Barack Obama's Memoir A Promised Land Offers a Revealing Look at His Presidency
- President Obama's memoir, A Promised Land, is out November 17.
- Obama discussed the book in a new interview with Oprah, available to stream on AppleTV+.
- Read on for Oprah Magazine's review, plus a sneak peek of the highly-anticipated political memoir's contents, including photos and an exclusive excerpt from the audiobook, read by the author.
A Promised Land takes readers behind the scenes of the 44th U.S. president's decision to run for the office, a process that was far from a straight line. For most of his teenage years in Hawaii, Obama writes, he "was not a budding leader but rather a lackadaisical student, a passionate basketball player of limited talent, and an incessant, dedicated partyer. No student government for me; no Eagle Scouts or interning at the local congressman's office. Through high school, my friends and I didn't discuss much beyond sports, girls, music, and plans for getting loaded."
But midway through prep school, young Barry Obama discovered literature—works by the likes of Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. He began to acquire so many books that his grandfather asked if he was "planning to open a library." It was also around that time that Obama began asking questions about his father, and about race. By the time he arrived at Occidental College a few years later, in 1979, he had at least "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."
By his sophomore year, ambition kicked in, and Obama transferred to Columbia University, eventually going on to Harvard Law School, where he became the first Black editor of the Law Review.
But, he writes, it was moving to Chicago in 1983 that "changed the arc" of his life. Obama moved there after graduating from Columbia, and began community organizing before returning to the east coast to attend Harvard Law. It was when he returned to Chicago for a summer internship that he met Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, and began to fall in love both with her and with the idea of politics. "Michelle," he writes, "was an original; I knew nobody quite like her." He goes on to explain how the pair became "friends as well as lovers."
After they wed, Obama went from community organizing to becoming a candidate for Illinois State Senate, a seat he won, though his frequent absences strained their then-young marriage. He later entered the Democratic primary, running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, but lost by a whopping 30 percentage points. And yet, his urge to run for national office didn't ebb. What he was after, Obama writes, was "a politics that bridged America's racial, ethnic and religious divides, as well as the many strands of my own life."
Though, he writes, "when I think back now on the brashness—the sheer chutzpah—of me wanting to launch a U.S. Senate race, fresh as I was off a resounding defeat, it's hard not to admit the possibility that I was just desperate for another shot, like an alcoholic rationalizing one last drink." But he concluded that this wasn't actually how he felt at the time. Instead, he felt "a great clarity...that I could win, and if I did win, I could have a big impact."
President Barack Obama walks down the colonnade at the White House with his daughters, Malia (left) and Sasha, Mar.5, 2009.
Despite the continuing sacrifices that Obama's ambitions had on his young family—by then, they'd had Sasha and Malia—and his untraditional background (and Obama's own speculation that his childhood friends were thinking about him "That guy? How the hell did that happen?") at this point in A Promised Land, Obama's astonishing ascent begins to seem inevitable. His temperament, vision for America, and ability to embody that vision combine to propel him into the world's most important office.
In the 700-plus pages of the book that unfold—moment by moment, decision by decision—we get to know how President and Mrs. Obama and their trusted advisers built their platform voter by voter and passed monumental legislation such as the ACA inch by inch. Readers even get taken inside the Situation Room to witness the killing of Osama bin Laden—which is where this memoir concludes.
What nagged at President Obama then, he writes, was this: "Was that unity of effort, that sense of common purpose, possible only when the goal involved killing a terrorist? For all the pride and satisfaction I took in the success of our mission in Abbottabad, the truth was that I hadn't felt the same exuberance as I had on the night the healthcare bill passed. I found myself imagining what America might look like if we could rally the country so that our government brought the same level of expertise and determination to educating children or housing the homeless...and how much work I had left to do."
A Promised Land is remarkable for its precision and thoroughness, as well as for its honesty, humor and thoughtful perspective. President Obama's skill as a writer, and his generosity in sharing his doubts and disappointments as well as his accomplishments and convictions, make the memoir a must-read for all those who wonder why character matters and what true patriotism looks like. And for political junkies, there are nuggets on each and every page.
If you want to know how hard it is to bring a piece of legislation into law, you can listen to President Obama describe how the sausage gets made in this exclusive audio excerpt from Chapter 24 of A Promised Land, titled "In the Barrel." It describes the process by which the DREAM Act ultimately failed to pass, despite the Obama Administration's—and others'—monumental efforts. But the chapter ends on a hopeful note: during that lame duck session, in six weeks, 99 other laws were enacted.
View the original review on OprahMag.com: Barack Obama's Introspective Memoir A Promised Land Offers a Revealing Look at His Presidency.