I always appreciate autobiographies for the glimpse they offer into another person's life. Double points for something that is well written and, if anything, A Promised Land is well written. Barack Obama's voice makes everything feel present and personal, which is the hallmark of a good biography. Yet one has to wonder how much of the story has been left out, how many personal failures have been explained away by a personality affected by the hubris of being the president, particularly given the several sections of the book where political figures were criticized for speaking out of turn or saying too much to the wrong people. So am I conflicted about this. I liked reading the book and I am glad to have had a taste of the experience of being a president, but I cannot take anything else at factual value.
The book only covers the first four years of the presidential term, starting before the Democrat candidate elections and ending with bin Laden's death. It portrays Obama as an idealist, a reasonable man, one of those few people that need the world to make sense. He tells the story of him becoming a candidate almost like he got caught up in a current.
He then tells stories about his Democrat colleagues and Republican adversaries, taking great care to talk as nice of them as possible. Notable exceptions are Sarah Palin, which Obama sees as the prototype Trump: an uneducated know-nothing who gained political capital not despite, but because of her ignorance, and Mitch McConnell, who is for all intents and purposes the Palpatine of the story. Trump is also mentioned at the end, deliberately almost like a footnote and depicted as a mindless buffoon.
Reading the book from start, when the hero is a young idealist who believes in America and its political system, to end, when the hero is a battered soldier fighting economic collapse, terrorism, Republican lies and suicidal policies meant to counter him personally, felt painful. A good kind of pain, like the one (I assume :) ) one would get after a good workout, but pain nonetheless. It also started as a manifesto of hope and kind of ended in a bunch of apologetic explanations on why the good things that he did were not noticed by people and why the good things he did not do had good reasons for not getting done.
I liked that Obama is a politician who hates the way politics work. I loved that he is a principled man as it is my personal belief that only well thought and agreed principles should guide important decisions, not personal feelings. I liked that the book did not focus on racism or social justice and the few passages about that were well argumented and put in context.
I don't think being president helped him a lot, it sounded like it was one of those soul sucking jobs that people get into for money and prestige and the hope of achieving something, but that get them exhausted and lifeless at the end. Even for a positive and hopeful person, his book leaves a bitter taste of disappointment in how the world works.
My conclusion: it is a long book, 1700 ebook pages, and it only covers the first term of his presidency and a few years before as a politician. It is well written and I imagine the audio book, which is narrated by Obama himself, has an even stronger impact. I liked that he tried to present himself accurately, with strengths and weaknesses, qualities and flaws. I do believe, though, that the narrative of the book and especially they way he sees himself is a bit fantastic. Some of the chapters felt like rationalizations of past failures. There were valid reasons for that, but they were failures nonetheless and it felt like he refused to own responsibility for some of them. I recommend the book, but for someone not interested in politics, it may feel a bit boring.