Reviews for A Promised Land

by Barack Obama

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From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

In his preface, President Obama says he wanted to write a book that covered his political career and his presidency as well as one that might inspire young people to a life of service. He rather ruefully admits he thought the whole thing might take up about 500 pages; this 768-page tome turned out to be only volume one. Putting pen to paper (yes, he composes first drafts on legal pads), the former president writes with an elegant hand, juxtaposing his personal ascendancy against the events of history, along with describing the disruptive populism and the toxicity of racism that sometimes twisted the audacity of hope into a deflating nope. Yes, there is excess. Occasionally it seems as if Obama feels the need to describe every person who worked on his campaign or in his administration. So many of his thoughts need examination, and from so many different angles. He sometimes uses the book to explain to readers what he really meant; his debate comment to Hillary Clinton that she was "likable enough," he claims—a bit unbelievably—was only to indicate scorn for the question. Whatever its small flaws, however, the book does a memorable job of untangling both a president and a presidency. Obama reveals himself in his memories of his young daughters, wistful for the time he knows he's missed with them; in his sadness and embarrassment at his inability to be at his dying mother's bedside because of a campaign; and in the uneasiness he feels when he questions his run for the presidency after only serving two years of his senatorial term. "God, Barack, when is it going to be enough?" Michelle asks. Like the professor he was, Obama tries to get his readers to make connections. For example, he shows clearly how reactions to TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) led to formation of the Tea Party. These efforts to show the consequences—intended and unintended—of his decisions are among the book's most formidable strengths. The volume ends with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which occurred ironically close to the White House Correspondents' Dinner where President Obama mercilessly teased Donald Trump, perhaps precipitating his presidential run. This odd juxtaposition mirrors so many other moments in the book where success spins out in unanticipated ways: darker forces are being released. To be continued.

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

In the first volume of his presidential memoir, Obama recounts the hard path to the White House. In this long, often surprisingly candid narrative, Obama depicts a callow youth spent playing basketball and “getting loaded,” his early reading of difficult authors serving as a way to impress coed classmates. (“As a strategy for picking up girls, my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless,” he admits.) Yet seriousness did come to him in time and, with it, the conviction that America could live up to its stated aspirations. His early political role as an Illinois state senator, itself an unlikely victory, was not big enough to contain Obama’s early ambition, nor was his term as U.S. Senator. Only the presidency would do, a path he painstakingly carved out, vote by vote and speech by careful speech. As he writes, “By nature I’m a deliberate speaker, which, by the standards of presidential candidates, helped keep my gaffe quotient relatively low.” The author speaks freely about the many obstacles of the race—not just the question of race and racism itself, but also the rise, with “potent disruptor” Sarah Palin, of a know-nothingism that would manifest itself in an obdurate, ideologically driven Republican legislature. Not to mention the meddlings of Donald Trump, who turns up in this volume for his idiotic “birther” campaign while simultaneously fishing for a contract to build “a beautiful ballroom” on the White House lawn. A born moderate, Obama allows that he might not have been ideological enough in the face of Mitch McConnell, whose primary concern was then “clawing [his] way back to power.” Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of the book, as smoothly written as his previous books, is Obama’s cleareyed scene-setting for how the political landscape would become so fractured—surely a topic he’ll expand on in the next volume. A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.