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.
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.
As a work of political literature A Promised Land is impressive. Obama is a gifted writer. He can turn a phrase, tell a story and break down an argument. As he goes down the policy rabbit hole he manages to keep the reader engaged without condescension. The writing can be vivid ... Some of the most captivating episodes involve his relationship with Michelle, which swings from tense to tender ... For all that, at 700 pages the book is too long ... His literary talents are his own; but the evaluation of his record lies in the hands of others ... The 700% increase in drone strikes in Pakistan receives just a couple of lines here; the escalation in deportations, thanks to a policy inherited from Bush, which he decides not to reverse, gets a paragraph; the prosecution of twice as many whistleblowers as all his predecessors combined is not mentioned ... His side of the story is not, of course, the whole story ... Obama is more perceptive about his own limitations than his cheerleaders are.
Trump hangs over Obama's moving, beautifully written memoir of his first three years in office like an onrushing train that both the reader and author know is hurtling down the tracks to collide with what Obama hoped to achieve ... We will have to wait for Obama's next volume, which will surely likely describe other key national security and military decisions: the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement; the choice not to enforce the 'red line' against the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons against its own people in 2013 ... That will surely be another very compelling book, Mr. President.
To read Barack Obama’s autobiography in the last, snarling days of Donald Trump is to stare into an abyss between two opposite ends of humanity, and wonder once again at how the same country came to choose two such disparate men ... Obama’s A Promised Land is 701 pages of elegantly written narrative, contemplation and introspection, in which he frequently burrows down into his own motivations ... A Promised Land delivers amply on the basic expectations of political autobiographies, providing a granular view from the driving seat of power.
The reader’s response to A Promised Land is likely to comport with the reader’s attitude toward its author. Barack Obama is a smart politician with a practiced ear and a lawyer’s capacity for argument; as our first black president, he holds a particular place in history. As a matter of substance, however, A Promised Land tells us little that a newspaper reader wouldn’t already know ... This is all expressed in a kind of consensus prose, rotating the trademark Obama detachment with occasional flashes of anger or self-deprecating humor. It can get monotonous at times. The chapters unfold in a formulaic, curiously uniform, fashion ... Political debts are repaid in affectionate phrases and hindsight is prescient ... Most revealing of all, there are unguarded moments of smoldering discontent that he shares with another president: Mr. Obama is routinely aggrieved by his press coverage; and on the subject of friction within the executive branch, he explains 'how the foreign policy bureaucracy could slow-walk, misinterpret, bury, badly execute, or otherwise resist new directions from a president [who would] often end up butting heads with the Pentagon, State Department, and CIA.' The glorious burden of the presidency can sound very familiar.
Like the best autobiographers, Barack Obama writes about himself in the hope of discovering who or even what he is. It’s a paradoxical project for a man who is universally known and idolised, but this uncertainty or insecurity is his motivating force and his most endearing quality ... Now, in this searchingly introspective account of his first presidential term, he divests himself of the “power and pomp” of office, disassembles the 'ill-fitting parts' that make him up and ponders his similarity to 'a platypus or some imaginary beast', unsure of its dwindling habitat ... The book, he says, was written by hand, because he mistrusts the smooth gloss of a digital text: he wants to expose 'half-baked thoughts', to scrutinise the first drafts of a person. He mistrusts his own eloquence as an orator, even though it 'taps into some collective spirit' and leaves him with a 'sugar high'. Hunched at his desk, he has to renounce those winged words and submit to a more reflective self-interrogation ... At the book’s taut, thrillingly narrated climax, Obama vanquishes two enemies over a single weekend ... The view ahead, to be covered in the second volume of this memoir, is inauspicious and it confirms Obama’s demoralising suggestion that no individual, however gifted with charisma or grace, can prevail for long against what he calls 'dark spirits'.
One of the many delights in Barack Obama’s latest memoir is the thoughtful and large selection of photographs ... Like the man himself, his memoir is elegant, thoughtful and usually balanced ... The one personality he plainly wouldn’t wish to slight is of course Michelle; rather, the very mention of her triggers unexpectedly romantic reveries of genuinely undiluted affection in mushy Mills and Boon-grade narration ... Obama’s is a beautifully written memoir ... covers his childhood through to the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011, which is written up like a thriller. It’s not a proper work of history, as such, but it is full of insights into the state of American society, and in particular its problems with race. In fact, though the competition is not strong, it’s probably the best volume of autobiography from a former president in modern times. As a reminder of a face of America it is invaluable.
... remarkable for its precision and thoroughness, as well as for its honesty, humor and thoughtful perspective. President Obama’s skill as a writer, and his generosity in sharing his doubts and disappointments as well as his accomplishments and convictions, make the memoir a must-read for all those who wonder why character matters and what true patriotism looks like. And for political junkies, there are nuggets on each and every page.
Presidential memoirs are maybe a fool’s errand. Perhaps the job of the presidency itself is a fool’s errand ... Yet, Barack Obama’s tome of a memoir, A Promised Land, suggests by its mere length and detail that one of the most significant tasks of the job is the work of legacy maintenance ... The Obama that shines through the text is certainly brilliant and analytical, but with little philosophical or ideological heft ... In 2017, I went with a friend to Obama’s farewell speech at McCormick Place. At the end of this speech, I felt a distinct emptiness ... What was missing, which maybe was always missing, was a direction. This president, it seems, has never been clear, to himself or to us, on what values he meant us to be in service of. Service was the value; activity was the value ... At the end of the night, my friend and I left and bought a few souvenir shirts for family members. The shirts, like the man, like the book, like the movement, carried no meaningful slogans or central principles beyond the name and face etched proudly for all to wear, for all to find some fit inside. It all meant something but what it meant we could not say.
A chronicle of the ascent, election, and administration of the first Black man to helm the federal executive branch, A Promised Land is necessarily a story of aspiration and transformation. And so, in the midst of crisis, it tries to serve as a vessel of memory, an effort to remind us who we were and yet could be ... In his preface, President Obama writes that he’s unwilling 'to abandon the possibility of America,' and the book that follows reads as equal parts political memoir, civics lesson, and meditation on organizing, as if trying to reconstruct — through sheer force of will — the foundational concepts that built his presidency: hope and change ... The pages are surprisingly suffused with emotion: the appreciation and friendship he shares with his team; the depth of love and affection in his marriage with Michelle Obama, and the tenderness and pride he expresses for his daughters are all so deftly portrayed that I felt compelled to seek out my own loved ones to affirm our connections. It is not a work to stun or shock; the same man who led the country with intellect and grace reappears in this memoir exactly as one would expect, and the most major misstep is an attempt to set stakes when we already know how the story ends ... If we remain the America remembered by President Obama, it is possible to seek bonds across the aisle, to argue policy with honesty and gravitas, to see the best in each other ... Even after inauguration, as crises beset him and Republicans obstruct and deny him solutions, President Obama writes with stubborn optimism ... These chapters read as an argument to address qualms and queries made in good faith, to reassure us that he had only our best interests at heart and to reaffirm the bonds of shared governance that constrained and contained the powers of the office he held. And this elegant (if verbose) account, in a normal context, would be enough. But it feels empty after four years in which those ideals have broken down. In the world of Barack Obama, rules matter, decorum matters, civility matters; in the world we inhabit now, all are shattered ... Within the story of the first Black man elected to serve as president of the United States, race is present and undeniable; yet in the book it is diminished or left unexplored ... Without major revelations, without hindsight, A Promised Land is defined more by what is absent than what it contains.
the praise of Biden is largely descriptive — neither analytical nor revelatory...fine writerly language, but it raises deeper questions: How did Biden’s innate warmth affect their relationship? What did Obama learn from it? What, in turn, did Biden gain personally from his relationship with Obama? The answers would give us a sharper picture of each man and provide meaningful intelligence on our next president ... In the memoir, Obama is bracingly honest about the hardships of governance and the political realities of being president; he is eloquent on his life as father, husband and son...the president gazes mostly from a distance at his vice president. He lacks, or holds close to the vest, his conclusions about Biden, portraying him largely in prosaic, one-dimensional images ... Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the tale of the twosome remains mostly off-screen. The star of this show is Obama. He has expended considerable sweat on many yellow pads to construct a literary scaffolding on which to build his legacy. Yet the blunted portrait of Biden — Obama’s 'brother in arms,' as one of his advisers described him to me — is a loss for all of us wishing to know this perceptive observer’s unique insights into our next president.
A Promised Land, chronicles [Obama's]ascension from private citizen to national figure, and is, as you’d expect, a much less personal and much more guarded book than its predecessor. That’s a loss to readers. But it’s also a quiet reminder of the virtues of restraint that Obama brought to the presidency, and which his successor lacks ... This isn’t to say that A Promised Land is as dry, or as formulaic, as standard political biographies. Obama’s prose is always graceful and distinctive, and his character sketches can draw blood ... Nor does Obama shy away from disarmingly frank assessments of his own failures and shortcomings ... These moments of self-reflection and self-revelation, though, are not the story of the book, which devotes most of its 700 pages not to internal exploration, but to the chronicling of public events ... There is also, inevitably, a good bit of justification. The book is in part meant to secure and explain Obama’s legacy ... he continues to choose his words with care by using his platform to pay debts to allies, burnish his legacy, and advance the cause as he sees it. His caution results in a worse memoir. But it may be part of creating a better polity.
Barack Obama knows how to tell a good story ... His insight into his mindset during his biggest presidential moments is a reminder of his thoughtfulness at a time when deep thought and reflection are desperately needed in the corridors of power ... But perhaps more importantly for America’s national project, from cover to cover, A Promised Land is a reminder of the narrative that Obama has spent his career enunciating ... In this divided age, it’s too much to ask of Obama or anyone else to write a book that can inspire the entire country. And, indeed, A Promised Land is not a national self-help book that will pull us back from the brink. But it offers a few hints about what the former president views as the necessary challenges to tackle ahead. Gently but assuredly, Obama takes on the Republican Party, whose elected officials challenged him at every turn. He deals sharp criticism to the media outlets that inadequately challenged Trump’s lies and broader GOP deception ... honest yet hopeful.
...now Obama himself is striding back into the American psyche with a book offering more audacity and more hope ... Obama has asked readers to wade through more than 700 pages in the service of that conclusion; the book itself—only the first of two volumes—is a testament to his faith in the perseverance of the American people ... the book is more than a collection of familiar Obamaisms and biographical miscellany—there are tick-tock accounts of the major events in his first term. Liberals and progressives who clutched their heads in frustration wondering what Obama could be thinking at various points between his inauguration and the bin Laden raid in 2011 now have a set of answers from the man himself ... Overall, the story being told at length here is one we’ve already heard in condensed form ... What will it take to correct course? There’s a perfunctory nod above to social solidarity. But Obama, as ever, is fundamentally an evangelist for personal responsibility. This comes out most glaringly, as it did during his presidency, in his comments about race and Black men in particular.
The Obama of A Promised Land seems complicated or elusive or detached only if you think that these two elements of the president’s job—the practical and the symbolic—must be made to add up in every particular. Obama himself doesn’t. Even at his most inspiring, he was never a firebrand speechifier. He preached faith in the ability of Americans’ commonalities to overcome their differences. This is a creed in which he continues to believe, even if A Promised Land contains its share of dark allusions to the advent of division and acrimony in the form of Donald Trump. Obama is not angry, the sole quality that seems obligatory across party lines in every form of political discourse today. Plenty of people think he should have been angrier or should have displayed more of the righteous anger they’re convinced that he, as a Black man, must secretly harbor—the joke animating Key & Peele’s classic 'Obama’s Anger Translator' sketch. But he no longer needs to hide it now, and while Obama gets testy and appalled on occasion, there isn’t a single page of A Promised Land that betrays an underlying layer of simmering rage. Furthermore, in his eyes, insisting on 'the most uncompromising positions on everything from affirmative action to reparations' would have betrayed a disbelief that winning would ever be possible, and would have condemned his campaign to the status of 'a useful if transitory platform from which to raise a prophetic voice against racial injustice.' ... while A Promised Land is a pleasure to read for the intelligence, equanimity, and warmth of its author—from his unfeigned delight in his fabulously wholesome family to his manifest fondness for the people who worked for and with him, especially early on—it’s also a mournful one. Not because Obama doesn’t believe in us anymore, but because no matter how much we adore him, we no longer believe in leaders like him.
Manifestly, it is the book of a former president intent on protecting his legacy. The prose in A Promised Land splits the difference between the lyricism of Obama’s first book and the bean-counting of his second. The goals of this book are clarity and precision, but Obama indulges himself with the occasional writerly metaphor ... Obama’s technical literary gifts aren’t the point here, though. A Promised Land is a book written for the historical record ... He never goes so far as to suggest that the backlash against him is racist, in the same way he almost never mentions Trump by name. The suggestion is just there, lurking below the surface of his even, restrained writing. I found myself longing for Luther the anger translator to show up and just come out and say it ... FDR, he tells himself bitterly, would never have let that happen ... That’s the kind of recrimination Obama allows himself in A Promised Land. It’s a gesture at the kind of vulnerability that made Dreams of My Father so astonishingly intimate, and if this book never quite reaches those levels, it comes a lot closer than The Audacity of Hope did ... Obama’s ambivalence about his presidency runs shivering through the underside of A Promised Land. Here he is, making the world a better place, just as he always said he would. But how much is he actually able to get done? ... Obama has enough space and context to set the narrative he thinks he failed to set during his presidency.
There's a certain kind of reader who will be able to drum up wholehearted enthusiasm for every last paragraph of Barack Obama's new memoir. They're the person who can offer a succinct definition of 'policy wonk,' or who reads Politico Playbook every morning (all the way down to the birthday listings), or who was a fan of Steve Kornacki years before he showed up, khaki-clad, in front of that miracle board on election night ... For the remaining readers, you might find that, say, 77 percent of this book is 'for you.' It's a 706-page book if you count the acknowledgements — you should definitely read the acknowledgements — and just for reference on the breadth and pace, by the final paragraph it's the spring of 2011. President Obama is nothing if not detailed, and by his own account he wrote this book with an eye for context, never wanting to tell us about a difficult decision he once made or a bill he passed without first helping us understand the history. He is self-aware enough that he realized, in writing, that he would need two volumes to do this right, and apprises (warns?) us of that in the foreword. But trust that you'll be glad for all of it.
What emerges most strongly from these pages is that Obama is a compulsive introvert, subjecting every decision to endless analysis from every angle. Each mistake he was accused of making is scrutinised, defended and turned into a lesson learnt ... All this is delivered with a literary panache that few politicians have equalled. For the advance of Trump and his furious assault on Obama’s legacy, however, we have to await volume two.
[A Promised Land] finds the 59-year-old former president reflecting on the space between his presidential ambitions and the political reality that hampered them ... The most powerful person on Earth was rarely able to get his way. For over 700 pages detailing his political career up to the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden (Obama has many strengths; brevity is not one of them), Obama shows just how painstakingly the political sausage was made – or, with a Republican majority in the Senate and House, more often wasn’t made ... What Obama is grappling with in A Promised Land is legacy, and what his will be given that he wasn’t able to achieve what he had hoped. By some of his own measuring sticks, his presidency falls short ... Obama’s evenhandedness can be as frustrating as it is endearing. He doesn’t condemn so much as try to understand protesters outside campaign events hoisting Confederate flags, telling him to 'go home.'
[A] 700-page memoir from a recent president is, if nothing else, at least notable. To deem it one of the best books of the year, however, reeks of grading on a curve. It’s good, considering that he’s a famous politician rather than a professional writer. It’s good, considering how much policy detail he needed to include. It’s good, considering. But isn’t this the refrain of the Obama presidency? All things considered, it was pretty good; no point in caviling at the flaws. Volume one of his presidential memoir takes this as a central theme: When all is said and done, he’s satisfied that he did the best he could ... Perhaps he could have trimmed his 700 pages down by nixing some of the more eye-wateringly dull policy explanations, or by reining in his tendency to wander into poetic riffs on his family, the seasonal charms of the Rose Garden, and the long arc of history ... Obama, a more-than-capable stylist, renders his campaign vividly, sculpting it into a lively narrative ... Narratively, the book slams into a wall of policy minutiae and nonstop crises ... Perhaps there’s an upper limit on the value and quality a presidential memoir can really offer, just as — as Obama so often argues in this book — there’s a limit on how much good a president, constrained by the vast fragility of the American economy and global politics, can actually achieve in office. Maybe A Promised Land is as good as we could ever expect. Maybe his presidency was too. But maybe that doesn’t mean good enough.
Every sentence in this book deserves to be treasured and relished. Each word reflects a mind and spirit that inspire respect for all humans, for truth, and for wisdom in decisions that affect the United States and the world. The personal characteristics behind each phrase are so different from those that blurt and spew out erratic tweets from the Trump White House that an ET visitor, if it read both authors, could infer it had landed on two different planets.
As you should also expect from a book like this, Obama is very much concerned with presenting his legacy in the best possible light ... As the author of two previous memoirs, Obama is a practised, observant writer with an important story to tell. One thing you should not expect, however, are any great revelations, inside scoops or dramatic fireworks ... till, you don’t have to read far between the lines to pick up what he really thinks of some of the personalities he had to deal with. One can tell he has genuine respect for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, but thought French president Nicolas Sarkozy a lightweight and Sen. Lindsey Graham a weasel. Stephen Harper, our former Canadian prime minister, is only mentioned in passing. This country did not seem to occupy much, if any, of Obama’s attention; at least it doesn’t in this memoir.