In the preface to A Promised Land, Barack Obama writes of American democracy that it is teetering on the brink of crisis. Published and read in the wake of an election that proved to be a reinforcement rather than a repudiation of Trump-era politics, this line rings resoundingly true. The world watches “America’s experiment in democracy” with bated breath, Obama writes. This watching has not ended despite what some may deem a favourable electoral outcome, it has been heightened.
Nevertheless, regardless of outcome, he mentions that he is unwilling to abandon what he considers the possibility of America. These words hint at the tone of the remaining chapters. The autobiography is simultaneously many things, at times a meditation on race and ambition and the personal becoming political, or an account of a presidency from the room where it happened. Above all, however, it is fuelled by this idea of possibility, and proves itself to be a full-throated defence and corroboration of Obama’s hope and change philosophy.
The promise of America
Obama, in an interview with Scott Pelley, attributes the title to his faith that a more perfect union – and he is careful to call it relatively more perfect rather than entirely perfect – can be arrived at. An expedition that is bound to bring with it hardship and disappointment, and could even foreseeably span lifetimes, he says.
This is a sentiment that finds purchase in Obama’s prose too. He writes of the idea of America, the promise of America – abstractions that he has clung to with a stubbornness that surprised even him. His finds this America in Jefferson’s words – “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. He finds this America in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, “crafted by flawed but brilliant thinkers who reasoned their way to a system at once sturdy and capable of change,” he writes. “An America that could explain me.”
Rediscovering the Obama administration
Obama has historically displayed a sensitivity to nuance, balancing it with an awareness that his words, not only as a politician but also a Black politician, carry weight. In fact, he wrote this book in longhand – using only pens and yellow legal pads – after concluding that computers give his roughest drafts “too smooth a gloss” and lend “half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness”.
He acknowledges, in equal parts of jest and truth, that he has the problem of being “just plain wordy”. If an argument has two sides, he is wont to come up with four. If there are exceptions to a statement he has made, he points them out and provides footnotes. However, between dense paragraphs detailing the intricacies of the West Asian political climate or the economic crisis, A Promised Land delivers insightful, intimate, and frequently tongue-in-cheek portraits of Obama-era staffers.
Here, Obama captures their competence without taking away from their innate humanness. Chief of staff Pete Rouse, beneath whose gruff, droll exterior lay hidden his doting affection for his cats. White House photographer Pete Souza, who was unpretentious and a bit curmudgeonly but never cynical, with a swarthy complexion that reflected his Portuguese roots. His butlers, “a pair of big, round-bellied Black men”, who showed discrete appreciation for all the Presidents they had served, but could not hide their affection for a President and First Family who looked like reflections of themselves.
A Promised Land yields no novel state secrets, but instead allows the reader to rediscover the Obama presidency through its smaller moments. One learns that the song that puts his head in the right place before important debates and long campaign days is Eminem’s Lose Yourself. That his intellectual interests at college – variously Marx, Fanon, and Foucault – often mirrored those of the women he had hoped to woo.
Also, that the Obamas, with their disdain for formalities, coaxed the White House butlers out of wearing tuxedos and into khakis and polo-shirts. That he is a slow walker – what Michelle Obama calls with some impatience his “Hawaiian walk”. And that his favourite photograph from Election Night in 2008 is one of people listening to his acceptance speech on a transistor radio in what would have been absolute darkness, were it not for the astonishing light emanating from the base of the Lincoln Memorial behind them.
Motivations and the audacity of hope
This autobiography is a meaningful inquiry into the motivations that have guided, and continue to guide, the thinking of the forty-fourth president of the United States. It renders the reader privy to the ideas that propelled him to the presidency, and what fuelled him once he got there.
Upon suffering a substantial loss in the race for the House of Representatives, Obama remarks on what kept him from breaking from politics. It was an instinct that as long as people remained strangers to one another, suspicious of one another, change was impossible. He aspired to chase this instinct with a campaign that would challenge America’s assumptions about how divided they thought they were.
As for his presidential candidacy, he recounts a meeting with his team, and Michelle. The future First Lady was then a lawyer who frequently found herself having to compromise on her own ambition, a deeply private person with a general mistrust of politics, and a parent worried about raising two young children in the unsympathetic public eye. She asked him pointedly to justify his bid – if he believed the other Democratic candidates stood strong chances of winning, why did he have to run? Why him?
Careful to weigh his words, as has been routine for him, Obama took a few moments before replying. He knew that when he raised his right hand and took the oath of office, kids all around his country – Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who didn’t fit in – would see themselves differently. “Their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone,” he writes, “that would be worth it.”
Candour and self-reflection
Obama spares a few paragraphs sporadically for setting the record straight. He mentions an aside he had directed toward his Democratic primary rival Hillary Clinton when the moderator had asked her about voters not finding her likeable. “You’re likeable enough, Hillary,” he had interjected, deadpan. Owing to questionable phrasing and delivery, what according to him was meant to be an overture to his opponent had sounded more like condescension, and he spends several lines in the book remarking that he had intended to mock the triviality of the questions that woman politicians are frequently subjected to.
A Promised Land is refreshing for its candour. Its author is not allergic to acknowledging his missteps. He spells out his administration’s mishandling of the “Christmas Bomber”, and of an economy in trouble that continued to sink even in the wake of the rolling out of the TARP.
He recalls his trip to Brazil, walking down a favela and waving at Black and brown faces peeking through the windows, many of them children. Senior advisor Valerie Jarrett remarks that that wave might have “changed the lives of some of those kids’ forever”. Obama wonders if his fleeting presence could compensate for the bad schools, the polluted air, the poisoned water, and the grinding poverty with which they had to grapple each day. “By my own estimation,” he writes, “my impact on the lives of poor children and their families so far had been negligible – even in my own country.”
In these moments, it is clear Obama is swift in tempering his optimistic idealism with pragmatic realism. That A Promised Land is not merely a president revisiting his presidency, but also an exercise in self-reflection. He reminds himself and the reader that the presidency, stripped of its power and pomp, is a job and the federal government a human enterprise like any other. And while he is quick to profess hope and change and believe in the American possibility, he continually questions his motivations, cautioning himself from believing that the work his administration had been doing “was anywhere close to enough”.
A Promised Land culminates with the death of Bin Laden, and Obama expresses concern for what the raid means for hope and change. Was unity of effort possible only when the goal involved killing a terrorist? Why was it so difficult to bring the same level of expertise and determination to education and housing issues? President-elect Joe Biden appears to be packing his Cabinet with former Obama staffers. Is this a nod to the forty-fourth president’s philosophy, or a return to a politics that a post-Trump America has outgrown? Ending in the penultimate year of Obama’s first term, the autobiography is incomplete and poses more questions than it answers. Though for the time being, Obama writes ominously, the jury’s still out on whether America (and its politics) has lived up to the meaning of its creed.
A Promised Land, Barack Obama, Viking.
Kshirin Rao Eshwara is a third-year student at Ashoka University majoring in Political Science with a minor in English.