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DISCLAIMER: This is an unofficial summary and analysis.
Barack Obama’s Perspective
Barack Obama served as the 44th President of the United States. He was the first African-American US President. After graduating from Columbia University in 1983, Obama 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, Obama was nominated for president a year after his presidential campaign began. He was elected over Republican John McCain. A year later, he was named the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
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. This political memoir covers every significant decision Obama had to make by 2011. It 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.
StoryShot #1: Obama’s Childhood in Hawaii
Obama covers his childhood in each of his books. This is the first book to describe his upbringing in Hawaii in depth. After living in Indonesia for his younger childhood, Obama moved back to Hawaii and lived with his maternal grandparents. These grandparents had left the Midwest before Obama was born to escape the racial turmoil of the 1960s. Obama was a teenager and went by the nickname ‘Barry.’ He spent his teenage years in Hawaii playing basketball and chasing girls. He still retains strong friendships from this time, and his transformation astonishes these childhood friends. To them, the teenage Barry turning into President Obama is a miracle. These same passions for sport and girls transferred over to his college days. He did not engage with student groups or political clubs. Instead, he spent most of his time playing basketball and partying.
Obama states that part of his insufficient direction at this age was because he was uneasy in his own skin. He describes himself as ‘from everywhere and nowhere at once.’ Obama hardly knew his father. Barack Obama Sr. worked in Kenya, and they only ever met once when Barack Jr. was ten. But the two Baracks kept in touch by letter. This lack of a secure identity led Obama to his eventual cure: books. He frequently visited a jumble sale in Honolulu and came home with piles of second-hand books. These books and the characters within them became his companions and solace. That said, Obama admits 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. He also 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 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 he sometimes secretly smoked up to ten cigarettes a day. 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.
StoryShot #2: Obama’s Fuel for Presidency
As Obama grew older, he was fueled by social change. He started asking questions about race and social class after experiencing the massive gap between the 1% and the rest of America. At Occidental College, Obama learned more about politics, but his passion remained with social change. This passion is what encouraged him to run for office in the first place. Another inspiration for his political pursuits was his mother. Obama’s mother was always highly opinionated and spent her life rebelling against the conventions. This rebellion included advocating against the Vietnam war and fighting for women’s rights. Although Barack’s mother, Stanley Ann, was not actively involved in politics, she inspired Barack to apply this same passion as the President.
Obama admits there were occasions where his ego took over. This occurred in his failures and 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 social change. The first moment he understood this was seeing Harold Washington become the first black mayor of Chicago. This moment encouraged Barack that one day he could also create change through politics. So, Obama suggests to readers that having a purpose from a young age is not essential. You will learn in time how to implement your passions into a specific purpose.
StoryShot #3: Obama’s Illinois Senate Race
Another factor that fueled Obama was his family. Obama explains that one of his biggest failures happened 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 returns to his constant, which is his family. Obama spoke to Michelle and questioned whether politics was his purpose in life. The result was understanding that he should try again, but he needed to regroup and get better. Obama then won the 1996 Illinois Senate race. He served three terms in this position, running from 1997 to 2004. Obama attributes this improvement to spending more time with his family after his failure. This decision allowed Obama to regain his balance. In 2003, Obama gained recognition for opposing George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. The following year, he won a United States Senate seat with a record victory margin of 70% to 27%.
StoryShot #4: Obama’s Political Development
Despite this balance, Michelle was not entirely behind Barack, attempting to run for Senate again. She recognized the importance of Barack spending time with the family and knew that a successful bid would be a barrier. That said, Barack believed in his ability to make a difference. After winning, he decided to follow in Hilary Clinton’s footsteps. Hilary placed massive importance on being a working senator rather than a glamor senator. She wanted to make a difference, rather than only being there to make up the numbers and respond to the media. Barack was the same. He didn’t want the spotlight; he simply wanted to work hard and make a difference. But Hurricane Katrina highlighted it wouldn’t be so easy to get things done. Barack learned the Senate was filled with posturing, which made real change difficult. So, 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. That said, 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 himself.
StoryShot #5: 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 that was supposed to be super-secure. Just as Obama needed to use it, it stopped working. So, 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.
StoryShot #6: A Relaxed Approach to a Massive Decision
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. But he made this call with a basketball game on the TV in the background. Obama also outlines that Joe Biden advised him against the raid.
StoryShot #7: Obama’s View of Other World Leaders
Obama does not speak at length about the leaders he had encountered. That said, he offers brief insights into how he viewed the world leaders in charge during his terms. Plus, his understanding of how the Trump administration became a reality.
David Cameron came across as confident. 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.
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.
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 president and remained president. With Obama becoming the first African-American president, some voters felt 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. He 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.
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 always lived up to expectations when the going got tough. In whatever circumstances, Obama knew he could trust Biden. The only weakness 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. He would also say it how it is.
StoryShot #8: Obama’s View of America
Obama has always loved America. While growing up, he would read books about the wrongdoings of America, and his friends would argue America is the greatest source of oppression. Obama would not deny the wrongs in America’s history but believed in the principles of America. For him, America was a country where all men are created equal.
As Obama became president, he continued to meet people who would claim America is oppressive. Obama stayed firm in his belief that America is a force for good. For example, Obama would visit international forums and conventions. At these meetings, individuals from other countries would claim America is an oppressive force. All the while, these complaining countries relied on the US to keep their systems afloat. So, Obama believes that America is one of the most impactful countries in making the world a better place. That said, he remains modest when speaking in other countries. As an American, he believes in American exceptionalism in the same way other countries believe in their own exceptionalism.
StoryShot #9: 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. Republicans could 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 threatened to trigger the first-ever U.S. 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.
StoryShot #10: Obama’s View of His Presidency
Obama believes his presidency had a net positive impact. He took charge when the US was in a financial crisis and unified the country. There are several decisions Obama produced that are considered controversial. But 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, he explains 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.
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 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 Wall Street bankers whose policies led to the 2008 financial crisis. 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 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. He also 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.
But Obama is willing to accept that he didn’t offer a story of his work to the American people. 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 Republicans shape his presidency in the same way. This is Obama’s biggest regret.
Final Summary, Review and Criticism of A Promised Land
A Promised Land offers a unique insight into the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs. Obama explains that although his family has always fought for justice, he was the first to venture into politics. This was not a lifelong dream, though. His childhood friends would never have predicted the party-loving smoker Barry would become president of the United States. As well as guiding readers through his journey to the Oval Office, Obama also provides insight into the challenges associated with presidential power. He has had to make tough decisions, but being the leader of such an influential country requires these tough decisions.
Unfortunately, many people who may buy the audiobook version may find Obama’s pace very slow. The solution is to increase the playback rate.
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We rate this book 4.5/5.
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