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"A Promised Land" by Barack Obama (Penguin Random House) was released Nov. 17.

Broaching the subject of a presidential memoir is a difficult one, now more than ever. One struggles to find the words needed to ease into it; after all, what more needs to be said about the 44th president? The Obama administration lasted eight years, was a success in some regards, a failure in others, but was nonetheless utterly momentous. As the second president of the new millennium Barack Obama began his presidency as the embodiment of hope, the closest thing to the American Dream incarnate. But as Congress was swept out from under the Democrats in 2010 and an increasingly embittered conservative body politic began to grow in influence, some observers came to be disappointed by Obama’s tenure. It would seem as though the final word on the subject had been had, and that everyone who’s anyone has already had their two cents worth on this presidency.

Except for the president himself, and as of Nov. 17, the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs has been released by the Crown Publishing Group.

Obama began writing his memoir shortly after leaving office in 2017, following in the tradition of his predecessors. Obama begins his narrative with a brief recap of his childhood and education before diving into his experience as an Illinois state senator. In this part of the book, Obama portrays himself as an overly self-serious idealist and readily acknowledges his youthful shortcomings without veering too deeply into self-deprecation. On the whole, the former president’s writing style very much reflects his public persona as a warm, approachable figure with the added benefit of being able to use the kinds of literary devices that aren’t all that feasible in public speaking. For one thing, there are curse words.

As a matter of fact, Obama is remarkably candid about his time in office and does not hesitate to assign blame for the trials and tribulations of his presidency to whoever he believes deserves it, including himself. Obama also displays a refreshing degree of self-awareness regarding the political trade-offs he was forced to make; in discussing the 2009 stimulus package that was passed in the wake of the financial crisis, he states his regrets over expanding so much political capital in such a short period of time. All the newsworthy political events of the first half of the Obama administration are detailed herein, the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, G20 and never does he lose the acerbic narrative voice that colored the beginning of the book.

Obama begins the book by stating that part of his goal is to show readers what it really feels like to be the president, and he certainly succeeds. A significant part of the book’s appeal is how Obama’s narrative voice seamlessly blends an everyman’s capacity for observation with the inspirational vision that drew so many people to him in the first place. Obama muses on his first stumbling congressional campaign by saying that “It’s hard, in retrospect, to understand why you did something stupid … those times when you identify a real problem in your life, analyze it, and then with utter confidence come up with precisely the wrong answer” (pg. 36). Of Air Force One, he says “The interiors … called to mind a 1980s corporate boardroom or country club lounge” (pg. 327). The book ends with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in May of 2011, all but ensuring that the next volume will begin more or less right where this one leaves off.

It is perhaps safe to say that the American public is jaded, to say the least. We have come to expect disgust and disdain from our national political leaders over the course of the last four years, whatever one’s political inclinations may be. While reading “A Promised Land” the reader may experience some things that they might not have felt in years. Things like hope, and a sense that someone in the highest position of power in the country at the very least knew what they were doing and genuinely wanted what was best for the country. 

This review is not the place for political proselytizing, but the ethos of Obama’s memoir is inextricably linked with a political tradition of transcendence, of fighting through the cynicism and horse-trading of government and of demanding that our leaders adhere to a standard of class. It says a lot about our current political culture that the idea of a politician being a decent human being who can properly articulate their thoughts and take responsibility for their actions feels like a novelty. Reading it is bittersweet and more than a little nostalgic. But it’s also inspiring, comforting and hopeful, and again, what more needs to be said? I give “A Promised Land” 5/5 stars.

Lifestyles staff writer

History major from Radford, Virginia. Music Guy. Colloquially know as the 'Walking Encyclopedia'

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