Arts and Entertainment

On Obama’s “A Promised Land”

Obama’s memoir takes a deep dive into his first presidential term.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Julia Shen

There’s an odd serenity to former president Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land.” It is in the careful detail he writes, much like how he speaks. He narrates in adagio tempo, as a debonair past president. “A Hawaiian walk, Michelle likes to say, sometimes with a hint of impatience”; his writing is a slow burn, each detail meticulously analyzed, as if it is a fireside chat for two and there is all the time in the world.

“A Promised Land” is the first in what is to be a two-volume series, starting from formative events to initial political campaigns and concluding in the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. It is an autobiography of Obama’s once youthful idealism, his best intentions, his political enemies, and his moral dilemmas, all with the growing shadow of his successor.

In a purely literary sense, the memoir is massive—768 pages, complete with an index, a photographic insert, and credits. There is a grandness to it; the narrative is vivid and often pleasurable to read. Yet the memoir is anything but celebratory or joyful. It is more a careful moderation or an act of atonement to his legacy, all the while written during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Obama thinks—and thinks some more. He wonders if his first run for office was from a desire for greater power or from an honest desire to serve. He reminisces about the road trips he used to take with his mother and his grandmother, Toot, of the “glimpse of the dizzying freedom of the open road, how vast America was, and how full of wonder,” and later of “the days [that] were too stuffed with prescheduled, staff-monitored activity” for his daughters. A private tour of the pyramids of Giza reminds him that “soon, I and those I loved would someday turn to dust.” When a crowd forms outside his hotel window at the Nobel ceremony, he thinks of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and reflects: “on some level, the crowds below were cheering an illusion. The idea that I, or any one person, could bring order to such chaos seemed laughable.”

Yet this prolix style is more defensive than reflective. It is as much Obama’s desire to examine himself before others can—to take a topic and analyze it from all angles. Obama’s psychological malady is that he sees himself as a figure studied and sculpted by an outsider: “I was from everywhere and nowhere at once, a combination of ill-fitting parts, like a platypus or some imaginary beast, confined to a fragile habitat.”

This steady detachment takes on a mournful, nearly elegiac tone. Whether or not it is because of the following presidency that sought to unravel all that his administration had accomplished, or that it is representative of his actual thoughts, is up to the reader to decide.

The name “Trump” hovers over the memoir like a ghost; a foreboding presence, silently invading the reader’s conscience. Not until page 672 does Obama refer to Trump explicitly, following the “birther” movement and in his speech at the subsequent 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner.

As readers, we have the hindsight of the past four years. Regardless of political affiliation, when one reads “A Promised Land,” they are reassured by the presence of a literate person—of somebody who can link consecutive sentences together and form a meaningful paragraph. This standard may not be so valuable in any other country or time, but after four years of incoherent tweets, it is comforting to remember that some American presidents still hold a basic sense of decency.

Yet another difference “A Promised Land” highlights between Obama and Trump is not only the latter's illiteracy, but also the former’s lack of conviction. As stated in the famous lines of “The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats, a poet that Obama often references in his written and oratory work, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

Obama is almost incapable of being dogmatic. He is more concerned about the steady constant of power and how he can aid others through its use. This intent is apparent even in his own self-analysis, in which he states, “I was a reformer, conservative in temperament if not in vision. Whether I was demonstrating wisdom or weakness would be for others to judge.”

He also applies this steady moderation to his stance on racism. Obama frames his words carefully, anticipating both supporters and critics. Racist incidents—such as the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. outside his own house or congressman Joe Wilson’s outburst “You lie!”—are juxtaposed with the notion of “complexity” that serves as an evasive device to keep the conversation comfortable. Of course, Obama has a complex understanding of race, but it is his political pragmatism, similar to that of a middle child, that causes him to cut corners on racial issues. Perhaps this is indicative of his unique parentage or his determination, above all else, to satisfy the masses. In Obama’s 2004 campaign run, for example, his then press secretary states, “Trust me, whatever else they know about you, people have noticed that you don’t look like the first 42 presidents.” In other words, the crowd doesn’t need to be reminded that Obama is Black; focusing on race would further alienate a white majority.

With all of Obama’s eloquence and penmanship, however, he is not the final biographer. The torch will be passed on in January; Joe Biden, who Obama repeatedly describes as a brother in “A Promised Land,” will take office amid the pandemic and in a recession arguably worse than the one Obama inherited. The second volume will cover Obama’s second term, and the release date is yet to be announced.

From the epigraph at the start of the memoir, we are told from an African American spiritual; “O, fly and never tire, / Fly and never tire, / Fly and never tire, / There’s a great camp-meeting in the Promised Land.” Yet for all of Obama’s starry-eyed euphemisms, we are left with questions unanswered and a world on high. As Yeats might write, we are “turning and turning in the widening gyre” on a threshold of a type of apocalyptic revelation as our history reaches the end of an outer gyre and begins moving into itself.