Barack Obama’s memoir is a literary tour de force

A Promised Land is the first volume of Barack Obama's memoir.

You might expect a political memoir to offer up a smorgasbord of self-justification and score-settling. Many such autobiographical works are that and little more. But that is most assuredly not the case with Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. In this first of two planned volumes, the forty-fourth President eloquently conveys what it’s like to live in the White House and raise a family while the world lurches from one crisis to the next. What emerges, above all, is a self-portrait of a complete human being, fully in command in the most challenging job in the world and passionately committed to his family but subject to the same self-doubt as so many of us. This is the real Barack Obama—cranky at times, profane in private, but undeniably brilliant, charismatic, unfailingly generous to his staff, and always at his best when the pressure’s greatest.


A Promised Land by Barack Obama (2020) 768 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)


Barack Obama’s memoir starts with “the bet”

A Promised Land begins with one bet and ends with another. The original bet was Obama’s decision to enter into politics by running for the Illinois state senate in 1996. Of course, he won that bet, and—to everyone’s surprise including his own—Obama sat in the Oval Office just a dozen years later. Then, in the book’s final chapter, as his first term was winding down, the President made a bet with far higher stakes: the decision to launch the mission to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.

The mission to take out Osama bin Laden is the climax of Barack Obama's memoir.
President Obama and his national security team awaiting word of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2011. Photo by Pete Souza. Image credit: Wikipedia

That decision was typical of this unconventional President. It was clearly “a fifty-fifty call” that the tall man surveillance had observed walking in that courtyard in Abbottabad was even bin Laden. And, regardless, the logistics of the mission were challenging as well. It would have been risky under any circumstances. Thus, the specter of Jimmy Carter’s failed bet to rescue the American hostages in Iran menaced the debate within Obama’s national security team. Yet, knowing all that, he chose to greenlight the mission.

“Everything I did or had done involved working the odds,” he writes. “I knew that I could not have come up with a better process to evaluate those odds or surrounded myself with a better mix of people to help me weigh them. I realized that through all the mistakes I’d made and the jams I’d had to extract us from, I had in many ways been training for exactly this moment.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

Eight years chasing solutions to a succession of crises

In A Promised Land, Obama conveys a sense of wonder at the overlapping succession of crises that befell his administration from the day he took office until he reached the end of his story by proxy in Abbottabad. It’s all there. The Great Recession. The struggle to enact the Affordable Care Act. The Greek financial debacle and the Arab Spring. The loss in the 2010 midterm elections. The Iranian push to build nuclear weapons. And so very many other crises both domestic and foreign.

Throughout, Obama weaves into the story his own trenchant observations about the challenges of the presidency and his wife and children’s often very different reactions.

“What I was quickly discovering about the presidency,” Obama writes, “was that no problem that landed on my desk, foreign or domestic, had a clean, 100 percent solution. If it had, someone else down the chain of command would have solved it already. Instead, I was constantly dealing with probabilities. . .” And in some ways the decision to send SEAL Team Six to Abbottabad was a far surer thing than so many other calls the President was forced to make in the course of his first term.

Intimate details of family life in the White House

All the while, life went on. When Obama took office, Malia was 10 and Sasha 7 (and thus both were still teenagers when his second term was up). As any parent will rush to say, raising two bright, energetic children would be a challenge under any circumstances. But life in the White House added layers of complexity, with Secret Service agents posted at every turn and reporters straining against the rule never to photograph the children. But the girls themselves and even their mother come across as unspoiled, even unaffected by the experience.

In 2009, “Michelle asked what [an early-morning phone] call was about.

“‘I’m getting the Nobel Peace Prize.’

“‘That’s wonderful, honey,’ she said, then rolled over to get a little more shut-eye.

“An hour and a half later, Malia and Sasha stopped by the dining room as I was having breakfast. ‘Great news, Daddy,’ Malia said, hitching her backpack over her shoulders. ‘You won the Nobel Peace Prize . . . and it’s Bo’s birthday!’

“‘Plus, it’s gonna be a three-day weekend!’ Sasha added, doing a little fist bump. They both kissed me on the cheek before heading out the door for school.'”

No, this is not a typical political memoir. It’s a revealing self-portrait by the author of Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. Although he is many other things, Barack Obama is also a very gifted writer.

What others have written about this book

Writing for the New York Times Book Review (November 29, 2020), the supremely talented novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie leads off her in-depth review of Barack Obama’s memoir with an unequivocal endorsement. “Barack Obama is as fine a writer as they come,” she writes. “It is not merely that this book avoids being ponderous, as might be expected, even forgiven, of a hefty memoir, but that it is nearly always pleasurable to read, sentence by sentence, the prose gorgeous in places, the detail granular and vivid.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. And, of course, I didn’t, lacking even a fraction of Adichie’s talent.

Similarly, Gary Younge writes approvingly in the Guardian (November 26, 2020) that the book is “a well-reasoned, well-written, insightful appraisal of his campaign and most of his first term. . . Obama is a gifted writer. He can turn a phrase, tell a story and break down an argument. As he goes down the policy rabbit hole he manages to keep the reader engaged without condescension. The writing can be vivid.”

For further reading

Check out Becoming by Michelle Obama (The Michelle Obama memoir is an extraordinary story), The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick (Historical perspective on the surprising rise of Barack Obama), and The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes (Reviewing the Ben Rhodes White House memoir).

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