Review: ‘A Promised Land’ by Barack Obama

Originally published on Goodreads

The second best part of this book is Obama’s contemporary reflection on a statement he gave about the Deepwater Horizon disaster –

“Reading the transcript now, a decade later, I’m struck by how calm and cogent I sound. Maybe I’m surprised because the transcript doesn’t register what I remember feeling at the time, or come close to capturing what I really wanted to say before the White House press corps.”

Contemporary Obama lambasts the American media, the citizenry, and his fellow politicians for perpetuating the hypocrisy inherent in their political system.

He rightly claims that relevant government departments were stripped of budget because of continued voter buy-in to the idea that government spending is problematic, and were unable to invest properly into precautionary measures as a result. He also claims that the leveraging of this narrative for political expediency results in policy that benefits businesses over the environment, bolstered by a revolving door between government and big business.

All this is compounded by short-sighted dismissal of any extra expense where additional taxation would be required to pay for it, despite a continued expectation for flawless and immediate solutions when a problem does arise. A neat ribbon is tied onto this package by a media absolved of the regulatory demand and cultural expectation to inform and educate the public on the need for such precautions, because they’re “boring” and “bad for ratings”.

His incisive conclusion is that the tendency for outrage about such problems, those “decades in the making,” to occur in short bursts, and for the end goal to be the appearance of a “quick and easy fix” that allows people to return to “not having to feel guilty about it any more”, rather than any actual, systemic, long-term solution.

Then, of the much more measured transcript, he says –

“I didn’t say any of that. Instead, I somberly accepted responsibility and said it was my job to ‘get this fixed’.”

This, I think, is a nod to the fact that, despite his acute awareness of the frustrations and hypocrisy inherent to the current American political culture, he was motivated by a wider belief that a political system doesn’t need to be defined by these things. Facing forward rather than throwing blame is not only possible, but preferable.

And this is where the best part of the book shines through. No president is perfect. There are unforgivable blemishes on Obama’s legacy. But throughout A Promised Land, he gives insight into the principals, beliefs, and measured actions that should be present in whichever person holds this office.

At one point he explains how being president is about playing the odds, spending time evaluating them, and surrounding yourself with the best people to help you source and analyse the data to allow you to best hedge the bets. You get the real impression that Obama sought and valued counsel from those around him more qualified to give it, rather than projecting his ego onto the various situations and crises that required his attention.

Near the end, Obama laments that while the death of Osama Bin Laden brought a terrorist mastermind to justice to provide a rare moment of national catharsis and unity, the fact that such unity is only achievable through the death of an enemy – a figurehead of the external “other” that plays such a dominant role in national politics – is inherently tragic. What if such unity of purpose, effort, and accomplishment could be achieved by properly educating the next generation of children, for example? Or by implementing universal healthcare so that no one need live in fear that unexpected illness would bankrupt them and destroy their life?

The fact that Obama takes his inability to muster such national unity of purpose as a personal failing rather than as an outcome of America not existing as a political utopia proves, to me, that his guiding principles are sound. They are indicative of the principles that should guide the person holding this office. I believe that policy arising from such principles would be a manifestation of consideration and principled belief, rather than a means to achieve wealth, glory, or craft some political legacy. Then, regardless of a politician’s political alignment, the actions and policies arrived at from such a position would help to move democracy closer toward, rather than away from, its conceptual ideal.

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