30 Hours with Obama- A Promised Land Reviewed.
Updated: Jan 30, 2021
A Promised Land- (Presidential Memoirs part I) Barack Obama 2020
Generally I tend to shy away from autobiographies, because I see them as self-serving and a chance for someone to brag about what a great person they are. I especially avoid autobiographies of politicians, because they are lifelong experts at portraying themselves in the best light. That said, I felt that I had to check out President Barack Obama's long-awaited memoir, if only because of the uniqueness of his presidency and the overwhelming interest that this book has drawn- making it the #1 selling book in the US.
Full disclosure: I voted for Barack Obama- twice. He wasn't my top choice, but he turned out to be one of the best presidents of my lifetime. Granted my lifetime includes some particularly mediocre presidents like LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes. All of those presidents were flawed men who accomplished some good, but also succumbed to scandals and poor decisions that ruined their credibility. Barack Obama was different. There were no meaningful scandals in two terms, his family life was amazingly normal, and he seemed to be a decent, hardworking guy trying to do his best. Five years after he has left office, Obama is more popular than ever, having the most Twitter followers of anybody and now having the number one selling book by far.
A Promised Land is a long journey through the beginnings of Obama's career up until May of 2011 and the killing of Osama Bin Laden. There will be a second part to this memoir covering his second term, and I'm keen to hear why he thinks America turned so far away from him at the end of his time. But for 30 hours of listening to the audio version with Obama narrating his life, I got to hear his inner thoughts and frustrations as he recounted historical events I was familiar with. (Tip for audio listeners- you can easily speed the book up to 1.25 speed and not miss anything.)
Aside from the politics, family was an important part of Obama's life story, and he dives deep into his childhood, giving particular credit to his mother and grandmother for raising him right. I have read his wife Michelle's book, Becoming, and Barack's story contrasts nicely with hers to give the reader a good picture of how much these two love each other and what an exceptional marriage they have. Michelle eventually came around to support his political ambitions, but she wasn't a pushover and their marriage is an inspiration. Obama speaks lovingly about his two daughters, Sasha and Malia, and regrets somewhat how his path made their lives more complicated. At least from his side of things, it sounds like he was a great father taking time out of his busy schedule for them, and unless we hear a tell-all book from the girls some day, that's all we have to go by.
What I've always liked about Obama was his intelligence and curiosity. He confesses to be a dedicated reader of books from a young age, which is something I wish all of our leaders had in their toolbox. Reading thought-provoking books is the best way to grow your brain, and it certainly helped Obama. Reading also made him a good writer, as this book is NOT ghost-written but rather penned entirely by the author, as were his previous books. My only complaint about his writing is that I wish he had shortened this book somehow, either by editing it more or by breaking it up into more books. 800 pages or 30 hours is a huge commitment, and I'm curious as to how many people who got this book actually consumed the whole thing.
While this book takes a while to get going, here are some of the highlights that make it worthwhile checking out:
- The section on the 2008 election is fascinating. He came close to not running, but his tenacity in the Iowa Caucus and dogged preparation earned him a surprise win and national attention. He speaks honestly about McCain and Hillary Clinton, and appears to have no animosities towards either of them. He gives plenty of credit to his crew of advisors- David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs and the thousands of volunteers.
- He speaks about the financial crisis that greeted him when he took office and is unapologetic when facing critics that he should have done more. I suspect that he revisits this from time to time as a missed opportunity. Like any president, he was constrained by a dysfunctional congress, led by an obstructionist Republican party that didn't want to see him succeed. The Great Recession was a scary time, but it could have gone a lot worse. The bailout was priority #1 when he took office, and the financial crisis consumed his first year. There is some discussion about Dodd/Frank and how it attempted to correct the financial system, while being frustratingly opposed by bank executives whose asses had just been saved by the bailout.
- The Affordable Care Act gets lengthy treatment, and it remains President Obama's signature achievement, even if he didn't think of it or improve upon it. For the life of me I will never understand the debate that surrounded health care in America back then or today. Our healthcare system is STILL an expensive mess and no one has presented a better or more affordable plan in the 12 years since the ACA. It remains a miracle that the law was ever passed and still survives. Between Al Franken's razor-thin victory in Minnesota and Edward Kennedy's death in 2009, the Democrats had a very brief 60 vote majority that made the law possible. The odds of them ever doing that again are extremely slim, which makes the stalemate in Washington practically permanent unless something is done about the filibuster. (Since the law's passage, Republicans have attempted to repeal it over fifty times, coming one vote shy in 2017, and now relying on a Supreme Court case still pending. And always with NO replacement.)
- Obama has a chapter on climate, which understandably took a backseat to other priorities during his tenure. Still, he joined the Paris accords and had a memorable meeting with the Chinese and Brazilians that he recounts in this book. He also discusses the BP Oil spill at length and the many steps that were taken to stop it and then clean up.
- The book briefly mentions Donald Trump, going over the racist birther conspiracy rumors that Trump promoted. The whole birth certificate controversy ended up being about nothing, but it catapulted Trump into the political realm where he soon would take over. The two men obviously don't care for each other and I look forward to reading Obama's second act to hear more about why he thinks Trump got elected. (And I'd love to read Trump's memoirs to hear his explanations for why he dumped on Obama's legacy specifically.)
- There are several chapters on foreign policy that probably make more sense to those familiar with all the names and personalities. Putin and Medvedev in Russia were unpleasant, Merkel of Germany was a smart woman, and the Middle East was as much of a mess as it's been for centuries. He details the US special relationship with Israel, and expresses empathy for the Palestinians to his credit. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars that began before he took office weighed him down, and the conflict in Libya threatened to blossom into a major war as well. I had forgotten much of the Arab Spring from 2011, but Obama recounts the many developments in Egypt, Tunisia, and the rest of the Arab world from that year.
- Probably the most exciting chapter of the book comes at the very end. It details the search for Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of 9/11, and his capture and death in 2011. We take the event for granted now, but back then there was a lot of uncertainty that Bin Laden was even in the compound that was raided, and worry about what Pakistan would do if things went wrong. This was probably Obama's most high-stakes challenge, because if it had gone wrong he would probably have never been re-elected in 2012.
President Obama laments that the killing of Bin Laden was seen as the one thing he did that unified the country- an act of violence and vengeance. None of the other more positive attempts at making a difference drew bi-partisan agreement, and I'm sure it saddens him that the nation became so deeply divided during his tenure that it couldn't even agree on basic facts. He still seems at a loss to explain the deep divisions that plague the country after his tenure- the racial divides, partisan divides, and economic divides.
I recommend this book to lovers of history, as well as to those who admired President Obama for some or most of the things he did while in office. I truly believe that history will judge his time in office highly, and his current popularity all over the world gives testament to the intelligence and character of this unusual politician. We need more leaders of his intellect, character, decency, and courage in this troubled and divided country. As for the title of the book, Obama remains a hopeless romantic when it comes to America's promise, even after watching it fall down drastically after he left office. Here is a quote I enjoyed:
“I don’t know. What I can say for certain is that I’m not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America—not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all of humankind. For I’m convinced that the pandemic we’re currently living through is both a manifestation of and a mere interruption in the relentless march toward an interconnected world, one in which peoples and cultures can’t help but collide. In that world—of global supply chains, instantaneous capital transfers, social media, transnational terrorist networks, climate change, mass migration, and ever-increasing complexity—we will learn to live together, cooperate with one another, and recognize the dignity of others, or we will perish. And so the world watches America—the only great power in history made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race and faith and cultural practice—to see if our experiment in democracy can work. To see if we can do what no other nation has ever done. To see if we can actually live up to the meaning of our creed.”