I picked up my copy of the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs the day it came out. A Promised Land launched at an auspicious time, exactly two weeks after his vice president’s victory in the 2020 election. It was a good decision to wait until after this exhausting election cycle to release it, especially because Democratic optimism probably contributed to the three million copies sold in the first month of its release. But this also meant that the manuscript went to press well before the election, leaving a certain open-endedness to the first volume that also reflects the unfinished picture of the Obama legacy. Still, waiting until after the election left the book’s reception to the whims of the American public on November 3. It would read very differently if Joe Biden had lost.
As a source, I’ve always found memoirs challenging. They’re not works of history so much as one individual’s recollection of events in dialogue with historical accounts and collective memory. In the case of Obama’s memoir, the optimistic yet somber tone is colored—like his presidency—by the man who succeeded him.
The other challenge with political memoirs is that they purport to be an honest retelling of events, but they are inevitably shaped by the need to speak to posterity. This isn’t inherently dishonest; after two decades of being defined by the national discourse, public figures like Obama deserve a rebuttal. Although Obama’s reflective tone evades the hubris that can characterize memoirs, the book is clearly a defense of his legacy. Among the charges Obama beats back is that he was too inexperienced or naïve about hardball politics. Now an elder stateman in the Democratic Party—with the visage to match his experience—he acknowledges that there were plenty of lessons he learned along the way, from dealing with Republican leadership to making sure female staffers felt empowered in his White House. But overall, Obama is proud of how he and his team dealt with these and other issues to do the best they could for the country.
At several points, Obama discusses the tension between the idealism of his campaign and the pragmatism of his presidency. He seems troubled by the gulf, acknowledging that he wanted to do more in office, but defends doing what he could with the political capital he had available. For some, this will read as a centrist attempt to claim a more progressive legacy than he earned. And, for sure, there are details that have changed since his earlier books that show how he consciously seeks to shape his place in American history. But it’s also true that there are limits even to the power of the American presidency, whether with regard to reshaping the financial system or passing a more aggressive healthcare act.
Obama also discusses racial injustice as a central regret of his presidency. “It was one thing to have integrated my own life—to learn over time how to move seamlessly between Black and white circles, to serve as translator and bridge among family, friends, acquaintance, and colleagues,” he writes in relation to his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. “But to explain those connections to millions of strangers?” He takes pride in becoming a role model for young people and for receiving support from both white and Black Americans, but seems troubled and uncertain about how else he could have used his platform to chip away at racism. The fear of racial backlash seems legitimate, but with the benefit of hindsight, you sense he wonders if he should have done more if the backlash was inevitable anyway.
I came of age during the Obama presidency. I remember watching his first inauguration in my 9th grade geometry class. The financial crisis, Obamacare battles, and the Arab Spring were frequent topics on NPR as my dad drove me to school, but I didn’t have the capacity to understand the stakes and the decisionmakers involved. Revisiting the Obama administration from the perspective of the man at the center of it was a humbling experience, which actually provided a sort of comprehensible narrative to the political backdrop of my adolescence. Some reviewers have criticized the amount of background context, but for the general audience—especially young, politically inclined readers—these recaps are crucial for understanding the author and the most recent decade of American history.
Despite the darkness of our present moment, and his successor’s attempts to dismember his legacy, Obama never seeps into cynicism. The book is filled with cases of government working—if not perfectly than at least as proof of concept. The anecdotes might be carefully curated, but they provide insights into American public servants. Obama writes of how Vice President Biden insisted on being the last person he talked to before making a decision, and how he once asked Secretary Clinton the last time she had crashed a party before they barged into a private meeting at a climate conference to (successfully) pin down the evasive Chinese delegation. There’s also “aw shucks” sense of humor that captures part of what made Obama such an effective campaigner. And there are heartwarming moments, like when Michelle and his daughters tease him about the size of his ears.
The book is clear, thoughtful, inspiring, and like all memoirs it demands scrutiny. But this is a healthy scrutiny, that Obama himself embraces and encourages, rather than the cynicism consuming our body politic. The book would have read very differently had the 2020 election gone differently, but in our slightly-better-than-the-darkest timeline, it feels like a sort of roadmap for readers who want to remember what a competent administration looks like. Especially with so many Obama alums heading back to the Biden White House this week, it offers a preview of the character of those in government for the next four years.
Although hope seems more audacious than ever, Obama still has it. A Promised Land reminds us that if we want to fix American democracy, we’re going to have to find reasons to hope too, because that’s what change is built on.