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‘A Promised Land’ Review: A Reminder of What It Means to Be American

4 Stars

Cover photo for "A Promised Land" by Barack Obama, his newest memoir.
Cover photo for "A Promised Land" by Barack Obama, his newest memoir. By Courtesy of Penguin Random House
By Beatrice H. Youd, Contributing Writer

Barack Obama claims that writing a book was “hardly a financial plan” — an ironic statement considering his almost 800-page memoir has made it onto many bestseller lists, sold millions of copies, and certainly made its author a tidy sum in the process. In addition to chronicling the life of the 44th President of the United States, from his youthful days in Hawaii to his many meetings in the oval office implementing world-changing policy, “A Promised Land” outlines Obama’s concerns for the future of politics, as well as his cautious optimism for the future of the United States of America and the world.

Obama uses much of his memoir to explain himself and his decisions in office. He details policy rationales and thought processes, while also expressing frustration with fellow politicians and media outlets for only paying attention to the often incorrect, but loudest and most entertaining, voices. As he says, “Sometimes your most important work involved the stuff nobody noticed.” In Obama's opinion, the press was overly focused on his mistakes. That said, Obama himself spends a lot of time in "A Promised Land" explaining things that went wrong. He says philosophically, "I knew a time would come when I would disappoint" his supporters.

Most importantly, throughout the memoir Obama emphasises the importance of honesty and graciousness. Obama sings an ode to the honest and thoughtful man, lamenting that in our day and age, those his mother considered “.. bullies, cheats, and self-promoters seemed to be doing quite well, while those she considered good and decent people seemed to get screwed an awful lot.” Obama’s dissatisfaction with current partisan, radicalized politics, informs everything he hoped to safeguard and warn against: the tumultuous Trumpist era to come, which “would threaten to blot out everything — your previous positions; your stated principles; even what your own senses, you eyes and ears, told you to be true.”

This is not to say that Obama’s tone is one of a bitter, slighted man, writing “I told you so!” over and over again for 800 pages. Instead he moves on, stating there is much work left to do and optimistically pushing for civic participation, peace, and less partisanship in the hopes that we as a nation will chart a new path forward. Throughout the memoir, Obama incorporates dialogue from conversations with his daughters, parents, and Michelle in order to introduce complex questions about morality and what it means to be American.

Obama is an eloquent and scholarly writer whose sentences and expansive vocabulary provide imagery and infuse life into his stories of bureaucratic wrangles and soporific senate sessions. He even manages to add excitement to budget overhauls. Nevertheless, all the colorful dialogue and minute details also add to the page count of his book. Length is not the only way "A Promised Land" resembles a Russian novel: Each page teems with the names of everyone Obama seems to have met or worked with, from minor functionaries to major political players — everyone gets a mention!

Sprinkled with anecdotes, regrets, advice, hard-learned lessons, and Obama’s characteristic dry sense of humor, Obama’s memoir reminds us that “maybe politics could be less about power and positioning and more about community and connection,” thus providing readers with a deeply inspirational text that reminds us: no matter what, “Try anyway.”

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