With the unforgettable events of early January, it is safe to say that America experienced extreme division through its political landscape. So, what better time to read a political memoir? Written by former president Barack Obama, A Promised Land, was my hefty, but timely choice for early 2021.
The 701-page, first-person narrative briefly covered Mr. Obama’s somewhat unlikely journey in politics — from a community organizer to Illinois state senator, to one term in Congress to the 44th (and first Black) president of the United States.
For the most part, each chapter focused on one element of policy or a lesson in diplomacy, which was insightful, but also occasionally exhausting. I wasn’t aware until the final chapter (which was somewhat disappointingly the most riveting one) that A Promised Land was only taking the reader mid-way through Mr. Obama’s first term as president. By the time I powered through the text, I must say I was a bit bummed to find out I had a second volume to conquer in the future.
Mr. Obama’s two terms as president spanned from the tail end of my senior year of high school through college, grad school and my first few years as a fledgling adult. To say that I didn’t pay attention to his administration is an understatement. The only two things that remotely stood out from that time of my life were the stimulus package (of which I remember conservative outrage) and healthcare reform (which nearly cost me a hefty fine when I aged out of my parents’ coverage).
What I really enjoyed about the book was the deep dive into the domestic policy and international affairs from my formative adult years during which I was drowning in memorizing the concepts necessary to be a political science major. Despite my choice of major, at the time, I tended to reject political conversations and news as I found them to be polarizing and often times confusing. I appreciated the historical perspective of government, but loathed debating and needing to keep track of the endless revolving door of public officials. How does one align with a party that will never fully represent my morals and ethics? It’s such an impossible system in which we live.
A Promised Land prompted me to reflect on my inherent and learned biases and opinions for/against, well, pretty much everything. I repeatedly thought through my motivations for voting for particular people or policies and what I hoped elected officials would accomplish on my behalf. Sometimes as a country, both sides of the aisle like to pretend that the politicians who are meant to represent us are actually robots. Mr. Obama’s book reminded me that all people are human and, for better or worse, we’re all susceptible to pride, tunnel vision, heartbreak, folly and anger, and simultaneously capable of love, joy, humility, kindness and compassion.
“Looking back, I sometimes ponder the age-old question of how much difference the particular characteristics of individual leaders make in the sweep of history—whether those of us who rise to power are mere conduits for the deep, relentless currents of the times or whether we’re at least partly the authors of what’s to come. I wonder whether our insecurities and our hopes, our childhood traumas or memories of unexpected kindness carry as much force as any technological shift or socioeconomic trend.”A Promised Land (Crown, 2020) p. 634
My complaint (other than the length) is that the purpose of the book felt a bit muddled. Was it meant to be a defense of policy and personnel decisions? An inside portrayal of the highs, lows and very lonely moments of being the leader of the free world?
Regardless of what Mr. Obama’s intention was, I do think this is a relevant supplementary text for Americans to round out our understanding of life at the top of our political system. We should of course hold our leaders to high standards, but we should never forget to take a deep breath and not rip them apart limb by limb.
This book may be for you if you also like: U.S. history; presidents; democracy; diplomacy; the White House; politics; celebrity memoirs; Mr. Obama’s other books, Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope; Becoming (documentary, 2020); Deepwater Horizon (movie, 2016); Zero Dark Thirty (movie, 2012).