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'A Promised Land' review: Barack Obama's introspective memoir

Former President Barack Obama speaks at a drive-in

Former President Barack Obama speaks at a drive-in rally for Joe Biden in Orlando, Florida. Credit: Getty Images/RICARDO ARDUENGO

A PROMISED LAND by Barack Obama (Crown, 768 pp., $45)

Former President Barack Obama's deeply introspective and at times elegiac memoir 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.

On that central question, he writes glumly in the book's preface, "the jury's still out."

Covering only the first two and half years of his presidency, this 701-page tome — part one of two — isn't the usual post-presidential legacy-burnishing project. 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.

Unspooled chronologically, the book's first 200 pages recapture the headier days of the future president as a young man, highlighted by Obama's evocative account of his bright-eyed 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention. He relates what it was like to feel the first spark of an electrical charge that would carry him to the White House just four years later.

"There comes a point in the speech where I find my cadence. The crowd quiets rather than roars," he recalls. "It's the kind of moment I'd come to recognize in certain magic nights. There's a physical feeling, a current of emotion that passes back and forth between you and the crowd."

Obama took office in January 2009 amid a spiraling economic crisis, his lofty plans for change running smack into the buzz saw of Washington's partisan realities. Detailing the fevered policymaking of his first two years, Obama draws a textured portrait of himself as a rookie executive — seeking counsel from aides, sneaking cigarettes on the Truman Balcony, frustrated by the constraints on his ambitious agenda but undaunted in pursuing it, even at a steep political cost.

His major achievements passed thanks to the Democrats' legislative majorities, and Obama lauds the courage of vulnerable lawmakers who provided the decisive votes to enact Obamacare knowing it would cost them their seats. "How many of us are tested in that way, asked to risk careers we've long dreamed of in the service of some greater good?" he marvels.

Obama's emotional restraint gives way in moving passages about fatherhood and the loss of his mother and grandmother, and in recalling moments when he seethed, as when a recalcitrant general went rogue in an interview.

The narrative puts the reader in the room at defining moments — "I love that woman," Obama tells an aide after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi assures him she'll get his health care bill across the finish line — but also in the head of an acutely self-aware individual.

Nowhere is the heaviness of the presidency clearer than in Obama's descriptions of deciding to authorize military action, first in Libya as part of a NATO coalition and then in the raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden, which concludes this volume. The ticktock of the raid's secret planning and execution is exhilarating, but Obama reflects on the cathartic euphoria of the aftermath.

Obama's anguish is leavened, however, by his sense of history and what Martin Luther King called the long arc of the moral universe.

A visit to the former Buchenwald concentration camp with Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, along with a D-Day commemoration at Omaha Beach, France, "answered whatever doubts stirred in me" about how individuals can change the world.

In 2007, when Obama was still a candidate, a visit to Selma, Alabama, to mark "Bloody Sunday" similarly fortified him; elders who'd endured bombings, beatings and fire hoses connected their journey to his own, casting themselves as "the Moses generation" and leaving it to him, "the Joshua generation … to take the next steps."

Four years later, Obama delivered a college commencement speech in Miami, offering his presidency as proof to another generation "that the American idea endures.""At about the same age as the graduates were now, I'd seized on that idea and clung to it for dear life," he writes. "For their sake more than mine, I badly wanted it to be true."

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