Barack Obama’s eloquent memoir of his first term in the White House

A Promised Land by Barack Obama (2020) 768 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Barack Obama’s memoir starts with “the bet”

A Promised Land begins with one bet and ends with another. The original bet was Obama’s decision to enter into politics by running for the Illinois state senate in 1996. Of course, he won that bet, and — to everyone’s surprise including his own — Obama sat in the Oval Office just a dozen years later. Then, in the book’s final chapter, as his first term was winding down, the President made a bet with far higher stakes: the decision to launch the mission to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.

Obama and his national security team await word on the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. Image: Wikipedia

Eight years chasing solutions to a succession of crises

In A Promised Land, Obama conveys a sense of wonder at the overlapping succession of crises that befell his administration from the day he took office until he reached the end of his story by proxy in Abbottabad. It’s all there. The Great Recession. The struggle to enact the Affordable Care Act. The Greek financial debacle and the Arab Spring. The loss in the 2010 midterm elections. The Iranian push to build nuclear weapons. And so very many other crises both domestic and foreign.

Intimate details of family life in the White House

All the while, life went on. When Obama took office, Malia was 10 and Sasha 7 (and thus both were still teenagers when his second term was up). As any parent will rush to say, raising two bright, energetic children would be a challenge under any circumstances. But life in the White House added layers of complexity, with Secret Service agents posted at every turn and reporters straining against the rule never to photograph the children. But the girls themselves and even their mother come across as unspoiled, even unaffected by the experience.

What others have written about this book

Writing for the New York Times Book Review (November 29, 2020), the supremely talented novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie leads off her in-depth review of Barack Obama’s memoir with an unequivocal endorsement. “Barack Obama is as fine a writer as they come,” she writes. “It is not merely that this book avoids being ponderous, as might be expected, even forgiven, of a hefty memoir, but that it is nearly always pleasurable to read, sentence by sentence, the prose gorgeous in places, the detail granular and vivid.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. And, of course, I didn’t, lacking even a fraction of Adichie’s talent.

For further reading

Check out Becoming by Michelle Obama (The Michelle Obama memoir is an extraordinary story), The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick (Historical perspective on the surprising rise of Barack Obama), and The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes (Reviewing the Ben Rhodes White House memoir).

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Mal Warwick

Mal Warwick

Author, book reviewer, serial entrepreneur, board member