Photo: ‘A Promised Land’/Crown Publishing Group
A Rewarding Start to Barack Obama’s Presidential Memoirs
President Barack Obama’s recently released memoir, A Promised Land, turns out to be one of the best reads of 2020. Released during an undeniably tumultuous period in American history—with the country experiencing ongoing protests, a worldwide pandemic, and a heated U.S. presidential election—Obama’s memoir serves as an inspirational recollection of the country’s achievement in electing its first Black president, and his administration’s big wins during his first term, such as the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the elimination of Osama bin Laden. Obama also indirectly highlights the stark differences between his and his successor’s administrations, and at the same time freely admits his self-doubts, failures, and shortcomings throughout his life and early presidency, resulting in a deeply personal read.
Four years in the making (Obama started working on A Promised Land shortly after the end of his presidency), and covering a wide span of topics—ranging from his Hawaiian childhood upbringing, his family’s dynamic and influence, a prestigious education, his eventual and historic career as a politician, the “birtherism” fiasco, and all the tragedies and triumphs in between—Obama’s memoir is an engrossing read for those interested in politics and fans of well-written literature.
‘A Promised Land’ – A Book With a Clear Vision
Obama starts the book by admitting the collective exhaustion, and feelings of accomplishment, that he and Michelle both felt by the end of their eight-year run as president and first lady. His self-proclaimed vision for the memoir was to “…give an honest rendering of my time in office,” with his chief goal being: “Where possible, I wanted to offer readers a sense of what it’s like to be the president of the United States,” as well as to inspire those considering a life in public service or for the greater good—goals in which he surely succeeded.
Throughout his 700-page book, Obama is able to humanize the role of the presidency and provide a vivid look into the inner workings of the White House, comparing the administration’s triumphs and disappointments to those likely shared by every-day Americans. A scholar with a natural talent for both writing and public speaking, Obama’s technique of juxtaposing visual imagery and humor against his often serious musings on past political events, is a combination that works well in hooking the reader in an otherwise lengthy, and often cerebral, read. His writing style—self-described as “old school”—is impressive in its own right, giving the book an immediate sense of quality:
“I still like writing things out long-hand [with a pen and yellow note pad], finding that a computer gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness.”
Concerning America’s struggles with its identity and issues that have only escalated in recent years, Obama ominously poses a question in his preface, asking the reader if we, as a country and its people, have the strength to “…match the reality of America to its ideals,” or whether the words inscribed into the Statue of Liberty are ultimately reserved for the privileged few. He poses the same questions to the reader that he himself often obsessed over in his youth, making for an often analytical and engaging read (but in the best ways possible). Obama hauntingly calls for world unification, warning that humankind may very well perish otherwise, but is hopeful that together as a society we can still better ourselves and accomplish great things.
“More than anyone, this book is for those young people—an initiation to once again remake the world… To bring about an America that finally aligns with all that is best of us.”
– Barack Obama
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Tour of the White House
In the book’s opening pages, President Obama gives detailed and visually rich descriptions of the White House, in addition to a brief history of its legacy and his relationships with his passionate and dedicated staff. When describing his daily walks through the West Colonnade, the reader really does feel like they’re walking right alongside the president—the words leap from the page and provide surprisingly detailed illustrations of the inner workings of the White House that are sure to intrigue the average American. Obama compares himself to its groundskeepers, whom he calls “guardians of good and solemn order,” and recalls his early ambition to take his new role as president as seriously as they did in taking care of the property, in a way portraying his new home as a fine-tuned machine with many moving cogs.
A Search for Identity, Early Inspirations, and Finding Michelle
One of the more intriguing aspects of the book is Obama’s willingness to let the reader in. He offers a glimpse of his early life in Indonesia and Hawaii, shares his thoughts on the difficulties of growing up Black, and reflects on his childhood yearning for a sense of identity:
“It was as if, because of the very strangeness of my heritage and the worlds I straddled, I was from everywhere and nowhere at once… Confined to a fragile habitat, unsure of where I belonged.”
He acknowledges his surprising trajectory into politics and attributes his college-student discoveries of suffragists and early labor organizers—in addition to leaders of the civil rights movements—as his early inspirations for pursuing politics.
Segments regarding his relationship with Michelle provide some of the more personal and surprising moments of the book. Obama affectionately describes meeting Michelle LaVaughn Robinson—who will later become Michelle Obama—and speaks of her intelligence, wit, and beauty, realizing they had all the right qualities to make a great team together. Despite their seemingly perfect high-profile marriage, Obama surprises the reader by giving an honest account of the couple’s shared difficulties—ones that end up sounding similar to most marriages: juggling responsibilities, taking care of the kids, and frictions that result from busy work schedules.
Obama repeatedly illustrates Michelle’s disdain and even lack of support in his pursuits for higher office, fearing more responsibilities would only add stress and financial strain on the young family. Despite these difficult and occasionally uncomfortable revelations, these honest introspective moments end up humanizing the president and his family, even more, making the Obamas (almost) sound like any other typical American family—full of goals, laughter, and everyday struggles.
A Chronology of Obama’s Political Ascent
Perhaps the main value of reading A Promised Land lies in Obama’s nearly step-by-step recollection of his venture into politics. From his childhood family inspirations (notably his career-oriented and progressive mother), to his college exposure of political icons and civil rights movements, to working in Chicago and helping communities on a more minor level, and to eventually becoming the first Black senator and later first Black president of the United States, Obama’s memoir is an intriguing, and often an inspiring compilation of his steady ascent into politics. Regarding his first presidential campaign in 2007, Obama simply states that the point was to win, saying:
“I wanted to prove to Blacks, to whites—to Americans of all colors—that we could transcend the old logic, that we could rally a working majority around a progressive agenda… And then actually deliver the goods.”
He candidly discusses his impressions of his democratic rivals, such as Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and his eventual Vice-Presidential pick Joe Biden (who turns out to have initially resisted the idea of playing “second-fiddle” to Obama’s presidency). He provides grueling details of running against John McCain and his surprise running mate Sarah Palin, whom Obama partly credits for the rise of anti-intellectualism and xenophobic-fueled conservatism in America, due to Palin’s “real American mom” image, her likable personality, and dangerously blatant disregard for facts.
He goes into detail about the immediate challenges his newly-appointed administration faced, such as the 2008 economic crisis, the prolonged war in the Middle East, and the difficulties involved in delivering the promised universal healthcare for all Americans. Serving as the arguable climax of the entire 700-page book, Obama also recounts in great detail the top-secret operation that ultimately led to Osama bin Laden’s assassination—one of the biggest wins of his entire presidency.
Donald Trump Is Largely Absent
For a book its size, A Promised Land surprisingly only covers up to the end of Obama’s first term (his 2012 campaign isn’t even mentioned). However, despite their encounters largely falling outside this specific time frame, Obama still delivers some thoughts on Donald Trump—the unlikely Republican candidate who, against all odds, shocked the world in 2016 and became Obama’s presidential successor.
Related article: Donald Trump Attacks Press Freedom, Cops Assault Journalists Bloody
Obama recounts the infamous 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, to which Trump was invited as a guest and ended up serving as the butt of countless jokes, some of them administered by Barack Obama himself (some have even blamed that night for Trump’s eventual presidency). Obama also writes of his administration’s scientifically-led efforts to control the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic and the later Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Although he doesn’t make the explicit comparison, the reader can’t help but notice the glaring differences between Obama’s handling of his administration’s health crises, and the ways in which Trump has responded to the current COVID-19 pandemic—a likely intentional move, and indirect dig, by Obama. Overall, aside from the brief mentions on the current state of the world, some minor references toward the current president and his administration, and his straightforward address regarding Trump’s infamous “birtherism” claims, Obama doesn’t spend many pages dwelling on Donald Trump. For those looking for a deeper and more critical examination of his successor, that content is likely to come in the memoir’s eventual sequel.
A Highly Recommended Read
A Promised Land is a compelling inside look at the life of President Barack Obama. Covering topics such as family, his inspirations, his stance on various global policies, and his gradual ascent to being a leader of the free world, these various segments make Obama’s memoir come off as a remarkably engaging, cerebral, and page-turning read, topped with a carefully crafted structure and visually powerful storytelling. For those looking for the next great book, A Promised Land should be at the top of everyone’s list.
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Les Almourzaev regularly works as a freelance script reader and screenwriter in Los Angeles. In addition to writing features and reviews for Hollywood Insider, Les provides guidance to up-and-coming writers of all backgrounds, as well as regularly reading for various local and international film festivals. Passionate for diverse and substance-focused writing, Les is excited to work with Hollywood Insider to provide meaningful and in-depth journalism.