Review: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

By Suraya Kazzuz

In light of the current political climate, it seems that Barack Obama’s newly published memoir, A Promised Land, couldn’t have come at a better time. After a tumultuous four years following Obamas precedency, it is refreshing to reminisce or discover a time which was, if not necessarily better than the times we live in now, certainly more hopeful and less erratic. 

Barack Obama’s eloquent prose is something to be admired. He writes about politics and life in a way which is both enlightening and encouraging. While the 700 page memoir may seem quite challenging to tackle at first glance, the novel is nonetheless a smooth and interesting read. For every few extracts about his political career and the high-stakes decisions that come along with such a high-profile job, Obama intersperses stories of his childhood, the trials and tribulations of married life and telling anecdotes about his two daughters which are heart-warming to say the least. 

Some of the most particularly poignant aspects of the book are those moments when Obama admitted his difficulties and downfalls. He is intensely self-critical throughout the novel which is perhaps a mechanism in order to prevent others from critiquing his decisions – because he does it first. He criticises his role as father, husband, senator and president. Suggesting that perhaps the reason he ran for senate, and consequently president, in the first place was in order to appease his self-perceived egotistical or ‘megalomaniac’ foibles. Also suggesting that his ambitious goals prevented him from spending time with his daughters, Sasha and Malia, that he knew he would never get back. What was most intriguing was the way in which Obama spoke quite openly about Michelle’s trepidation and initial disdain at the suggestion that Obama should become President, 

“’I’ve asked the team to put together a presentation. What a campaign schedule would look like, Whether we could win. How it might affect the family. I mean, if we were ever going to do this- ‘

Michelle cut me off, her voice choked with emotion.

‘Did you say we?’ she said. ‘You mean you Barack. Not we. This is your thing. I’ve supported you the whole time, because I believe in you, even though I hate politics. I hate the way it exposes out family. You know that. And now, finally, we have some stability… even if it’s not normal, not the way I’d choose for us to live…and now you tell me you’re going to run for president?’”

It is these kinds of insights into the family dynamic which bring the former president that little bit closer to us as a member of society. His ability to be vulnerable in his story telling and give us snippets of the truths behind his journey to becoming president. This truth is that, although he had her full support, he was initially working against the wishes of his wife who was anxious about the toll that a presidency would take on her family. Throughout the memoir Barack tells us of the long and laborious workload that he had to undertake as he went on tour around America trying to rally up support for his campaigns. We do not often get to see the toll these sorts of commitment take on the families of the presidential nominees. 

Michelle Obamas apprehension towards a presidential run was all the more important as both the Obamas and the public were acutely aware of the fact that Barack could be the first Black president. What emerges throughout the memoir is how important race was to Obama’s run for president. Although Barack often tries to dismiss the gossip and racial micro-aggressions (and macro-aggressions) he emphasises the significance of the challenge he was tackling,

            “There wasn’t a Black elected official who relied on white votes to stay in the office who wasn’t aware […] too much focus on civil rights, police misconduct, or other issues considered specific to Black people risked triggering suspicion, if not backlash, from the broader electorate”

Obama here notes how the difficulties of manoeuvring within an already serpentine political labyrinth is made all the more complex due to the racial strife which was and is still prevalent within America and the world.

Barack also brings to the mainstage foreign policies which are all too often ignored. As Obama stepped in as the 44th president he inherited a position which had previously been filled by somebody who seemed a little too trigger-happy when it came to foreign policy, specifically the war in Iraq. While it would soon transpire that Obama’s foreign policy was not necessarily ideal – he notes that he was reluctant to engage in ‘unnecessary war’. What is most important about his comments on foreign policy is his insistence to argue that foreign governments and the lives of those outside of the US are important.

While Obama’s presidency has been far from perfect, his memoir offers some intriguing insight into a presidency which was gracious and fairly won. Something which perhaps cannot be said of other American presidents. To read the memoir of a president that took his job seriously and gave credibility to the brevity of his position is a prevalent reminder that political officials can and should be courteous and compassionate in their approach to their position as the leader of the world.