A Promised Land is former President Barack Obama’s retelling of his life from the beginning of his political upbringing to the end of his first term as President. Released while pandemic, protest, and strife were all occurring simultaneously, Obama’s memoir details his experiences tightly, but still manages to surpass 700 pages. Despite this substantial length, the autobiography manages to be a critical read throughout. Though clearly biased, Obama fairly recognizes many of his shortcomings as President while also adding plenty of authentic personality, making for a book that even those who deeply oppose Obama’s choices in office should read.
The autobiography begins at Barack Obama’s life growing up with his mother in places like Hawaii and Indonesia before tracking through his political awakening while attending Occidental College and Columbia University in the 1980s. Obama then continues chronologically to his time at Harvard Law School, before diving directly into his State Senate career, and then his two terms as Senator of Illinois. The crux of the book, however, is on his time as President and the race preceding. Obama gives insight on landmarks of his presidency that are behind the scenes to things we only saw in the news or read online. Examples include attempting to pass the Affordable Care Act through Congress and the mission to capture Osama Bin Laden.
As a whole, the book should be looked at critically because of the inevitable bias. All politicians will have their own views and take on their time in office, and Obama is no different—the book is prone to exaggeration and dramatization. With bias comes earnestness, however, and A Promised Land is extremely up close and personal, opening the reader up to Obama’s psyche. One insightful episode is when he explains his cigarette addiction, something not widely-known, but something important to his presidential tenure. He tried to escape his addiction after being elected, but the levels of stress were no match. At some point he smoked immensely, smelling like cigarettes after multiple packs. Examples like this make the personal, behind-the-scenes feel worthwhile. Obama feels more like a companion, willing to be vulnerable for our listening.
It becomes clear that Obama is not a professional writer, though he is charismatic and articulate. Timeline jumps and holes in the story progression litter the book. Yet these challenges are not altogether destabilizing, and may actually work to add character and authenticity to the public perception of the former President.
He also makes an effort to recognize his policy and decision-making failures, especially in his first term. Rather than glossing over these missteps, he lingers on them, pointing to a pattern of serious reflection. One such example, and the situation he often receives criticism for, was his decision to continue war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Critically evaluating this choice, he at one point juxtaposes receiving the Nobel Prize for international diplomacy just days before deciding to send more troops to the Middle East. Making controversial decisions like this comes with the job of being a politician, as he points out.
In all, A Promised Land is a great book for anyone into American politics or politics in general—with caveats. Not only might potential readers need to be deep in free time to handle a 700-pager, but also deep in their pockets, as the hardcover book is USD 45 (buy an ebook, save the planet!). In spite of this, Obama does a beautiful job describing the political atmosphere and his feelings throughout his time in various offices. It provides realism to what often is glossed into cinema, and readers get to grow old with Obama in this book.
Perhaps most importantly, A Promised Land is an inspiration for future change-makers—Barack Obama wrote this book to encourage folks to engage in activism and politics. Although Obama has had shortcomings in health care and economic reform, there are newer, younger people in politics out there ready to continue the fight. Obama’s memoir may leave a legacy of inspiring action in an unfinished battle to best serve the country.
And hopefully this book continues to inspire.
Rating: I N D Y
Anthony Bonavita is a freshman in the SFS.