Yes We Can

A Promised Land, by Barack Obama (2020)

Pages: 701, Final-verdict: Great-read

How does it feel to be the President of the United States? In this first of two volumes of his memoir, Barack Obama brings the reader a human view of the office - the feelings, the responsibility, and the family challenges - and a close account of the politics of those first years at the White House.

Road to the White House

Despite its autobiographical nature, A Promised Land isn't an autobiography, rather a memoir of the presidential campaign and Obama's first mandate. We do, however, get a bit about Obama's upbringing and early career in Chicago, and that's exactly where the book starts.

Barack Hussein Obama was born in 1961 in Hawaii, where his maternal family lived. We start to understand Obama's political views through his mother's work, their living in Indonesia for a few years, and Obama's own record of his teenage years inspirations.

"I became a student of the suffragists and early labor organizers; of Gandhi and Lech Walesa and the African National Congress. Most of all I was inspired by the young leaders of the civil rights movement".  - Barack Obama, in A Promised Land

For all his idealism and dreams for a better society, it is not clear whether the young Obama ever dreamt of becoming president. After college studies in New York, he spent his early years as a community organizer in Chicago, law school at Harvard, and back to Chicago as a lecturer and attorney in 1991.

We get the idea that Obama's stellar political career was always there, brewing amid his time as a community organizer, but also that it was close to never have happened. Working 300kms from home in the Illinois Senate put a lot of strain in an otherwise happy family, and the way he lost a race to the United States congress in 2000 could have been the end of any further aspirations.

Well, it did turn out different and history was made. Obama made the jump to Washington in 2004 as a United States Senator, the only black senator at the time, and later, the first ever black president in 2008. A meteoric rise for someone who was not known outside of Illinois for the best part of his political life until then, and a sign of the excitement and high expectations Obama was able to generate in America (and around the world).

This is where the book starts picking up the pace in details and we get a more vivid account of the politics behind the campaign. From the strength of his young volunteers to the influence of Obama's senior advisors, the book describes campaign strategy, hits and misses, and the rivalry with Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.

If we won, it would mean that what had led me into politics wasn't just a pipe dream, that the America I believed in was possible that the democracy I believed in was within reach. - Barack Obama, in A Promised Land

Politics and Policy

By page 200, a little bit over 1/4 of the book, the storyline reaches Obama's White House years. A Promised Land completely succeeds in the way it guides the reader as a presidential insider, through details such as the light inside the Oval Office, or the apprehension of the first days with nuclear launch codes.

In the context of the 2008 financial crisis, we learn about how President Bush involved his potential successors in the crisis planning. And a large part of the book's next chapters are dedicated to the recovery plans and economic policies which Obama's team put in place in his first year as president.

At times, the book turns slightly towards being too politically correct. As if Obama wanted to leave nothing unsaid to justify his actions in campaign and as president. His careful choice of words seems to reflect he is very aware that this book will be studied for centuries to come, as a direct narrative of how the early years of the global scene of the early 200's came to be.

The flip of that coin is that we also get Obama's honest, and sometimes not so friendly, view of other leaders such as Nicolas Sarkozy, Vladimir Putin, or even Hillary Clinton. Words which might gain him some enemies today, but might save his historical memory for the future.

Never turning dull, the book goes through bill negotiations, summits, media controversies, family moments, and staff turnover, to provide a complete narrative of the first 3 years in office.

Bottom line

Having always been a fan of Barack Obama as a politician, I was not disappointed by A Promised Land. I found it rich, entertaining, and politically inspiring. The kind of inspiration one gets from listening to an energizing political speech.

It also works very well as a book. Whoever wrote A Promised Land, be it Obama or a ghost writer, did a wonderful job. From the way it is structured, to how easy one gets through its 700 pages, it is the ultimate great-read book: not the type of book you can't miss (should-read, must-read), but one of the best page-turners out there.

Besides eagerly waiting for the second volume of this memoir, I would love to read an Obama complete autobiography, with more details on how he came to be the man he was when he got elected. Lets hope we get to see that book one day as well.

For now, I definitely recommend reading A Promised Land. It's a great read.

Further learning

Happy reading.