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Synopsis

A Promised Land is the first of two presidential memoirs by Barack Obama. Obama welcomes readers into his childhood, adolescence, and onward to his political career. Finishing in 2011, this political memoir covers every significant decision Obama had to make and outlines the thought process behind these decisions. Obama is honest about the challenges he experienced having adopted financial instability. He also outlines that he had to straddle between optimistic hope and the reality of tough decision-making.

About Barack Obama

Barack Obama served as the 44th President of the United States. Obama was the first African-American President of the United States. After graduating from Columbia University in 1983, he worked as a community organizer in Chicago. In 1988, he enrolled in Harvard Law School, where he was the first black person to be president of the Harvard Law Review. In 2008, he was nominated for president a year after his presidential campaign began. Obama was elected over Republican John McCain. A year later, Obama was named the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. 

Obama’s Childhood in Hawaii

Obama covers his childhood in each of his books. However, this is the first book to describe in-depth his upbringing in Hawaii. After living in Indonesia for his younger childhood, Obama moved back to Hawaii and lived with his maternal grandparents. Obama was a teenager and went by the nickname ‘Barry.’ Obama spent his teenage years in Hawaii playing basketball and chasing girls. He still retains strong friendships from this time, and these childhood friends are astonished by his transformation. To them, teenage Barry turning into President Obama is a miracle. 

Despite this, Obama states that part of his lack of direction at this age was due to uneasiness in his own skin. He describes himself as being ‘from everywhere and nowhere at once.’ This lack of a secure identity led Obama to his eventual cure: books. Obama would frequently visit a jumble sale in Honolulu and come home with piles of secondhand books. These books and the characters within them became his companions and solace. However, Obama does admit he also had mixed motives for reading certain books. For example, he read Marx to talk to the ‘long-legged socialist’ who lived in his dorm. Plus, he read Foucault to connect with ‘the ethereal bisexual who wore mostly black.’ Obama loved reading, but he also continued to have a passion for fascinating women.

Another habit that Obama picked up during his adolescence was smoking. This is a habit that he struggled to tackle during the early years of his presidency. Obama admits that he sometimes secretly smoked up to ten cigarettes a day. However, the inspiration for him quitting was his daughter, Malia. Malia frowned upon the smell of smoke on Obama’s breath. This was enough to stop his smoking habit.

Obama’s Fuel for Presidency

“Whether in sports of politics, it is hard to understand the precise nature of momentum but we had it.”

– Barack Obama 

From the beginning, Obama was fueled by social change. This was his passion and what encouraged him to run for office in the first place. However, Obama admits there were occasions where his ego took over. This occurred in his failures and his successes. He would always notice this, though. He would refocus on the importance of social change and be angry at himself for letting his ego take over. It took Obama a while to understand that politics was his purpose for making social change. Therefore, Obama suggests to readers that having a purpose from a young age is not essential. You will learn in time how you can implement your passions into a specific purpose.

Obama’s Illinois Senate Race

Another factor that fuelled Obama was his family. Obama explains that one of his biggest failures was when running for a congressional seat in Illinois in the mid-1990s. The result of this election was a resounding loss. Obama was trounced by his competitor. He uses this failure as an example of how he regroups. After failure, Obama goes back to his constant, which is his family. Obama spoke to Michelle and questioned whether politics was his purpose for life. The result was understanding that he should try again, but he needed to regroup and get better. Subsequently, Obama won the 1996 Illinois senate race. He served three terms in this position, running from 1997 to 2004. Obama attributes this improvement to him spending more time with his family after his failure. This decision allowed Obama to regain his balance.

Obama’s Political Development

Despite this balance, Michelle was not fully behind Barack reattempting to run for senate. She recognized the importance of Barack spending time with the family and knew a successful bid would act as a barrier. However, Barack believed in his ability to make a difference. After winning, he decided to follow in Hilary Clinton’s footsteps. Hilary placed huge importance on being a working senator rather than a glamor senator. She wanted to really make a difference rather than just being there to make up the numbers and respond to the media. Barack was the same. He didn’t want the spotlight, he just wanted to work hard and make a difference. However, Hurricane Katrina highlighted that it wouldn’t be so easy to get things done. Barack learned that the senate was filled with posturing, which made real change difficult. Therefore, he started to realize that he would need to run for president to achieve his purpose.

Obama notes that others around him seemed to have more confidence in his ability to become president than he did. However, Obama was still aware that he had to be ready if and when his opportunity came. This awareness allowed Obama to run for president at the right time for the country and for himself.

A Low-Tech Solution to a Massive Decision

A Promised Land uncovers the intricate details of massive decisions Obama made during his presidency. For example, Obama explains an alternative approach he had to take when calling his first military intervention in Libya. Obama was in Brazil at the time. He had been given a high-tech communication system supposed to be super-secure. However, just as Obama needed to use it, it stopped working. Therefore, Obama had to use a regular cell phone to make the significant decision of intervening in Libya. The way Obama described this phone was it had probably already been used to order pizza. This same phone was used to deliver a cryptic command to a general in Washington.

A Relaxed Approach to a Massive Decision

“I experienced failure and learned to buck up so I could rally those who’d put their trust in me. I suffered rejections and insults often enough to stop fearing them. In other words, I grew up—and got my sense of humor back.”

– Barack Obama

Obama also reveals his environment when ordering the raid on Bin Laden in Pakistan. This decision was made two months after his call from Brazil on a regular cell phone. This time, Obama was in the Treaty Room at the White House. However, he made this call with a basketball game on the TV in the background. In this section, Obama also outlines that Joe Biden was advising Obama against the raid. 

Obama’s View of Other World Leaders

“Enthusiasm makes up for a host of deficiencies.”

– Barack Obama

Obama does not speak in length about the leaders he has encountered. However, he does offer brief insights on how he viewed the world leaders in charge during his terms. Plus, his understanding of how the Trump administration became a reality.

David Cameron

David Cameron came across as confident. However, Obama admits that he believes this confidence was potentially due to his privilege. Cameron had the self-assurance of somebody who had not struggled much in their life. 

Vladimir Putin

Putin is described as a dark age boss. He would show off his military power by talking about nukes and using his UN security council veto. 

Donald Trump

Obama believes that Trump’s success could have partly been a backlash to the first African-American president. Obama describes this as a deep-seated panic that emerged when he became and remained president. With Obama becoming the first African-American president, some voters felt that the natural order of the presidency had been disrupted. Trump capitalized on these worries by making up lies about Obama. For example, suggesting that Obama was not born in the United States. Hence, Trump would argue that Obama was an illegitimate president. Trump was an elixir to the racial anxiety that some Americans felt in response to Obama’s presidency.

Joe Biden

Obama describes Joe Biden as a decent, honest, and loyal man. Biden would always have a different perspective than Obama’s other advisors. Biden cared about ordinary people and would always live up to expectations when the going got tough. In whatever circumstance, Obama knew he could trust Biden. The only weakness that Obama speaks of, which is not necessarily a weakness, was Biden’s ability to talk. Biden lacked a filter, which meant he would speak for over double his allotted time. Plus, he would say it how it is.

The Reaction to Obama’s Presidency

Near the end of the book, Obama talks about a decisive moment in his presidency. In 2010, his aspirations to push social change were hindered by their performance in the midterms. The Republicans were able to gain control of the House of Representatives after a disastrous midterm election for the Democrats. To Obama, this seemed like the beginning of a more divided America. The Republican party was threatening to trigger the first-ever US debt default to block his legislation. Obama understood this response was not merely political. There had been a strong emotional reaction to Obama’s presidency, potentially due to him being the first African-American president. 

Obama’s View of His Presidency

Overall View

Obama believes his presidency had a net positive impact. He took charge when the US was in a financial crisis, and he unified the country. There are several decisions Obama produced that are considered controversial. However, Obama notes that these decisions were not entirely his own. He took over at a point where many of the decisions he made were already set in motion. With every controversy, Obama explains in this book the thought processes he took and how he came to certain conclusions. Ultimately, Obama still stands by every decision he made. He argues he always made the best of a set of bad choices. In his eyes, nobody could have done a better job than he did during his two terms. 

Specific Examples

For example, Obama explains the deportations that took place under his administration. His hands were tied as he inherited a bush-era policy. Obama suggests he couldn’t repeal this policy. It would only offer the Republicans ammunition to argue that Democrats never enforce immigration law. Obama also talks about his description of the cop who arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr. as having ‘acted stupidly.’ Obama notes that this comment significantly dropped his popularity among white voters and ultimately impacted his mid-term results. Obama stands by these comments, though. He still believes that arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his own front porch in 2009 was a stupid act. Finally, Obama defends his decision to avoid prosecuting the Wall Street bankers whose policies led to the 2008 financial crisis. In fact, he claims he had no decision to make. In his eyes, it was the responsibility of the Department of Justice to make this decision.

Why He Didn’t Have a Bigger Impact

Obama concludes that his first two years in office were extremely successful. He outlines the introduction of The Affordable Care Act, The Recovery Act, and his investment in environmentally friendly energy. Obama explains that Congress accomplished more than it had in any single session in the 40 years prior. Plus, he laments the administration he inherited. If he had acquired a stabler US than the one provided by the Bush administration, he could have achieved even more.

Despite this, Obama is willing to accept that he didn’t offer a story to the American people of the work he was doing. The Republican Party attempted to block as much legislation as possible. Obama didn’t make it clear the efforts he was making to push social change. Obama admits that Roosevelt would not have let the Republicans shape his presidency in the same way. This is Obama’s biggest regret. 

Concluding Quote

“I don’t know. What I can say for certain is that I’m not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America—not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all of humankind. For I’m convinced that the pandemic we’re currently living through is both a manifestation of and a mere interruption in the relentless march toward an interconnected world, one in which peoples and cultures can’t help but collide. In that world—of global supply chains, instantaneous capital transfers, social media, transnational terrorist networks, climate change, mass migration, and ever-increasing complexity—we will learn to live together, cooperate with one another, and recognize the dignity of others, or we will perish. And so the world watches America—the only great power in history made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race and faith and cultural practice—to see if our experiment in democracy can work. To see if we can do what no other nation has ever done. To see if we can actually live up to the meaning of our creed.”

– Barack Obama

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