In the first volume of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from young man searching for his identity to leader of the free world, describing in personal detail both his political education and the landmark moments of the first term of his historic presidency—a time of dramatic transformation and turmoil.
Barack Obama is as fine a writer as they come. It is not merely that this book avoids being ponderous, as might be expected, even forgiven, of a hefty memoir, but that it is nearly always pleasurable to read, sentence by sentence, the prose gorgeous in places, the detail granular and vivid ... His focus is more political than personal, but when he does write about his family it is with a beauty close to nostalgia ... There is a romanticism, a current of almost-melancholy in his literary vision ... Obama’s thoughtfulness is obvious to anyone who has observed his political career, but in this book he lays himself open to self-questioning. And what savage self-questioning ... It is fair to say this: not for Barack Obama the unexamined life. But how much of this is a defensive crouch, a bid to put himself down before others can? ... The rare moment when he does take credit, arguing that his recovery act made the American financial system bounce back faster than any nation’s in history with a similar substantial shock, has a dissonant echo for being so unusual ... And yet for all his ruthless self-assessment, there is very little of what the best memoirs bring: true self-revelation. So much is still at a polished remove. It is as if, because he is leery of exaggerated emotion, emotion itself is tamped down. He writes exhaustively about the nuts and bolts of passing his landmark Affordable Care Act, but with an absence of any interiority ... When he writes about realizing that it was not merely his policies that the Tea Party had demonized, but him personally, his sentences are edged with an elusive quality, something detached and impenetrable ... With foreign policy, he is less guarded. He even manages a kind of poetic jingoism, where nearly every criticism of the United States is mere preface to an elegant and spirited defense ... The highlight of the political memoir is the gossipy bit, the small detail that surprises or upends what we imagine we know ... And then there are his biographical sketches, masterful in their brevity and insight and humor ... He writes that Republicans are better at fighting to win, and there is a wistfulness to his unstated longing for a similar sense of tribal loyalty on the left ... But it is on the subject of race that I wish he had more to say now. He writes about race as though overly aware that it will be read by a person keen to take offense ... He is a man watching himself watch himself, curiously puritanical in his skepticism, turning to see every angle and possibly dissatisfied with all, and genetically incapable of being an ideologue ... The story will continue in the second volume, but Barack Obama has already illuminated a pivotal moment in American history, and how America changed while also remaining unchanged.
... 700 pages that are as deliberative, measured and methodical as the author himself ... This isn’t to say that “A Promised Land” reads like a dodge; if anything, its length testifies to what seems to be a consistently held faith on the part of the former president — that if he just describes his thinking in sufficient detail, and clearly lays out the constellation of obstacles and constraints he faced, any reasonable American would have to understand why he governed as he did ... At a time of grandiose mythologizing, he marshals his considerable storytelling skills to demythologize himself ... Obama doesn’t force the metaphor, but the events described in A Promised Land suggest that something very old and toxic in American politics had been unleashed too.
Reading Barack Obama’s deeply introspective and at times elegiac new presidential memoir, I thought often about something the writer James Baldwin said in 1970, two years removed from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and despairing about America from abroad. 'Hope,' an exhausted Baldwin told a reporter from Ebony magazine, 'is invented every day.' ... A Promised Land often reads like a conversation Obama is having with himself — questioning his ambition, wrestling with whether the sacrifices were worth it, toggling between pride in his administration’s accomplishments and self-doubt over whether he did enough. Written in the Trump era, under an administration bent on repudiating everything he stood for, his elegant prose is freighted with uncertainty about the state of our politics, about whether we can ever reach the titular promised land ... this 701-page tome — part one of two — isn’t the usual post-presidential legacy-burnishing project. There is a literary grandness, to be sure — references to Hemingway and Yeats and dramatic renderings of moments high and low captured in sometimes Sorkin-esque dialogue. But the triumphs are tempered with brooding reflections about the inevitable limitations of the presidency. In this surprisingly fast-moving volume, the audacity isn’t in the hopefulness but the acknowledgment of its low ebb.