A Promised Land.
A recollection and re-analyzation of Barack Obama’s campaigns for political office, through his first term as President.
In A Promised Land, Barack Obama recalls and reanalyzes his first several campaigns for political office, his years as an Illinois politician, then his 2008 campaign for President of the United States and his first term as president. The poignancy of his title did not escape me, for his narration above all is informed by his optimism and faith that “a promised land” can indeed be reached. That his recollections begin with “yes, we can” and slowly morph into “yes, we can, but alas we can’t because . . .” is a testimony to how even the most well-meaning intentions are too often foiled by the no-holds-barred politics of the twenty-first century.
Obama lays bare fissure after fissure, beginning with the financial chaos that befell the country at the time of his election. Almost immediately it becomes clear that his idealism and his plans for the economic future are in direct conflict with Wall Street realities. I must admit that I found his justifications for bailing out the big banks depressing, even though he makes a solid case for doing so. Next, he tackled the fight over the Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare,” as it has been so pejoratively judged. Here the pages of A Promised Land delve into the political machinations that were necessary to further health care accessibility and affordability. This time, the Democrats were successful, but at a political cost that still is having repercussions a decade later.
Obama’s book proceeds through four years of political conflict, as the president slowly unpacks the depths of Republican intransigency. No matter what Obama seeks to accomplish, his aspirations are met with delays, with obstruction, with broken promises and with downright negativity. To his credit, however, Obama never loses his forward-looking vision for the country. I found that aspect of A Promised Land quite uplifting, even as a I felt frustrated by so many blockades, dead ends, and lost chances.
A Promised Land also provides invaluable insights into American foreign policy. Obama, quite forthcoming about his interactions with other world leaders, offers astute observations about the realities other leaders confront in their own countries. He also quite openly discusses the personalities of those leaders and explains how an American president must negotiate every diplomatic victory and lapse. Obama’s book ends on a triumphant note. The final chapters center on the Osama Bin Laden raid that successfully removed the Al-Qaeda mastermind, perhaps one of Obama’s greatest achievements, accomplished in tandem with the brave warriors who planned and carried out the mission.
Obama always gives credit where credit is due, lauding the men and women who populated his administration. If anything, he sometimes has a self-deprecating tone, over-acknowledging his inadequacies and brushing past his considerable talents. As I read, I couldn’t help but be struck by how very difficult a successful presidency must be, how many political balls must be simultaneously juggled, how many difficult decisions must be considered, rejected, or adopted. For Obama, at least, and for his predecessors, that meant long hours reading, thinking, soul-searching, and occasionally second-guessing. It also meant precious time away from his family, a regret that echoes on page after page of A Promised Land. One thing that keeps him going is the notion that for Michelle and Malia and Sasha, as well as for millions and millions of Americans, he and his staff truly were working to achieve “a promised land.”
That said, let me end with a quotation from Barack Obama’s very accomplished (and very long) political memoir. Near the end of A Promised Land, he muses the following: “Looking back, I sometimes ponder the age-old question of how much difference the particular characteristics of individual leaders make in the sweep of history—whether those of us who rise to power are mere conduits for the deep, relentless current of the times or whether we’re at least partly the authors of what’s to come.” A fascinating question, and one I wish I had been considering as I turned the earlier pages of A Promised Land. For sure, I’ll keep that balance of personality versus circumstance in mind as I read Obama’s forthcoming sequel revisiting his second presidential term. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Barack Obama: Dreams from My Father; A Promised Land; The Audacity of Hope; Renegades Born in the U.S.A. (Obama and Springsteen); Speeches; Of Thee I Sing; Change We Can Believe In.
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