Review: A Promised Land (Barack Obama)
“To be known. To be heard. To have one’s unique identity recognized and seen as worthy. It was a universal human desire, I thought, as true for nations and peoples as it was for individuals.”
― A Promised Land (Barack Obama)
In the 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.
I mean, it’s utterly impossible to truly review a book like this, I’m not going to rate it in the same way I would a fiction story, but this book is incredible.
It covers Obama’s political career from the very beginning, and the first three years of his time in the White House. He says in the preface that he wanted to pull the curtain back a bit, and give people a sense of what it was actually like to be the President, rather than just describing the key events of what happened during his presidency and I think he managed this brilliantly. I loved hearing the thought process behind his decisions, and one of the most powerful moments in the book for me was when he shared the words he wished he had said to the press following the Deepwater Horizon crisis, rather than what he actually said.
There were so many huge events that happened during Obama’s presidency, while I’d heard of most of them, there were so many I’d never fully understood, but A Promised Land covers everything in so much detail.
“I’ve often been asked about this personality trait—my ability to maintain composure in the middle of a crisis. Sometimes I’ll say that it’s just a matter of temperament, or a consequence of being raised in Hawaii, since it’s hard to get stressed when it’s eighty degrees and sunny and you’re five minutes from the beach. If I’m talking to a group of young people, I’ll describe how over time I’ve trained myself to take the long view, about how important it is to stay focused on your goals rather than getting hung up on the daily ups and downs.”
― A Promised Land (Barack Obama)
Obama doesn’t dumb things down in A Promised Land, and he explains things clearly, though my knowledge of American politics isn’t particularly vast so I did have to research a few things he mentioned (though I’m sure my obsessive listening to Hamilton and my repeated viewings of The Good Wife definitely helped…) There is a lot of detail on policies, some chapters are quite dense, particularly around the economic crisis and foreign policy, and at times I found myself skimming some of the bigger paragraphs that I was finding hard to follow.
I loved the stories he shared about Michelle and his children. There are a few anecdotes he recounted which made me smile because Michelle had written about them in Becoming, and it was interesting to hear them from his perspective!
I switched between reading the physical book, and listening to the audiobook which is narrated by Obama, and it’s absolutely wonderful to listen to (and I did enjoy his brief impression of Angela Merkel). The book is very long, just over 700 pages, and the audiobook is almost 30 hours. It is so detailed, and there is a lot to take in, so I found just reading or listening to a couple of chapters at a time was the best way to do it – I don’t think it’s a book you can race through.
Regardless of your thoughts on Obama’s politics, there is no doubt he is an excellent writer. I’ve read his previous two memoirs, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, and both times was struck by how vividly I could picture things he was describing, and how he brought stories to life. Just as an aside, while these two books are absolutely worth reading, you don’t need to have read them prior to reading this!
A Promised Land is fascinating, educational and incredibly insightful. Obama’s story is so unique and as I closed the book, I felt like I’d learnt a lot. It’s candidly written, and it’s clear that he never took a second of his time in office for granted.