‘A Promised Land’ is the first of two volumes of Barack Obama’s memoirs of his two-term presidency. Published in November last year, this part covers his path to becoming the Democrat candidate in 2008 and then rattles through the main challenges he faced during the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency including the financial crisis, military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, healthcare reform, climate change, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Arab Spring and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Like many political memoirs, ‘A Promised Land’ is on the wordy side, clocking in at over 700 pages with another volume still to come. Obama is self-aware enough to realise that his verbosity was an issue in his early campaign speeches which focused too much on policy detail and sometimes saw him struggle to connect with voters on a personal level. Thankfully, his writing on the page is engaging even when he is explaining complex policy background, although if you’re more interested in life behind the scenes at the White House, then Becoming by Michelle Obama generally offers more insight on that side of things.
As a young African-American candidate, Obama is particularly perceptive about the weight of expectation placed on him by his supporters: “I knew a time would come when I would disappoint them, falling short of the image that my campaign and I had helped to construct”. He partly justified his run for the presidency by the capacity of his campaign to inspire young people from less privileged backgrounds, while also recognising the practical limitations of being able to help those people and improve their lives once he was elected. Even his most ardent supporters would probably acknowledge that his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 was premature – there is a great anecdote where he tells Michelle in their bedroom that he had won the Prize and she says “That’s wonderful, honey” before rolling over to go back to sleep.
The burden of being commander-in-chief and the huge responsibilities and complex decision-making processes that come with it weigh heavily on Obama and he berates himself for gaffes that seem positively inoffensive compared to pretty much everything his successor to the role has ever said or done in his life. Sometimes Obama is so self-reflective that it seems like a miracle that he managed to get anything done at all during his presidency. However, there were some notable achievements, such as the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. The book also foreshadows the current political landscape. John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 normalised a certain type of aggressive populist campaigning that is now all too familiar, and Donald Trump looms in the background stirring up false conspiracy theories about Obama’s birth certificate.
With the knowledge of what followed after Obama’s presidency, ‘A Promised Land’ is probably as close as you can get to comfort reading in a political memoir. I look forward to reading the second volume.