A Promised Land by Barack Obama

It’s safe to say that I read a lot of presidential biographies, lots of history of the United States. It doesn’t matter if it comes from the left or right, my reading is strictly non-partisan. I’ve read about presidents I’ve loathed, and presidents I’ve loved. I read it all. So when A Promised Land by Barack Obama was released, there was no doubt I’d read it. Or listen to it, in this case.

If you’ve picked up A Promised Land, chances are you’re a fan of the 44th president. Or you could just be like me and enjoy all presidential biographies and autobiographies. If you’re not, then you can just move along to my next review. There’s no need to bring personal politics into a book review.

From the publisher:

“In the stirring, highly anticipated first volume of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from young man searching for his identity to leader of the free world, describing in strikingly personal detail both his political education and the landmark moments of the first term of his historic presidency—a time of dramatic transformation and turmoil.

Obama takes readers on a compelling journey from his earliest political aspirations to the pivotal Iowa caucus victory that demonstrated the power of grassroots activism to the watershed night of November 4, 2008, when he was elected 44th president of the United States, becoming the first African American to hold the nation’s highest office.

Reflecting on the presidency, he offers a unique and thoughtful exploration of both the awesome reach and the limits of presidential power, as well as singular insights into the dynamics of U.S. partisan politics and international diplomacy. Obama brings readers inside the Oval Office and the White House Situation Room, and to Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, and points beyond. We are privy to his thoughts as he assembles his cabinet, wrestles with a global financial crisis, takes the measure of Vladimir Putin, overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to secure passage of the Affordable Care Act, clashes with generals about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, tackles Wall Street reform, responds to the devastating Deepwater Horizon blowout, and authorizes Operation Neptune’s Spear, which leads to the death of Osama bin Laden.

A Promised Land is extraordinarily intimate and introspective—the story of one man’s bet with history, the faith of a community organizer tested on the world stage. Obama is candid about the balancing act of running for office as a Black American, bearing the expectations of a generation buoyed by messages of “hope and change,” and meeting the moral challenges of high-stakes decision-making. He is frank about the forces that opposed him at home and abroad, open about how living in the White House affected his wife and daughters, and unafraid to reveal self-doubt and disappointment. Yet he never wavers from his belief that inside the great, ongoing American experiment, progress is always possible.”

First off, let me say, I never noticed how slow President Obama spoke until I started listening to A Promised Land. I ended up listening at 1.5 speed to bring his speaking style to something more manageable because I was pulling the words out of his mouth before that. Instead of a whopping 29 hour listen for the 700-page book, it shaved a few hours off my listening time. I guess I never noticed his style of speech as more slow and deliberate until I picked up the audiobook.

I won’t go blow-by-blow through the book because his presidency is so recent that most adults remember the high and low points, but I found President Obama to be fairly fair and balanced when talking about his life. I did find that my interest waned a little during the lengthy section on running for president, but I could understand why so much time was spent on it: being the first African American on a major party ticket was and still is a big deal. And even though I
know it’s important, I found my eyes glazing over during some of the foreign policy sections once he was in office.

Outside my old high school with my oldest daughter, Veronica, waiting to hear President Obama speak, 2009

In 2009, when the president first started his fight for the Affordable Care Act, he flew around the country to host town hall meetings to “sell” the program to the country. His first stop was Green Bay, Wisconsin, my hometown, at my old high school (and now my oldest kids’ school). You can be darn sure that when a sitting president comes to town, regardless of if I voted for him or not, I was going to try and secure tickets for me and my oldest daughter, who was six at the time, and said for many years she wanted to be the first woman president. By some luck of the draw, we got tickets and I took her, even though I knew she’d most likely be bored. I was happy that President Obama’s trip to Green Bay was described in detail in the book. (The last time a sitting president visited Green Bay was 1996 when President Clinton stopped at Celebrate De Pere, the next city over, to deliver a stump speech, and I was working at the TV Station at the time, behind the scenes, so I couldn’t see him. Before that was Gerald Ford when the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame opened in 1976, and I was three). Presidents don’t come to town often, although presidential candidates do all the time because Wisconsin has been a swing state in elections since at least 2000 if not earlier.

With all that said, there were no surprises in A Promised Land. It was, as all presidential autobiographies tend to be, to be self-congratulatory on all his accomplishments. However, President Obama also admits when he made mistakes, which was pretty refreshing. And it was well-written. The only surprise was that I didn’t read the publisher’s blurb close enough and found that this is part one of a two-part autobiography. This volume ends with the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden.

If you’re a presidential history junkie like me, you’d like A Promised Land. I came away from the book with a lot of respect for the former president, and even though I didn’t agree with him politically on some issues, found the way he carried himself while in office very impressive. There were no huge scandals while he was in office, and that’s saying something in a post-Watergate world.

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  1. I’m currently listening to the audiobook for this too. Not very far into it yet as haven’t had a chance to listen to it properly. I’ve too had to speed it up!!


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