I’ve read a lot of presidential biographies and memoirs, but "A Promised Land," by former President Barack Obama is like no other.
Despite its 700-page heft, this is an engaging, frank, and intimate account of our 44th president’s rapid rise from small-time state politician to the American presidency. Obama breaks the mold for presidential memoirs by reviewing his thinking and his many doubts rather than offering a knee-jerk defense of controversial decisions. There are a lot of “on the other hand” nods to the other side and a remarkable amount of personal reflection and self-analysis.
Obama begins appropriately with some brief background on his family and reference to the places he had lived in his formative years. He acknowledges the influence of his mother’s commitment to good works, her strong values, and moral center, and the quiet patriotism and middle American work ethic of his Kansas-bred grandparents. His absent father is rarely mentioned and clearly didn’t “have much input,” as Obama puts it. Obama also doesn’t dwell on youthful bad decisions and claims any serious consciousness of his mixed-race heritage only came to the fore in his teens. But he does recall that his early love of books and an immature, overly rosy view of America “saved” him in high school from the fate of so many young Black men.
All this early background is brief and Obama quickly delves into his years in Chicago, his relationship with and marriage to Michelle Robinson, and his eventual decision to get into politics, mostly without his new wife’s encouragement. He was a man with a mission, driven to make an impact, to do good, and community organizing and teaching constitutional law turned out to be just too slow. He was in a hurry and saw politics as a way to make his mark, though typically, he reflected on his motives; was it all about doing good, or was it just his ego and ambition at work?
Obama quickly became frustrated with the arcane and deliberate workings of the Illinois Senate in Springfield and the necessary separations with his growing family hours away in Chicago. Despite what he learned about legislating and political give-and-take, he decided that Springfield was not in his future. He then precipitously tried a quixotic run for a Congressional seat from a Chicago district—and lost badly. His luck soon turned, though, when an Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate came open at a time when the Republican opposition was in disarray. It was an easy win and from there he was off and running.
Aside from insights into family life in the White House, I was most taken with Obama’s frank descriptions of life on the various campaign trails. He has admiring words for John McCain; not so much for Sarah Palin. The pressures and stresses an American presidential campaign puts on candidates are brutal—delivering the same speech to different audiences several times a day for weeks on end, all the time making it sound fresh; the constant movement from place to place and trying to remember where you are; never getting enough of the right food or rest; the separation from family (and reality); and the stress of constantly waiting for the inevitable misstep that could sink the whole enterprise. If anything, our way of choosing presidents is a months-long stress test of organization, endurance, and mental constancy.
Some of the meatier parts of the book are Obama’s description of his fights for economic recovery legislation, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), his foreign travels, decisions about Afghanistan, Iraq, the Iranian nuclear agreements, his incisive analysis of the politics of climate change, and the mission to take out Bin Laden. His profile of Vladimir Putin is crisp and eloquent, and here, Obama’s writing skills really show.
The most compelling aspect of this memoir is Obama’s easy, sincere introspection, his ability to question his thinking and instincts, even major decisions. It’s not exactly second-guessing, but it reveals an analytical bent to appreciate all sides of complex issues. This skill is critical since, typically in government, easy decisions are made at lower echelons and intractable ones get kicked up to the more senior levels. Unfortunately that ultimately means, the president now is left to choose the least bad option.
This book was supposed to be a 500-page memoir to be finished in a year. Instead, A Promised Land took twice as long to write and ends with the Bin Laden raid in the spring of 2011. That leaves a lot for Volume Two.
Ed Guest lives and read in East Burke.