A Promised Land

  • By Barack Obama
  • Crown
  • 768 pp.

Our 44th president tells his expansive, inspiring story.

I can’t claim that this review is neutral and unbiased. I have been a Barack Obama supporter since before he was elected to the presidency the first time in 2008. And reading A Promised Land made me admire him even more. Besides, my study of the book came in the midst of the effort by Obama’s unscrupulous successor in the White House, Donald Trump, to overturn the valid election that defeated him. That made the read a study in contrasts.

It was a long and slow read. Repeatedly, I’d be so stuck by a passage that I’d stop, ponder, then go back and read it again. Sometimes, it was the way Obama used words or turned a phrase. More often, it was a penetrating insight that caught my breath.

Unlike so many other famous men, Obama does all his writing himself — he doesn’t depend on ghostwriters. And the writing is, for the most part, superb. That is because Obama is so well read. He obviously has made it his business over his life to read deeply and broadly. His occasional references to other writers only hint at the breadth of his knowledge.

And what Obama accomplished in office, particularly in his first two years, remains legendary. The Recovery Act was the largest legislative investment in infrastructure since the 1930s. The Affordable Care Act (contemptuously called “Obamacare” by the Republicans, creating the name its supporters adopted) reshaped for the better U.S. healthcare. Pushed, pulled, led, and harried by Obama, Congress achieved more in a single session during his first term in office than it had in 40 years. Only the leftover muddle from the Bush administration and Republican sabotage prevented him from accomplishing more.

Throughout, Obama comes across as devoted and, considering his triumphs, humble. He expresses his fondness and admiration for those whose cooperation and support made his success possible. He calls the reader’s attention to David Axelrod (whom he refers to as “Axe”), Robert Gibbs, Valerie Jarrett, David Plouffe, Rahm Emmanuel, Claire McCaskill, Tim Geithner, Chuck Hagel, and countless others.

But he is equally dismissive of those he believed were working against the interests of average Americans. One of his favorite targets is Republican senator Mitch McConnell. What Mitch, he says, “lacked in charisma or interest in policy he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness and shamelessness — all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power.”

Obama frequently made visits to Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There he sat by the bedside of service men wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Toward the end of his presidency, the New York Times ran an article opining that a commander-in-chief should not visit the wounded because it would cloud his capacity to make clear-eyed, strategic decisions. His response:

“I was never more clear-eyed than on the flights back from Walter Reed and Bethesda. Clear about the true costs of war, and who bore those costs. Clear about war’s folly, the sorry tales we humans collectively store in our heads and pass on from generation to generation — abstractions that fan hate and justify cruelty and force even the righteous among us to participate in carnage. Clear that by virtue of my office, I could not avoid responsibility for lives lost or shattered, even if I somehow justified my decisions by what I perceived to be some larger good.”

This from a man who never served in the military.

Which leads to another remarkable factor: Obama’s youth. I am reviewing the autobiography of a two-term president young enough to be my son. Born in 1961, Obama was too young for service in Vietnam. The year after he was born, I served my first short tour there as a civilian under cover as military. That was after I had completed my military service — mostly before Obama was even born.

Obama’s ultimate motivation for seeking the presidency moved me. He was, after all, a Black man with an Arabic-sounding name. Early in the book, he recounts a conversation he had with his wife, Michelle, in which she questioned his desire to become president. His answer is worth quoting in full:

“I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around the country — Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in — they’ll see themselves differently, too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone…would be worth it.”

Obama’s campaign slogan? “Yes We Can.”

A Promised Land was one of the 10 bestselling books in 2020, according to the New York Times. Part of the reason is that the writing is a model of clarity and inventiveness. And Obama demonstrates a unique talent for similes.

Two examples — italicized here for clarity — come during his description of his visit to Denmark for negotiations chaired by Lars Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, on reducing global warming. Obama portrays the conference as raucous, “with delegates repeatedly objecting to [Rasmussen’s] proposals, questioning his rulings, and challenging his authority, like unruly teenagers with a substitute teacher.”

Rasmussen, Obama says, “looked shell-shocked, his bright blue eyes strained with exhaustion, his blond hair matted against his head as if he’d just finished a wrestling match.” Later, Obama describes a nun’s face as “grooved as a peach pit.” At another point, he compares the continuing appearance of press stories on Trump’s false claims about Obama’s birthplace to “algae in a stagnant pond.”

Obama actually has little to say about Trump. He spends several pages on Trump’s repeated false claims that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and how his birth certificate disproved Trump’s allegation. And he recounts his remarks at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the only occasion I know of where the president is expected to look for laughs while ribbing his adversaries:

“Now I know he has taken some flack lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

Trump responded with a thin smile.

The only criticism I have to offer of Obama’s writing is his tendency to explain with an overabundance of historical data, a pedagogical inclination he admits to. At times, it felt to me that his professorial instincts got the better of him to the detriment of the point he was making or story he was telling. One symptom of his didactic tendencies? Strings of related sentences separated not by periods but by semicolons.

But if I want the learning, I have to accept the teacher, semicolons and all. And, as I trust the foregoing makes clear, I embrace Barack Obama’s teaching. I have learned a great deal from him. And while I can’t recommend this book to the casual reader — it’s too deep and dense for that — I commend it to those willing to take on a challenge that will richly reward them.

Tom Glenn is a fulltime novelist best known for the 13 years he was in Vietnam more time than he was in the U.S. His work was supporting U.S. forces in combat with signals intelligence targeting the North Vietnamese. He escaped under fire in April 1975 when Saigon fell. He now has six books and 17 short stories in print.

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