokey at times) and curses in a way that brings me great joy (anybody offended by “fuck” should get the fuck out): “What does he think I’m supposed to do?” I growled at Rahm after hearing of Carville’s broadside [about the administration’s handling of the oil spill]. “Put on my fucking Aquaman gear and swim down there myself with a wrench?”
One of my favorite scenes was his description of being in Norway for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. He describes looking out his hotel window with Michelle at the crowd below holding candles, Oslo’s traditional celebration of the winner. He was battling a number of political and social fires, his thoughts thusly preoccupied, dampening the honor of the occasion. But in that moment he thought about people struggling against odds but continuing, just as he was doing his best on too many impossible fronts, feeling frustrated and stymied on each:
Whatever you do won’t be enough, I heard their voices say.
A Promised Land
by Barack Obama
published November 17, 2020 by Crown