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Review of A Promised Land By Barack Obama (2020, Viking, €29.99)

Style with some substance

By Mehar Luthra

I used to pride myself on being the most politically unaware human on the planet. I revelled in my political illiteracy. Politics was a snooze-fest. Until, that is, the advent of Obama and Trump. Obama came along, made politics cool and accessible and inclusive and he actually talked sense. But in defiance of what I thought was history’s established course, after eight years, we were given an inarticulate and divisive, orange-tanned monster who made no pretensions of being intelligent, smart or even particularly interested in his citizenry.

Obama, with his cheerful smile and penetrating intellect, seemed to me as comforting as chocolate chip cookies. So, I reached out for A Promised Land with relief. The 700+ pager tome details Obama’s life from growing up in Hawaii (his mother was a badass rebel who married an immigrant from Kenya) to his slow slog through the Illinois State Senate and eventual election to the US Senate, where he amassed enough legislative cred to be considered a contender for the 2008 presidential election. The story first showcases the behind-the-scenes of a high-stakes presidency bid and then affords us, the readers, a peek into the cohesive, logical and mostly straightforward decision-making process that he adopts throughout his term in office. I particularly found it fascinating how, right before the election, he had a bit of a pissing contest with John McCain, who had, inexplicably, walked into an Oval Office summit he had insisted on after halting his campaign schedule, completely unprepared. McCain was painted as a clueless schmuck whose ill-thought-out campaign bluff had been called. For anyone looking to get some triumphant, vicarious and wholly petty thrills while hoping that that cough you just had was only anxiety-induced, this is the motherlode. 

There’s not much insight into his home life, but he does address the fact that after all the smiling and hand-holding and kissing of babies in the streets, he knew that his wife, Michelle and two daughters, Malia and Sasha, had NOT signed up for this. There were missed birthdays, anniversaries and an inadequate distribution of the workload, and this caused domestic consternation. 

Touted as the selling point of the two-part series is Obama’s commentary on world leaders. However, he sidesteps in favour of tamped-down but still insightful opinions. Considering that some of these world leaders no longer occupy the sensitive positions of power they once did, I would have liked to see some peel-back-the-protocol truthfulness. 

There is a vast cast of characters. We are introduced to various staffers who are colourfully described with their own quirks, shortcomings and talents. Almost akin to character arcs on a well-written TV show, we are taken through their evolution as Obama settles into his role from the President-elect to POTUS. A heartwarming aside is when Obama describes the subtle but unbridled joy the predominantly-Black White House staff feel on serving a Black First Family. It’s important to celebrate these revolutionary joys.

The book also takes a good, hard look at how the Obama phenomenon came into existence. His message was simple and extremely effective – he intended to work for the average, hard-working American who simply wished to lead a dignified life with healthcare without going broke and putting kids through college and owning a house; that if you worked hard enough, you could have a good life for yourself and your family. His was a politics of inclusiveness, of common purpose that transcended party lines. It was also what enabled him to reach out and win the votes of everyone, regardless of colour or social standing. Obama knew early on that if he wanted to become the first African American president, his agenda had to include EVERYONE and not just people who looked like him. And that’s just what he did.

Obama is famously sharp.  He writes and speaks extraordinarily well, colourfully, eschewing cliché.  Vladimir Putin‘s “satirical image of masculine vigor” is the result of “the fastidiousness of a teenager on Instagram”.When he wins the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, he writes that his simple response was “for what?”.  Sometimes the book is earthy.  His senior advisor tells his chief of staff: “Goddamnit Rahm, slow down – your ass is in my face.“, as they descend the pyramids in Egypt on a state visit. Obama’s extraordinary grace, refined humour and his confident wisecracks in the face of even the stiffest of challenges is refreshing and contrasts with boorish Trumpism. This man, the former leader of the free world, enjoys a game of basketball with his staffers and used to get exasperated when everyone stood up as soon as he entered the room. He is not yet warped by his own sense of self-importance, and that can only be a good thing.

‘A Promised Land’ delves deep into policy-making and the mechanics that go into getting legislative agendas through the two Houses in the US. He gives us an insight into the prevalent back-scratching brand of bargaining routinely employed by any President in an effort to reach across the aisle and make a deal with the other party. Carefully peppered with self-aware propaganda, the book gives us what is essentially ‘his’ side of the story of why and how he failed at what he failed, and the fact that the Republican Party is more concerned with image and the propagation of fear than enacting measures that may actually help the public and frankly, 

For a political memoir, it’s a page-turner: full of details and introspective cogitating, While Obama’s policies may leave people divided, the man has style.