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.
The publishers of A Promised Land surely knew they were launching this sure-to-be blockbuster in the month when President Trump would either be reelected or rejected by the voters. They knew the mountain of memories compiled in these 700 pages would appear in a certain light, or shadow, depending on the voters' verdict. But this is more than Obama's answer to four years of Trump's rhetorical assaults and policy reversals. It is a continuation of the story that the 'skinny kid with a funny name' had begun to tell well before the world was listening ... To a remarkable degree, the style of this latest retelling reflects the man we have seen over these years: Orderly, cautious, self-examining — yet eloquent in flashes so vivid that the world was immediately able to share something of his vision ... Whatever one's feelings about this man, they are likely to be brought to the surface by this book. We hear his voice in every sentence, almost as if he were physically present and reading the book aloud ... for those who felt the magnetism and power of the first African American president, at any point in his career, this book should rekindle some of that feeling of discovery. For the truly faithful, some of these pages may have to be read through tears ... If you remember enjoying just listening to Obama talk, the cadences and content of what he said, you are likely to keep this volume handy for a long time. If you tend to tire of his lecturing style (he calls it his 'droning on'), or his tendency to share what he knows with an air of knowing it's a lot, then you will find it easier to put down ... it is an invaluable piece of the puzzle historians will struggle to put together from here forward. If it takes time and effort to take it all in, it's worth it.
... 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.