A Promised Land by Barack Obama (2020)

At 700 pages, this book is an undertaking. It’s also a crash course in history, foreign policy, national security, climatology, health care, and economics. Obama has a way of writing where you feel in the room where it happened. His attention to detail, his play-by-play retelling, his insertion of tiny moments that remind us of his humanity—all this makes the reader feel a part of the story. And overall, what stands out is his intelligence, the depth and breadth of his research to understand complex policies and situations, his eternal optimism, and his humble demeanor. He’s not afraid to self-critique, and he’s not afraid to say if he had to do something all over again, he’d make the same decisions based on the information he had. Hindsight is 20/20, but in the moment, you go with the best case scenario, knowing that there is never a perfect scenario and you’ll never please everyone. At one point he says something like “anything that lands on my desk has no easy answers. If it did, it wouldn’t be on my desk.”

This book starts at his beginning in politics, as a community organizer, state senator, US senator, then his run for President, and his first two years–yep, 700 pages, and we’re only at the end of year two which is why there is a part two to this memoir. So while the beginning had some overlap with Dreams of my Father (which I loved) and probably even more with The Audacity of Hope (which I’ve not read), I suspect this pulls all of that background together, shaping the guiding principles of his Presidential leadership. Early in the book when he’s talking about his Chicago community organizing years, he says, “I had to listen to, and not just theorize about, what mattered to people. I had to ask strangers to join me and one another on real-life projects–fixing up a park, or removing asbestos from a housing project, or starting an after-school program. I experienced failure and learned to buck up so I could rally those tho’d put their trust in me. I suffered rejections and insults enough to stop fearing them” (15). That says so much about optimism, humility, and leadership: others before self. Later, in discussing long-time Washington insiders, he goes on to describe what can happen: “the endless positioning for the next election, and the groupthink of cable news panels all conspired to chip away at your best instincts and wear down your independence, until whatever you believed in was utterly lost” (64). Well, that stopped me in my tracks because he could see, back in his senate days, what Washington would become—what we have now: a congress and senate where individual beliefs have been lost to groupthink. That was a prescient fear.

Once into his Presidency, each chapter feels like a short story or an essay immersing us in a single crisis—the players, the stakes, the possible outcomes, each with a play-by-play walk through: the 2008 housing/financial crisis he inherited, the climate bill, the ACA/Obamacare, the war in Afghanistan, the end of combat operations in Iraq, the Deepwater Horizon blow-up, the capture of Osama Bin Laden, meetings with every foreign leader (Moscow, Beijing, Cairo, and beyond), the strikes against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya and the other Arab Spring uprisings. There is such intensity in each section, it’s honestly overwhelming to think about the depth and breadth of each situation, each necessary response. And that brought me back to something he said early on when he was asked about his ability to maintain composure in the middle of a crisis, he says, “I’ve trained myself to take the long view, about how important it is to stay focused on your goals rather than getting hung up on the daily ups and downs.” Then he adds how he’s always channeled the words of his grandmother: “you just do what needs to be done…working hard and doing your best, even when the work is unpleasant…fulfilling responsibilities, even when doing so is inconvenient, marry passion with reason, don’t get overly excited when life is going well, and don’t get too down when it goes badly” (112-114). I think we could all learn from and live by those wise words. I look forward to part two of this memoir.

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