Book Review of Barak Obama’s “A Promised Land”
By Dan Watt, B.A. Anthropology and History, W.L.U.
“Here’s the thing,” I would say. “Most people, wherever they’re from whatever they look like, are looking for the same thing. They’re not trying to get filthy rich. They don’t expect someone else to do what they can do for themselves.
“But they do expect that if they’re willing to work, they should be able to find a job that supports a family. They expect that they shouldn’t go bankrupt just because they get sick. They expect that their kids should be able to get a good education, one that prepares them for this new economy, and they should be able to afford college if they’ve put in the effort. They want to be safe, from criminals or terrorists. And they figure that after a lifetime of work, they should be able to retire with dignity and respect.” – Barak Obama (p. 48)
A Promised Land is an insightful autobiography of national and international politics that gives you a front row seat to what it’s like to be a political leader. Obama describes where his values came from and his evolution as a person and politician. He doesn’t claim everything he did succeeded but he does demonstrate how his team did the best they could under the circumstances. He gives examples of what his goals were and the necessity to often make compromises to reach those goals.
The book is in chronological order with historical inserts of social, political, environmental, military, and economic history to help the reader understand why certain events like the economic crash in 2008 happened, and why the war in Afghanistan continued.
Throughout A Promised Land Obama refers to the influences his mother, Ann Dunham, and his maternal grandmother, Madelyn Lee Payne Dunham, had on his belief system.
When he was a child and his mother found out he had been part of a group teasing another kid his mother sat him down and told him: “You know, Barry (his nickname), there are people in the world who think only about themselves. They don’t care what happens to other people so long as they get what they want. They put other people down to make themselves feel important. Then there are people who do the opposite, who are able to imagine how others must feel, and make sure that they don’t do things that hurt people. So, which kind of person do you want to be?” (6-7) From his maternal grandmother he learned stoicism: “She taught me to marry passion with reason, to not get overly excited when life was going well, and to not get too down when it went badly.” (114)
Obama gives credit to those who helped him along the way.
Such as his Chief of Staff during his early senator days, Pete Rouse, who helped him recruit “a topflight staff”. (55) David Axelrod, media consultant (43) and Robert Gibbs, communications director (50) along with a host of others are mentioned throughout the book giving a sense that a democratic leadership is really a ‘We’ government.
He also talks about how surprise moments drove home his belief in himself and that he could become the next leader of the United States. In Greenwood, South Carolina, he was preparing to give a speech when he heard Edith Childs shout out: “Fired up!” and the gathering reply with: “Ready to go!” Obama admits hearing the chant energized him. The chant became the rallying call throughout his candidacy for the presidency. (97, 196) The chant was also a reminder throughout his campaign that he wasn’t just running for the presidency but that upholding belief in the Declaration of Independence still meant something.
He mentions that “a burly, bearded guy in biker garb and covered with tattoos strode up to me after an event and shoved something into my hand. It was his lucky metal poker chip…” As others gave him their tokens or lucky charms he started keeping them in his pocket during speeches. (p. 190)
Obama demonstrates his willingness to work with individuals in a bipartisan manner and his thankfulness to those who stood up for him when others were attacking his character.
In his junior year as a senator Obama connected with Dick Lugar, a Republican from Indiana and the chair of Foreign Relations Committee. Lugar and Democratic Senator Sam Nunn were able to pass legislation that allowed America to help the Soviet Union deactivate nuclear warheads. Lugar invited Obama to travel with him to Russia to see where nuclear weapons were deactivated. He mentions how Lugar opened his eyes to the difference a senator could really make. (60-61)
When Sarah Palin started accusing Obama of “palling around with terrorists who would target their own country” and other false accusations it was John McCain, his Republican competitor for the presidency, who stood up for him. At a rally in Minnesota McCain told the audience, “I have to tell you, he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States.” (195)
Obama lets future leaders know that anything you do in a public place will be made into news.
At the Western Wall in Jerusalem he wrote a prayer on a piece of paper and placed it into the wall. It was meant as a private message to God but someone dug it out after he departed and gave it to an Israeli newspaper who printed it. (160)
Keeping grounded is something Obama truly believes in.
When Michelle asked her mother Marian Shields Robinson to help take care of the girls and also so she has someone to talk to Obama embraces the idea. “My mother-in-law didn’t act like she was better than anybody else, so our daughters never even considered that an option.” (223)
Obama made sure he visited Walter Reed and Bethesda naval hospitals throughout his tenure as president. Seeing up close what war can do to an individual reminded him to be as sure as he could be, that the decisions he made, were the right ones. Not all the sons and daughters in the United States military came back alive, and many others that did, didn’t always come home whole. He mentions visiting a soldier so bandaged up the soldier’s mother had to remind Obama that he and her son had met before. (576-577)
Obama learned early in life to reverse the roles so he could try to understand another person or groups perspective.
He demonstrates this often in the book so the reader sees both sides of an argument. On why the Tea Party seemed such an attraction to working and middle class whites he points out that: “Many of the working- and middle-class whites gravitating to the Tea Party had suffered for decades from sluggish wages, rising costs and the loss of the steady blue-collar work that provided secure retirements.” (404)
To initiate a program to protect the environment Obama once more demonstrated that getting the job done was his first priority.
He used the cap-and-trade system initiated by the Republican President George H. W. Bush’s administration in 1990 as a template. In Obama’s words Bush’s system worked, because “Despite dire predictions that the measure would lead to factory closures and mass layoffs, the offending companies had quickly figured out cost-efficient ways to retrofit their factories, and within a few years, the problem of acid rain had all but disappeared.” (501)
There is so much in this book I have not mentioned. It took me a long time to read, not because it’s a big book at 700 odd pages but because Obama deals with so many aspects of his personal and political life. His grandmother and mother’s influence; his love for his wife Michelle and their two girls Sasha and Malia Ann; his gratefulness towards all the hard work the people he collaborated with on his journey to the senate and then the presidency; and how his knowledge of national and world affairs helped him to see from different perspectives that allowed him to negotiate whenever possible but demand if necessary.
This book answered a lot of questions I had about a number of events over the last twenty years. I still remember watching a meeting Obama was holding at a town on TV. To paraphrase, I heard him say: This is what people are asking and this how I reply. I had never heard a leader say that before. And he did answer.
In conclusion, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in taking political science, or simply wanting to learn what leadership should be like.