For those readers who are soon to launch into Barack Obama’s memoir, “A Promised Land,” be forewarned: if you think you’re about to enjoy anything like a light-hearted romp through a very successful 2008 presidential campaign and an arguably quite successful first-term presidency, it would be wise to radically adjust your expectations. Much of the memoir is serious — often deadly serious. It’s an extraordinarily (near-obsessively) detailed account of several tumultuous years of world-changing, earth-shaking decisions, ideas, ideals, events, and frightful dilemmas. It’s also a seven hundred page roller coaster journey of emotions — joy, depression, celebration, sorrow, anger, love, fear, courage, desperation, confidence, and crippling self-doubt.
It’s both long and dense. The tome’s tone alternates between dry, technical, academic, even professorial textual material and, on the other hand, charming and affecting stories and memories of loved ones — his mother and grandparents, Michelle, whom he quite obviously adores, even when the two of them are bitterly at odds, and, of course, his two daughters.
But the huge mass of the memoir deals with the day-to-day life of an American president, and the presentation is incredibly informative, occasionally shocking, often eye-opening, and generally filled with effectively descriptive passages, all of which add up to a real and honest understanding of why the essence of American politics is so terribly difficult to navigate, so frustratingly full of necessary but painful compromise, so puzzling when attempting to perform the impossible task of trying to please the majority of the American public, all the while simultaneously accepting the inevitability of the sometimes vicious responses to critical controversial decisions.
Those decisions include Obama’s very first monstrous problem as president, the economic crisis he inherited from the previous administration. The American and global economies were on the verge of total collapse even before he took office. And he knew that the program for recovery, no matter which paths he chose, would be slow, slogging, and entirely unacceptable to large swaths of the American public, especially the middle class and the poverty-stricken. And it would, as always, be those poorest folks who would suffer the most, those very people whom he had hoped to help in ways that previous administrations had failed to even consider, let alone act upon. But now the massive problem was his alone even though he had had literally nothing to do with causing it.
The process of dealing with such issues for Obama and his advisers was something like this:
- Statement of the problem (in this case, for example, the collapse of the American economy and the world-wide economic crisis that followed); many hours and days discussing the causes of the problem, about WHO caused the problem; and the specific definition of the problem itself, in order to determine if the solution should be broadly or narrowly applied.
- Possible strategies to at least begin to solve the problem, taking into account the multitude of opinions offered, many of them, of course, contradicting each other, sometimes fiercely. Stimulus? How large? Whom do we help? Anyone to punish or fine? How do we deal with the sub-prime mortgage mess? How can we save the American auto industry? Small businesses? Everybody? And all that’s just for starters.
- The balancing act leading to a bill that (a) could be passed by both Houses of Congress, and (b) might mitigate the plethora (and pressure) of so many urgent problems. Imagine those conflicting opinions and stances with which the deciders had to deal: left and right wing extremists versus centrists; Republicans versus Democrats; aggressiveness versus subtlety; hawks versus doves; and perhaps most contentious of all, cost versus benefit.
- Results. Will the solutions succeed or fail or fall somewhere in between? If they work, how long will it take for the general public to realize that they’re working? And in purely political terms — always a reality to be reckoned with — how will our handling of the of the problem affect our chances for a second term?
Over and over again, the same brain-boiling degree of pressure and urgency virtually every day for four long years. Why, we might ask, would any sane person aspire to the presidency? The answer may well be that the life of an American president cannot be adequately or accurately described or explained. It must be lived to be understood.
Each overwhelmingly important issue that Obama delineates is considered and debated in excruciating detail in “A Promised Land.” The book is pure, unadulterated Obama throughout: careful, thoughtful, slow, insightful, academic, sympathetic and empathetic, sincere, heart-lifting and heartbreaking. The text, as one would expect, is occasionally extremely witty; direct and unsparing in criticisms of all who Obama considers immoral, amoral, thoughtless, racist, or bigoted in any way. It’s also self-deprecating; often self-doubting; appreciative and effusive in his praise of those who work hard and conscientiously to offer him support and those who share his ideals and love of country; and always balanced. He finds and describes flaws and faults in those he admires, and he finds and points out positive character traits in his political foes — even Mitch McConnell. Grudgingly.
This huge literary accomplishment is by no means a page-turner. It is suspenseful only in its final section, the description of the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. But the careful reader will ultimately be rewarded with a new understanding of American politics, American politicians, the mechanics of compromise, the necessity of understanding the “other” point of view, and most of all, the inside, outside, heart, and soul of Obama himself. Rarely have we been privy to such an all-encompassing study of the life and times and the mind and memories of a truly transformative global icon.
This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com. Review by Jack Kramer.