Barack Obama makes his memoir worth the wait with A Promised Land: Review
There's a certain kind of reader who will be able to drum up wholehearted enthusiasm for every last paragraph of Barack Obama's new memoir. They're the person who can offer a succinct definition of "policy wonk," or who reads Politico Playbook every morning (all the way down to the birthday listings), or who was a fan of Steve Kornacki years before he showed up, khaki-clad, in front of that miracle board on election night. That reader has already pre-ordered A Promised Land, is maybe even a few chapters in, and definitely isn't skimming past the detailed rehashings of Illinois state legislature meetings or economic briefings.
For the remaining readers, you might find that, say, 77 percent of this book is "for you." It's a 706-page book if you count the acknowledgements — you should definitely read the acknowledgements — and just for reference on the breadth and pace, by the final paragraph it's the spring of 2011. President Obama is nothing if not detailed, and by his own account he wrote this book with an eye for context, never wanting to tell us about a difficult decision he once made or a bill he passed without first helping us understand the history. He is self-aware enough that he realized, in writing, that he would need two volumes to do this right, and apprises (warns?) us of that in the foreword. But trust that you'll be glad for all of it.
Technically a presidential memoir, A Promised Land still offers up a bit of backstory, revisiting Obama's childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his slow conversion from a teenager of middling academic interest and career drive to the editor of the Harvard Law Review, his stint as a community organizer in Chicago, and the years spent commuting down to Springfield for his first senatorial gig. By page 100 he's on the presidential campaign trail, offering hot takes on subjects that passed for controversy 13 years ago (he still broods over his "poorly chosen words" when he described bitter Midwesterners who "cling to guns or religion"; he says Sarah Palin had "no idea what the hell she's talking about"). He offers his account, in manners occasionally thrilling but always educational, of the biggest watershed moments of his early administration: passing the Recovery Act, passing the Affordable Care Act, striking down "don't ask, don't tell," hunting down and killing Osama Bin Laden. In reading the book, or even in reading that last sentence, it's laughable to conjure a world in which Barack Obama had low approval ratings. But, ever humble, he plays devil's advocate there too.
Nothing in the book is saucy by the word's own standards, but by Oval Office standards there are a few pearl-clutching moments. On page 12 Obama admits that during his undergrad years at Columbia (he transferred from Occidental College his sophomore year), he was so earnest and uptight that his friends offered a good-natured piece of advice: "You need to get laid!" PG-rated by all accounts, but have you ever heard a president say "get laid" before? Anecdotes from his marital bedroom are not infrequent (the part where he and Michelle Obama watch movies or chat before bed, but still). His humor, again rare for a person of his professional stature, shines through, most delightfully when he takes jabs at meetings with foreign leaders that could have been an email or Vladimir Putin's obsession with hearing himself talk.
For those who have read Becoming — you should definitely read Becoming! — some of the plotlines will be familiar: the Obamas' meet-cute (she an associate at a big law firm, he her assigned summer intern mentee, a tardy first day), Barack's (can we call him Barack?) difficulties balancing his schedule as an aspiring big-league politician and his duties as a father, convincing Marian Robinson to move with them to the White House. But nothing feels repetitive; instead, it's as though he's finishing the story. It's a two-hander marriage novel with a happy ending, Fates & Furies if the protagonists were the best people you've ever known. Obama uses his skills of introspection, humility, and self-reflection well here — admitting that he came into his summer internship with a little too much swagger but also found his mentor to be highly attractive, or that his semi-absentee parenting hurt Michelle more than it hurt him.
You'll recognize the childhood moments of Sasha and Malia that have become lore, thanks to Michelle's many contributions to pop culture (her memoir, its documentary adaptation, her podcast) but again, they feel fresh through Barack's eyes. And he's like any other dad, regaling us with anecdotes like the time Sasha's youth basketball team was briefly coached by the POTUS and his body man, Reggie Love, or when Malia asked him to use his presidency to "save the tigers."
It's easy to read A Promised Land through the sardonic lens that 2020 has given us. We've spent four years building up our walls of cynicism, poised to see any semblance of skilled politicking or a thoughtful attitude toward the presidency as groundbreaking simply because it's better than the soullessness we've been forced to absorb. I never would have cried over a photo of Joe and Dr. Jill Biden poising with their German shepherds if it didn't feel so refreshing to see a president(-elect) approach an animal without recoiling. But to stop there would be doing this memoir a disservice, because lest we forget, it's very rare for a POTUS to be so raw. George W. Bush may be walking back his harsh stance on immigration in his old age, but no amount of backyard watercolor painting is going to turn him into a man who apologizes for Iraq.
There are no shocking revelations in this memoir, no state secrets spilled, no policy about-faces or unexpected mea culpas — unless you count the revelation that Barack Obama is equal parts heroic and flawed. It's like the old adage about growing up, when you suddenly come to see your parents as human, not superhuman. Barack Obama is, really, just a guy. But he's a guy we're all better for knowing, and A Promised Land is a book we'll all be better for reading. Grade: B+