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BOOK REVIEW

A stubborn optimist

The former president’s memoir reminds us of ourselves, for better and worse

“A Promised Land" is the first volume of former President Obama’s memoir.
“A Promised Land" is the first volume of former President Obama’s memoir.Pari Dukovic/Random House via AP

It seems like the perfect time to remember why we miss President Barack Obama.

The country is enduring a record wave of infection and death in the ongoing pandemic, the aspiring autocrat of an incumbent refuses to concede the presidency, and our polity remains divided in anger and resentment. And now comes the former president’s memoir. A chronicle of the ascent, election, and administration of the first Black man to helm the federal executive branch, “A Promised Land” is necessarily a story of aspiration and transformation. And so, in the midst of crisis, it tries to serve as a vessel of memory, an effort to remind us who we were and yet could be.

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In his preface, President Obama writes that he’s unwilling “to abandon the possibility of America,” and the book that follows reads as equal parts political memoir, civics lesson, and meditation on organizing, as if trying to reconstruct — through sheer force of will — the foundational concepts that built his presidency: hope and change. He traces his journey from the now-familiar personal development in childhood and adolescence that inspired his political career through his improbable, electric rise to the Senate and subsequent campaign for the presidency, and into the Oval Office. After 700 pages, the first volume of his presidential memoir leaves us in the middle of 2011, just before the campaign for his second term, an abbreviated story of his presidency that focuses more on expectation and exploration than the power struggles of Washington.

The pages are surprisingly suffused with emotion: the appreciation and friendship he shares with his team; the depth of love and affection in his marriage with Michelle Obama, and the tenderness and pride he expresses for his daughters are all so deftly portrayed that I felt compelled to seek out my own loved ones to affirm our connections. It is not a work to stun or shock; the same man who led the country with intellect and grace reappears in this memoir exactly as one would expect, and the most major misstep is an attempt to set stakes when we already know how the story ends.

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With few exceptions, the book stays largely within Obama’s contemporaneous mind during his presidency, leaving unknown and largely unaddressed the degree to which subsequent events have altered his perspective. In musing about the rise of the Tea Party, for instance, President Obama considers the ways in which it “foreshadowed so many of the political battles [he’d] face” over the coming years, but sketches the nature of the forces at play with little interrogation of solutions. This time capsule is punctuated with personal anecdotes, moments of genuine inspiration, and near-cinematic recollections of meetings with some of the most influential and powerful people on the planet (I was particularly tickled by his review of the Copenhagen Summit in 2009), written with such detail and candor, one could almost forget that the last four years have happened. And perhaps that is the point.

If we remain the America remembered by President Obama, it is possible to seek bonds across the aisle, to argue policy with honesty and gravitas, to see the best in each other. As his time in the Illinois State Senate crafts him into a statewide candidate, he credits the downstate Republicans and conservative Democrats who were willing to accept him into their rural communities, who offered a chance to a “Black lawyer from Chicago with an Arab-sounding name.” In reviewing the continuous, oppressive poverty foisted upon the Black community in South Carolina during his first campaign, then-candidate Obama sees himself as “running against the implacable weight of the past; the inertia, fatalism, and fear it produced.” The book almost begs the reader to relive his rise, to measure his efficacy, to embrace his analysis — all for the sake of breathing life back into the possibility of a reconciled nation.

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Even after inauguration, as crises beset him and Republicans obstruct and deny him solutions, President Obama writes with stubborn optimism. In sections routinely prefaced with the equivalent of briefing books, he takes us inside his decision-making process through an almost comical array of catastrophes (TARP, Auto Bailouts, SARS, Deepwater Horizon, etc.) that he navigated across his first term, laying out the complexities and nuances of the calamities he and his trusted team stared down, and almost challenging his critics to ask how it could have been done better.

These chapters read as an argument to address qualms and queries made in good faith, to reassure us that he had only our best interests at heart and to reaffirm the bonds of shared governance that constrained and contained the powers of the office he held. And this elegant (if verbose) account, in a normal context, would be enough. But it feels empty after four years in which those ideals have broken down. In the world of Barack Obama, rules matter, decorum matters, civility matters; in the world we inhabit now, all are shattered.

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Nothing embodies this conflict more than his discussion of race — or lack thereof. Within the story of the first Black man elected to serve as president of the United States, race is present and undeniable; yet in the book it is diminished or left unexplored. To candidate Obama, racial differences are to be transcended: an easier task when reduced to matters of an empathy gap for white voters and a willful despair for their Black counterparts. To President Obama, even after his reasonable and limited defense of Henry Louis Gates Jr. permanently costs him white support, structural racism and the limits of symbolism are left largely untouched within the narrative.

Without major revelations, without hindsight, “A Promised Land” is defined more by what is absent than what it contains. It is undeniably true that the intelligence, optimism, and diligence on display in its pages remind us that this same country that produced Donald Trump is responsible for the rise of Barack Obama. But it is equally true that it no longer matters. As much as President Obama crafts a story to make us remember the audacity of hope, we cannot recall who we never were to begin with.

Kaitlin Byrd is a writer born, raised, and residing in Brooklyn, New York. She has provided analysis and opinion about politics for the Huffington Post, NBC Think, and Dame Magazine, among others. She is on Twitter @GothamGirlBlue.

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A PROMISED LAND

by Barack Obama

Crown, 701 pages, $45