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Intimate, entertaining chronicle of Obama's astonishing journey


President Obama, VP Biden and members of the national security team watch as Osama  bin Laden is tracked down and killed by SEAL Team 6 in Pakistan

President Obama, VP Biden and members of the national security team watch as Osama bin Laden is tracked down and killed by SEAL Team 6 in Pakistan

President Obama, VP Biden and members of the national security team watch as Osama bin Laden is tracked down and killed by SEAL Team 6 in Pakistan

If the outcome of the US election a couple of weeks ago had been different, this memoir would have felt like a study of another time, a period of unprecedented civility leading up to turbulence. Instead, at least for Democrats, there is a sense that calm prevails, that order - in the form of normal politics, with all its flaws - will soon return again.

The memoir of former US president Barack Obama is political as well as literary, foreshadowing what followed Obama's tenure, and seeding glimpses into the characters of both Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Trump is "The Donald", the man who cast doubt on Obama's American birth, and whom the president roundly mocked at the annual White House press correspondents' dinner back in 2011.

"The audience howled as Trump sat in silence, cracking a tepid smile," Obama recalls; Trump, though, would have the last laugh.

Biden was Obama's right-hand man, an Irish-American Catholic, garrulous and prone to gaffes. When Obama approached him to ask if he would become vice-president, Biden initially demurred, and accepted the role only on the assurance that he would be allowed to disagree as strongly with Obama as he wished.

As we now look towards a Biden presidency, some of the differences between them may be telling. When the CIA said they had pinpointed the location of Osama bin Laden's hideaway, Obama and his defence team discussed the possibilities for attacking him and the associated risks.

Biden was against taking action, favouring caution. Obama knew that Biden remembered a failed attempt by Jimmy Carter to rescue 53 American hostages trapped in Iran back in 1980.

"I imagined he had strong memories of that time: the grieving families, the blow to American prestige, the recrimination," he writes. He listened, but went ahead with the raid - which was successful.

A Promised Land is Obama's account of his life and political career up to that moment, ending without a conclusion after Bin Laden's death.

At a little over 700 pages, it is just the first instalment of his political autobiography, keeping the years from 2011 onward for a second volume. For all its length, it is surprisingly readable, taking us from his boyhood in Hawaii, covered in more detail (and with some more colour) in his first book, Dreams from My Father, through to the era of his presidency.

In the preface, Obama says he wrote this book aiming in part to inspire a new generation. He wanted "to offer readers a sense of what it's like to be the president of the United States; I wanted to pull the curtain back a bit and remind people that, for all its power and pomp, the presidency is still just a job… and the men and women who work in the White House experience the same daily mix of satisfaction, disappointment, office friction, screw-ups and small triumphs as the rest of their fellow citizens."

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This he achieves. Not just through his behind-the-scenes tales but in the narrative voice - the calm, intimate and often droll telling of this extraordinary story, a voice you want to listen to.

He shares his doubts and questions with the reader: was his desire to become president driven by vanity or idealism (or both)? Even now, looking back on his presidency, he wonders if he had been "too tempered in speaking the truth as I saw it, too cautious in either word or deed".

Throughout the book's early sections, Obama presents himself not as a golden boy destined for greatness but as an outsider, seeking to belong. On the one hand, we have the Harvard Law School student, the first ever black editor of the Harvard Law Review, who was offered a book deal shortly after graduation; on the other, a boy who partied and took drugs, struggled with his mixed-race identity and saw his grades slip as a teen. Both pictures, of course, are true.

Few anecdotes indicate this tension more starkly than Obama's account of how things were shortly before he won his first race as senator. Nearly 40, he had just lost a congressional primary in Illinois and was still paying off student debts, his marriage strained. He tried to hire a car at LAX airport but his Amex card was rejected.

"I recognised… I'd been driven not by some selfless dream of changing the world, but rather by the need to justify the choices I had already made, or to satisfy my ego, or to quell my envy of those who had achieved what I had not."

Obama was always a writerly president. The chapter on Bin Laden's killing reads like a thriller.

Elsewhere - as you would hope - we get fun descriptions of political figures. When Nancy Pelosi cleverly outmanoeuvred Republicans at a meeting about the 2008 financial crisis, Obama says George W Bush was impressed.

"I couldn't help noticing the president giving Nancy one of his patented smirks - as a shrewd politician, he recognised a deft manoeuvre when he saw one."

And recalling transitions of power (the Bush family were, he says, very gracious), Obama shares a rumour that when the Clintons left the White House to make way for George W's administration, their staff removed all the 'W' keys from office keyboards.

In an interview with The Atlantic's editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama said the book was meant as history more than personal storytelling. Certain sections lack the poetry of his earlier work, and are heavy with context, recording the waves of events and characters that passed through a president's life.

But his poetic sensibilities can emerge in the simplest descriptions, as when he tells of his daily walk to work - along the grand West Colonnade, across the ramp required by Franklin D Roosevelt's wheelchair, picking up speed as he gets towards his office.

A Promised Land is about arrival, the ambivalence and complexity of occupying the most powerful position in the world and the reflections of a man who held that role, who fully understands the hope his presidency represented and the forces it unleashed.

It's a unique and astonishing story about a president who started off as "a strange guy from Hawaii with a scruffy wardrobe and crazy dreams".


A Promised Land

Barack Obama



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