Review of “A Promised Land” by Barack Obama

This is the first installment of Barack Obama’s promised two-volume memoirs. It covers his early life through his presidency up to the killing of Osama Bin Ladin in 2011. It is a thoughtful, self-reflective, well-written account of a very eventful time.

As Obama looks back, he questions some of his decisions, or at least acknowledges that there were legitimate questions about what he did. For example, he is quite aware of all the criticisms for his handling of the 2008 financial crisis and the appearance it gave of catering more to greedy bankers than the many ordinary citizens who suffered from their actions.

His approach to that crisis remains part of the disappointment progressives feel over Obama not delivering what they hoped he would. He seems keen to address them, writing that the image of him as “starry-eyed idealist” is not quite accurate. His is instead a pragmatic idealist, influenced by his grandmother. His attitudes and beliefs also show his academic influences: he graduated from Columbia University in 1983, enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1988 where he was the first black person to be president of the Harvard Law Review, and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004.

In any event, there were expectations from both liberals and conservatives that his decisions would reflect his race more than his education and temperament, but they never did. Ironically, his vice president, Joe Biden, now the president, has more freedom as a white man to institute policies that help Blacks, since he will not be seen as “biased.”

The perception of Obama by the right was not helped by his infamous description of the rural white working class — “They get bitter, they cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” He is still brooding over having said this, and the reaction to his remarks.

Obama also addresses his foreign policy moves with respect to Afghanistan and Libya, and it’s hard not to conclude that he still hasn’t come to terms with what would have been the correct approaches to those issues.

On a related note, he discusses his addition of Bob Gates, a Republican, to his administration as Secretary of Defense. He stated that he wanted help to push against his own biases. And in fact, the two men remained somewhat adversarial throughout Obama’s presidency. In Gates’s own memoir about that time, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War, Gates made some harsh observations about Obama, writing of Obama’s approach to the Afghanistan war, the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

In hindsight, it looks as if Obama would not entirely disagree with him.

Obama is still incredulous that he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. “For what?” he asks. The official statement claimed it was for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people.” In addition, “The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

While Obama may disagree over whether he deserved the prize it is clear that he was, and remains, committed to “the American idea: what the country was, and what it could become.” In every political campaign in which he has supported Democratic candidates against divisive and racist Republicans, he has assailed his audience with the cry, “America! This is not who we are!” The 74 million who voted for Trump in 2020 tell a different story. But that doesn’t mean Obama’s isn’t worth hearing. He does indeed represent some of the best of American politics.

Evaluation: I listened to the audio version, read by the ex-president himself in his own inimitable cadence. To say listening to the book was sheer joy might be an exaggeration, but not much of one, particularly in light of the arrogant and ignorant rants of his successor. Throughout the book, Obama comes across as an honest, caring, intelligent human being willing to share his extraordinary experiences in a measured, guarded way.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Crown Publishers, 2020

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