A Promised Land is the first of two volumes from former President Barack Obama on his time as commander-in-chief.
A Promised Land begins with a brief history of Obama’s early years that would lead him to pursue a career in public service. Starting as a state senator in Illinois before launching into what would become a successful foray into the United States Senate, Obama would use his surging popularity to take a run at the White House in 2008. Defeating Senator John McCain, Obama would become the forty-fourth president of the United States in January 2009.
Obama writes about the multitude of challenges he faced during his first term, the worst of which being the financial crisis that had essentially been dumped in his lap upon his arrival to the Oval Office. Obama writes candidly about the broken US financial system that led to its collapse as well as his frustrations dealing with the Republican representatives who hindered his efforts to get a bail-out package together quickly to ultimately prevent a Depression. This would become a theme throughout his first term where Republican representatives would consistently try to block Obama on any piece of legislation solely because he was a Democrat, something Obama hoped to avoid with his strong beliefs on bi-partisanship. He isn’t shy with his thoughts on Mitch McConnell (“..what McConnell lacked in charisma or interest in policy, he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness and shamelessness, all of which he employed in the single-minded passionate pursuit of power”).
We get glimpses into the biggest moments of Barack Obama’s first term including the BP oil disaster, several overseas crises and his attempt to reform Health Care with the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare) – a particular challenge considering he had to basically convince those who already had health care that the system was essentially broken and required extensive repair. This venture in particular was met with initial resistance from advisors in that if Obama had failed, it would damage his chances at re-election; a thought process that deeply angered Obama. He writes that the reason he became President was to fix elements of the United States system that he felt were fundamentally damaged instead of focusing on his own political preservation. This was a huge part of the book and what ultimately endeared him to me as a reader. Obama has a massive respect for the office and all that comes with it. He isn’t selfish and isn’t focused on his own image, something that would be lost on his successor.
The most gripping part of the book dealt with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in May of 2011. After nearly a decade of tracking and searching, the United States finally had the opportunity to take down the man behind the worst attack on US soil in the country’s long history. Obama’s telling of the days that led up to his decision to authorize the mission were interesting to say the least. His account of watching the mission play out in real time in the White House war room had me on the edge of my seat. The agonizing pressure that came along with sending those men (albeit highly trained) into those caves weighed on Obama like a ton of bricks.
In the end, what I most enjoyed about this book were the moments that humanized President Obama. He’s funny, down-to-earth and comes across as a genuinely good person. Stories like his daughter asking him to adopt an alias when in public (as a US senator) to dissuade people from mobbing him for selfies and autographs, his taste in movies according to Michelle (“movies where bad things happen to people and then they die”), volunteering to coach his daughter’s basketball team as well as a story about getting it so completely wrong when telling Lin Manual Miranda that he thought his idea for a musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton just wouldn’t work. These were the moments that led to me truly enjoying the book. Of course, his decision making and successes are the back-bone of it all, but Obama’s willingness to write so candidly made this near thirty hour audiobook a breeze.