Book Review: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

It was an irony that I—like many modern leaders—eventually learned to live with: You never looked as smart as the ex-president did on the sidelines.

Barack Obama himself remarked on this political truism, when describing how he sought the help of former President Bill Clinton to explain the details of a particularly contentious tax deal to the skeptical public. One has to wonder, though, if he isn’t also referring to the present day, when we’re still trying to contend with the toxic legacy of Donald Trump’s tumultuous time in office.

That brings us to the central question of this discussion: how do we review Obama’s biography without also reflecting on his presidency?

I pondered the issue while writing this blog post, but in the end decided that it was just impossible to separate the two. To do so would be to take A Promised Land out of its context, instead placing it alongside Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, written before Obama’s time as POTUS. He is clearly a different person now compared to who he was before his presidency. But what kind of person exactly?

Read on to find out…

The Time Chooses You

One of my favourite passages in the book came early on, when Obama was still thinking about running for the presidency. He approached Ted Kennedy, the Senator from Massachusetts, for advice and was told this:

…I can tell you this, Barack. The power to inspire is rare. Moments like this are rare. You think you may not be ready, that you’ll do it at a more convenient time. But you don’t choose the time. The time chooses you. Either you seize what may turn out to be the only chance you have, or you decide you’re willing to live with the knowledge that the chance has passed you by.

Seize the moment!

Obama did, and what an adventure it turned out to be.

A Promise Fulfilled

I am not a politician, nor do I want to be one. But I know enough about the business of governing to appreciate that it is often a marathon rather than a sprint. The process of trying to get the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed was one such marathon. In the end, the 906-page piece of legislation was, in Obama’s own words, “dense, thorough, popular with only one side politically, impactful, and surely imperfect”.

Yet in order to get to that point, he had to overcome all sorts of obstacles, not only from Republicans but also from Big Pharma, insurance companies, and even his fellow Democrats.

The selfish part of me can’t help but wonder: why would anyone subject himself to such an ordeal?

But then my mind turns to my own experience as a doctor. Contrary to popular opinion, the pay is relatively poor, the hours long and punishing.

The experience, however, is rewarding.

Seeing the smile on a patient’s face, watching the relief amongst their family members upon knowing that their loved one will be OK…these are the moments that make all the hard work worthwhile.

The night after the ACA passed, Obama described his feelings as follows:

For me, this was a celebration that mattered. The night we’d had in Grant Park after winning the election had been extraordinary, but it had been just a promise, not yet realized. This night meant more to me, a promise fulfilled.

And in the next paragraph:

I thought about Ted Kennedy, and I thought about my mom.

It was a good day.

Indeed, we live for days such as these.

On The High Wire

The final chapter of A Promised Land deals with the events surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden. To me, one moment in particular illustrated the extremes faced by people in positions of leadership. Obama wrote:

…despite the knowledge that McRaven would soon join the SEAL team in Jalalabad and could likely launch the operation within hours, I’d have to do my best to act like everything was normal in front of a ballroom full of reporters.

Imagine having to do so, knowing that a single misstep could spell the end of your career, trigger violent reprisals, spark political turmoil, and generally be a diplomatic nightmare all over the world.

No pressure, Mr President…

Speaking of balancing things, perhaps my only criticism of the book is that large parts of it felt scripted, as if Obama had a checklist of people he had to mention, one that he had cleared with a bunch of lawyers before putting his thoughts into writing. Typically, these passages would read something like this:

  1. Introduce the person by name
  2. Say something nice/cute about their background
  3. Give a generous description of their contribution

Sometimes I wish Obama was more combative!

A Failing Land

Ultimately, however, it is impossible to flip through the pages of the book without wondering: how on earth did it come to this?

How did we go from Obama, with his calm, cerebral demeanour, to Trump, with his…with his…I can’t even…

When I look at America nowadays, I struggle to see the so-called Promised Land that Obama keeps mentioning. All I see is a failing union, one in which people actively despise one another because of their political beliefs, egged on by politicians who really should know better.

Look, I really do admire Obama. I am a fan of his professorial style and his consensus-building approach. Plus, he seems like a really cool guy. I’d love to be able to chat with him over coffee!

But is all this mayhem part of Obama’s legacy?

I hope not. I sincerely wish that people can overcome the years of conflict, moderate their views, and come back to their senses. Whether that will come to pass remains to be seen…