Barack Obama’s A Promised Land delivers a journey down a political rabbit hole

By Julia Guerrein, Editor-in-Chief

Photo by Julia Guerrein/The Forum.

President Barack Obama published his much-anticipated book, A Promised Land, in mid-November. A Promised Land is the first of two books detailing his presidency.

Obama starts the book by telling readers that he wrote A Promised Land for young people: “More than anyone, this book is for those young people—an invitation to once again remake the world, to bring about, through hard work, determination, and a big dose of imagination, an America that finally aligns with all that is best in us.”

A Promised Land goes through Obama’s early years (read Dreams from my Father for a more in-depth look at his life before 1995), his time in the Illinois legislature, a failed campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives, his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that propelled him into the spotlight, a successful campaign for the U.S. Senate, his presidential election, and his first term as President of the United States (POTUS). The book oscillates between in-depth looks at policy issues facing the Obama Administration and personal reflections of the former president.

Packed into a little over 700 pages, Obama explains his journey in great detail. He also includes additional information he deemed necessary to understand the events, such as explaining Senator Ted Kennedy’s lifelong fight for a comprehensive healthcare plan and how Obama’s mother’s battle with cancer inspired him to fight for healthcare.

“…a scaled-down bill wasn’t going to help millions of people who were desperate…” Obama wrote. “The idea of letting them down—of leaving them to fend for themselves because their president hadn’t been sufficiently brave, skilled, or persuasive to cut through the political noise and get what he knew to be the right thing done—was something I couldn’t stomach.”

Obama’s reflections on his past were sometimes critical, but other times he drew on his younger self’s idealism to explain his path to the present. For example, his travels to visit with heads of states in the Czech Republic and Turkey reminded him of when he sat in his apartment during law school and watched the Velvet Revolution unfold.

“It felt like a long time ago. And yet looking out from the backseat of the presidential limousine, preparing to deliver an address that would be broadcast around the world, I realized that there was a direct if wholly improbable line between that moment and this one. I was the product of that young man’s dreams; and as we pulled up to the makeshift holding area behind a wide stage, a part of me imagined myself not as the politician I had become but as one of those young people in the crowd, unencumbered by the need to accommodate men like Erdogan and Klaus, obliged only to make common cause with those chasing after a new and better world.”

In his dealings with other countries, Obama wrote that he took extra effort to talk to citizens, rather than just meeting with heads of state. In some countries like Egypt, as one example, Obama emphasized the distance between the leaders and citizens. Throughout the book, as he makes clear in the quote above, Obama discussed his struggles with having to be polite in the face of injustice. As President, Obama noted that he had to put the needs of the U.S. and the world before what he wanted to do or what he thought was the right thing to do.

Relatedly, Obama wrote that he learned to understand the limitations of being POTUS, saying, “I realized that for all the power inherent in the seat I now occupied, there would always be a chasm between what I knew should be done to achieve a better world and what in a day, week, or year I found myself actually able to accomplish.”

While delving deep into his political career, Obama also explained the stress of campaigning and the nature of the positions he has held. The consistent travel and long workdays strained his relationship with his wife, Michelle, and often left him little time to spend with his two daughters. Once his family resided in the White House, he explained that living where he worked helped him better balance family life with work life. During the day, he would deal with any number of issues from across the globe, and then at dinner his daughters would bring him back by talking about school and boys and their friends. The new living arrangement helped him stay grounded during his time in the White House, he wrote.

I was surprised by Obama’s candid, and often critical, assessment of his opponents and allies. While working on various pieces of legislation, Obama described how difficult it was to work with Republicans, notably Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, who regularly intentionally disrupted the legislative process to get in Obama’s way.

Despite the challenges, pressure, and long hours, Obama truly enjoyed his work. As he explained, “The fuss of being president, the pomp, the press, the physical constraints—all that I could have done without. The actual work, though? The work, I loved. Even when it didn’t love me back.”

While A Promised Land came in at a lengthy 700+ pages, I think Obama needed that many pages to give justice to the stories he told. I was in fifth grade when Obama was elected in 2008, and the background included with the policy and political issues helped me understand what I had been too young to understand at the time. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wishes to understand the position of the U.S. president in-depth, or who simply wants to learn more about Barack Obama. But be warned: this thick book takes time and patience to read.

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