As an ardent and occasionally shameless admirer of President Barack Obama, I am chagrined to report that his newest memoir, A Promised Land, is a very tough read. It’s too long, too wonkish, too determined to explain all sides of a particular problem or political decision, and curiously of two minds about its audience. I realize this judgment runs counter to most other reviews, so let me explain. On one hand, Obama wants to give the reader a sense of “what it is like to be the president of the United States.” What is the daily routine? How does it feel to be under such scrutiny, to have one’s every word and action questioned and analyzed? To suddenly be given “the authority to blow up the world”? How does family life go on in the White House and under the unforgiving glare of the media? How can a president and his family maintain a semblance of normal life in such a fish bowl? How does a president find a moment of solitude and decompression in a job that demands nothing less than his complete attention for fourteen or more hours a day?
We learn that Obama curses a lot, jokes a lot, cries sometimes, and enjoys a weekend martini and his regular pick-up basketball game. A child of divorce who met his own father just once after infancy, his responsibilities as husband and father are of the utmost importance to him. He is naturally concerned about how the pressures and dangers of such a public life affect Michelle and his young daughters, although the children seem to thrive. Michelle, he makes clear, never shared his presidential aspirations, and took to the campaign trail reluctantly. Between the demands of the office and the needs of his family, he searches for a measure of calm and perspective in a situation where one’s domestic political opponents are out for blood and the nation’s adversaries are eager to exploit any weakness. Nor is there any escape from how America’s tortured racial history and continuing strife impinge on how the decisions of the nation’s first Black president are received. He sees his election as a vindication of America’s promise of equality for all, but also as an answer of sorts to the question of just who he is and what his destiny might be as the American child of a Black African father and a white, Kansas-born mother.
At the same time, Obama wants to conduct a tutorial on a host of issues and conflicts that confronted him during his campaign and first term (2009–2013), ranging from the nitty-gritty of his surprising win in the Iowa caucuses to the engineering challenges of stopping the Deepwater Horizon’s catastrophic oil spill. (This first volume of A Promised Land covers his administration through May 2011, halfway through his third year in office.) As one might imagine, he does this with admirable clarity and attention to detail, although that detail can at times make the book read like a blizzard of names. The pace is relentless. Seemingly everything of consequence is covered, from the history of U.S. relations with post-Soviet Russia, Iran, China, Egypt, Israel, and so on, to the ever-present threat of terrorism, the economic and political challenges of curbing climate change, the conundrums of global trade, the higher math of bank bailouts, the political bargaining surrounding the Affordable Care Act, and much more. As a result, there is a pedagogical tone to the book that can try even the most attentive student. Obama’s two very different writerly ambitions never quite mesh, and the result is that the livelier, more personal interludes with family, friends, and colleagues come as welcome respite from the prolix focus on issues, decisions, conferences, and endless meetings with “my team.” In short, A Promised Land is likely to prove an invaluable resource for historians, but a decorative ornament or totem on other bookshelves.