A Promised Land: Book Review

“The power to inspire is rare,” Ted Kennedy advised Barack Obama as he sought advice about running for president (69). Obama seized that power, inspiring legions of young (and not so young) supporters to carry him into the White House. That inspiration surfaces in many parts of this first volume of his presidential memoirs, as Obama holds fast to a belief in American ideals, despite a clear-eyed understanding of just how far American reality is from those ideals. 

More often than inspiration, however, A Promised Land offers education and illumination of the dark side of power politics played out on a national and world stage. Sometimes the educational part of the discourse can be a little hard to swallow, with the book reading like his description of a press conference (394): 

“During the press conference, I succumbed to an old pattern, giving exhaustive explanations of each facet of the issue under debate. It was as if, having failed to get the various negotiations involving the bill on C-SPAN, I was going to make up for it by offering the public a one-hour, highly detailed crash course on U.S. healthcare policy.”

Even when one disagrees with the tactical and policy decisions recounted in the book, carefully detailed descriptions offer insight into the balancing act that comprises governance by thoughtful, intelligent leadership. Unfortunately, that leadership left the White House with Obama, leaving us with four years to learn just how bad government could get. 

Some of the lessons of Obama’s first term should inform Biden’s strategies, especially in relation to the futility of seeking common ground with McConnell and the Republican caucus. The descriptions of Joe Biden’s role as vice-president offer evidence of his competence and hope for his administration.

In the closing pages of this volume, Obama reflects on feelings of unity and pride arising from the successful pursuit and killing of Osama bin Laden (698-99). 

“With these thoughts came another: Was that unity of effort, that sense of common purpose, possible only when the goal involved killing a terrorist? … I found myself imagining what America might look like if we could rally the country so that our government brought the same level of expertise and determination to educating our children or housing the homeless as it had to getting bin Laden; if we could apply the same persistence and resources to reducing poverty or curbing greenhouse gases or making sure every family had access to decent day care. I knew that even my own staff would dismiss these notions as utopian. And the fact that this was the case, the fact that we could no longer imagine uniting the country around anything other than thwarting attacks and defeating external enemies, I took as a measure of how far my presidency still fell short of what I wanted it to be—and how much work I had left to do.”

I’m looking forward to Volume II. 

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