A Promised Land - Critical summary review - Barack Obama

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A Promised Land - critical summary review

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Society & Politics and Biographies & Memoirs

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: A Promised Land

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 1524763160

Publisher: Crown

Critical summary review

Even though it was published on November 17, 2020, Barack Obama’s memoir “A Promised Land” sold more than 2.5 million copies by New Year’s Eve alone, and ended up being the bestselling book for the year in the United States. More than justifying its dizzying and record-breaking $65 million advance, the autobiography is just the first of a planned two-volume series, and that is despite being a door stopper, spanning 768 eloquently written pages. Covering everything from his childhood to Osama bin Laden’s death, the book charts Obama’s political rise to the White House and his first two years in office. Get ready for just a few memorable moments and highlights!

“That guy? How the hell did that happen?”

Obama doesn’t come from a political family nor was he interested in politics as a young man. Rather than being a budding leader, he was, by his own account, “a lackadaisical student, a passionate basketball player of limited talent, and an incessant, dedicated partyer. Through high school,” Obama remembers, “my friends and I didn’t discuss much beyond sports, girls, music, and plans for getting loaded.” 

Some of these guys have remained Obama’s closest friends to this day. Despite most of them taking a crucial part in his campaigns, Obama admits that at certain moments during his presidency, he could not help but notice a certain bafflement in their faces, betraying a question that must have probably crossed their minds more than once: “That guy? How the hell did that happen?” “If my friends had ever asked me directly,” Obama writes, “I’m not sure I’d have had a good answer.”

The truth is, the young Obama had far more questions than answers about everything. A lot of these questions, he explains, centered on race, spanning from, “How come there were so many great Black basketball players, but not one Black coach?” to, “What did that girl from school mean when she said she didn’t think of me as Black?” He wondered about class as well. 

Growing up in Indonesia with his stepfather from age 6 to 10, Obama could observe from close “the yawning chasm between the lives of wealthy elites and impoverished masses.” It didn’t take him long to understand that, despite his mother’s claims, the good and decent people didn’t win anything in the end, as opposed to the bullies and cheats who were essentially doing quite well.

Rather than talking to other people about this, around the 10th grade, Obama took up reading. At a rummage sale across the street from his grandparents’ apartment in Hawaii, he happened upon several titles he had heard of before and bought a few books by Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Dostoyevsky. After reading them, he wanted more, so he began going to other rummage sales, browsing for attractive titles. There was no system to Obama’s early reading – just curiosity and a vague understanding that all of it might prove handy some day in the future.

Sex and politics: awakenings go hand in hand

“My interest in books,” writes Obama early in his memoir, “probably explains why I not only survived high school but arrived at Occidental College in 1979 with a thin but passable knowledge of political issues and a series of half-baked opinions that I’d toss out during late-night bull sessions in the dorm.” It was, however, his interest in girls that motivated him to read more and read more regularly. 

“Looking back,” he writes with hindsight, “it’s embarrassing to recognize the degree to which my intellectual curiosity those first two years of college paralleled the interests of various women I was attempting to get to know: Marx and Marcuse so I had something to say to the long-legged socialist who lived in my dorm; Fanon and Gwendolyn Brooks for the smooth-skinned sociology major who never gave me a second look; Foucault and Woolf for the ethereal bisexual who wore mostly black. As a strategy for picking up girls,” concludes Obama, “my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless; I found myself in a series of affectionate but chaste friendships.”

Even so, the two years he spent at Occidental represented the beginning of his political awakening. He became interested in the life and legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and Lech Walesa, of Dr. Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer. He explored the struggles and opinions of early suffragists and early labor organizers, and with each passing day, became more and more convinced that democracy wasn’t a gift from above, but something earned through the sacrifice and heroism of exceptional people. He began dreaming of becoming one someday.

Love and education

After his sophomore year, pursuing a new start in life, Obama transferred to Columbia University. Pushed by his professors to take his studies more seriously, he gave up partying and idling for reading, writing and journaling, and began yearning to become “a part of something grand and idealistic.” For three years in New York, Obama lived the life of a monk, of “a young Walter Mitty,” of a “Don Quixote with no Sancho Panza.”

Soon after receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia, Obama took a job as a community organizer on Chicago’s impoverished Far South Side. Craving more, he decided to apply to Harvard Law School, where he became the first African American to serve as president of the Harvard Law Review. He graduated magna cum laude in 1991.

Two years before that, while working as a summer associate at the Chicago Law firm of Sidley & Austin, he met a 25-year-old aspiring lawyer by the name of Michelle Robinson, assigned by the firm to look out for him. “Tall, beautiful, funny, outgoing, generous, and wickedly smart,” Obama was smitten with Robinson from the very first second he saw her. A dinner led to a series of long walks which transformed a budding friendship into a romantic love affair. Soon after Obama graduated from law school, the two married. 

Obama’s rise to presidency

Even though the story of Obama’s political rise has been told too many times not to be well known among the public, it bears repeating here in brief, if only to serve as a link between his less-known early life and a few interesting autobiographical highlights from his first term as president.  

Obama became an active member of the Democratic Party soon after receiving his law degree and marrying Robinson. In 1996, he was elected to the Illinois state senate and eight years later, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate by a landslide victory over Republican nominee Alan Keyes, becoming, in the process, the third African American to be elected to that body since the end of Reconstruction. By then, Obama had already become a national celebrity, thanks in large part to his July Democratic National Convention keynote address.

A watershed moment in his career, the touching address – beautifully titled “The Audacity of Hope” – propelled Obama to stardom and won him not only the November Illinois Senate elections, but also the hearts of many Americans. Obama’s obscure 1995 memoir of his early life, “Dreams from My Father,” became a bestseller overnight and not long after he became a major figure in the Democratic Party. In February 2007, he announced that he would seek the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2008.

After winning a closely fought contest against former First Lady Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, on August 27, 2008, Obama became the first African American to be nominated for the presidency by either of the two major parties. Just a few months later, he handily defeated Republican nominee John McCain in the general election, after capturing nearly 53% of the popular vote and flipping nine states that had voted Republican in 2004.

On January 20, 2009, in the middle of a global economic recession, Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States. Four years later, he defeated Republican Mitt Romney to win reelection, this time capturing 51.2% of the popular vote and winning 332 electoral votes. Obama left office on January 20, 2017, precisely eight years after becoming the first African American president of the United States.

Family and politics

If we are to believe Obama, a few people in this world hate politics as much as his wife. Seen through Michelle’s eyes, his rise to the presidency didn’t look as fascinating as it did to the majority of Americans. In 2006, when Obama revealed to her that he was considering running for president, she felt somewhat betrayed as she thought her husband’s political ambitions ended with him winning a seat in the U.S. senate.

“I’ve supported you the whole time,” she said to him, “because I believe in you, even though I hate politics. I hate the way it exposes our family. You know that. And now, finally, we have some stability… even if it’s still not normal, not the way I’d choose for us to live… and now you tell me you’re going to run for president?”

To make the difficult situation a bit more comfortable, Obama swore to Michelle that the final say on the matter would be hers. “If that’s really true,” she replied, “then the answer is no.” In time, however, she softened her stance and gave her husband a reluctant blessing; if she hadn’t, who knows if Obama would have ever run for president?

It bears noting here that this wasn’t the first time Obama’s ambition interfered with his duties as a family man. In the middle of his first political campaign back in 1995, his sister Maya called him from a Hawaii hospital to inform him that their mother’s condition had taken a turn for the worse. Obama made plans to fly out the following morning, but it was too late by then: his mother had died just a few hours after his sister’s call. 

After the memorial service, as the siblings were scattering the ashes of their mother into the sea, Obama was overcome by great sorrow. “I thought about my mother and sister alone in that hospital room,” he remembers, “and me not there, so busy with my grand pursuits. I knew I could never get that moment back. On top of my sorrow, I felt a great shame.”

The Nobel Peace Prize

On October 9, 2009, just nine months after being sworn in as president, Obama was woken up around six o’clock in the morning by a White House operator telling him that press secretary Robert Gibbs was on the line and needed him immediately. Obama’s heart froze: calls that early from his staff almost never happened, so he feared a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. Gibbs, however, had some pretty good news to share with the president. “You were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,” he told him. “They just announced it a few minutes ago.” “For what?” replied Obama, quite amazed at the news. 

The absence of an answer to this question startled him much later, when he went to Oslo to receive the Prize. Just before dinner, from out of his fourth-story window, Obama could see in the narrow street below his room, several thousand people holding aloft lit candles in his honor. As magical as the sight was, he couldn’t help but think about all the cruelty and suffering going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and about how little his administration had done about it, barely even beginning to deal with it. “The idea that I, or any one person, could bring order to such chaos seemed laughable,” he remembers thinking. “On some level, the crowds below were cheering an illusion.”

Even so, Obama saw something more there, he saw something else in the flickering of the thousand candles. He saw the ideals and the spirit of all the people in the world who still believed that life could be better, and that they could contribute to a better future for everybody. “Whatever you do won’t be enough,” Obama heard their voices saying. “Try anyway.”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Over the course of the following eight years, Obama tried his best to justify the Nobel Peace Prize he’d be awarded so early in his presidency. It is history’s job to judge if he ever succeeded, but it can be only his to tell his side of the story.

Unsurprisingly, Obama is proud of the nuclear arms reduction New START treaty with Russia, and even prouder of ending U.S. military involvement in the Iraq War. He is also proud of his contributions to ending U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan and the breakthrough Paris Agreement on global climate change. Finally, he considers ordering the military operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden one of the highest points of his presidency – despite admitting to taking no joy in ordering drone strikes on terrorist subjects.

There were many lows too, and Obama is not someone who would ignore them or put them under the rug. On the contrary, he takes personal responsibility for allowing the Tea Party to reclaim the House of Representatives and describes his failure to pass the DREAM act as “a bitter pill to swallow.” He also admits to making a few bad economic decisions, and for not finding a way to circuitously stifle the rise of far-right wing radicalism within the Republican Party.

However, he hasn’t lost hope for the future. Convinced that the COVID-19 pandemic is just a “mere interruption in humanity’s relentless march toward an interconnected world,” Obama places the burden of that sought-after future on the shoulders of 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.” And so, he concludes, the world watches America “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.”

Final notes

Even though in the preface to “A Promised Land,” Barack Obama bemoans the fact that he lacks the gifts of a Lincoln to tell his story with greater brevity, we feel that two of the three most appealing traits of his memoir – or, at least, its first volume – are its length and scope. The third is its unfeigned candor: “A Promised Land” truly feels like an honest account of Obama’s life and early presidency. 

"Like the best autobiographers,” remarked Peter Conrad in a review for The Guardian, “Barack Obama writes about himself in the hope of discovering who or even what he is.” And he writes so elegantly that he succeeds in maintaining the reader’s interest for almost 800 pages. Without exaggeration, “A Promised Land” may be the best presidential memoir in recent history and – to quote historian Eric Foner – “certainly among the most impressive contributions to this minor genre.”

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Who wrote the book?

Barack Hussein Obama II was the first African American to be elected to the presidency of the United States, a position he held for two terms, from 2009 to 2017. Previously, he served as a U.S. senator from Illinois from 2005 to 2008 a... (Read more)

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