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. That reader has already pre-ordered A Promised Land, is maybe even a few chapters in, and definitely isn’t skimming past the detailed rehashing’s of Illinois state legislature meetings or economic briefings.
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.
Technically a presidential memoir, A Promised Land still offers up a bit of backstory, revisiting Obama’s childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his slow conversion from a teenager of middling academic interest and career drive to the editor of the Harvard Law Review, his stint as a community organizer in Chicago, and the years spent commuting down to Springfield for his first senatorial gig. By page 100 he’s on the presidential campaign trail, offering hot takes on subjects that passed for controversy 13 years ago (he still broods over his “poorly chosen words” when he described bitter Midwesterners who “cling to guns or religion”; he says Sarah Palin had “no idea what the hell she’s talking about”). He offers his account, in manners occasionally thrilling but always educational, of the biggest watershed moments of his early administration: passing the Recovery Act, passing the Affordable Care Act, striking down “don’t ask, don’t tell,” hunting down and killing Osama Bin Laden. In reading the book, or even in reading that last sentence, it’s laughable to conjure a world in which Barack Obama had low approval ratings. But, ever humble, he plays devil’s advocate there too.
There are no shocking revelations in this memoir, no state secrets spilled, no policy about-faces or unexpected mea culpas — unless you count the revelation that Barack Obama is equal parts heroic and flawed. It’s like the old adage about growing up, when you suddenly come to see your parents as human, not superhuman. Barack Obama is, really, just a guy. But he’s a guy we’re all better for knowing, and A Promised Land is a book we’ll all be better for reading.