Last Updated on January 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712
In A Promised Land, Barack Obama argues that although America has sometimes fallen short of its ideals, and although politicians must often compromise to accomplish their goals, there remains hope that the country and the world may achieve equality and freedom for all. He describes the choices he had to make as president and shares what he learned from the experience. Though he often confronted prejudice and feared it would triumph, he and those he partnered with were also able to make changes that improved the world and the lives of ordinary citizens. He believes that if Americans work together, politics, as difficult as it is, can be a force for good in the world.
Obama was America’s first Black president. As such, he experienced prejudices that impeded the operations of his administration and observed the growth of a popular political movement motivated by the belief that people of color have no right to power in America. He tracks the rise of this right-wing movement and of other prejudice-based movements across the globe, but he expresses hope that the forces of tolerance will triumph. When elected, he also became responsible for handling the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis and the nation’s military entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both of these problems arose under the rule of his predecessor, but Obama spent much of his presidency dealing with them. He reflects on how this is common to the presidency, that much of one’s time and energy is spent in responding to previous events. The book also takes shape in the context of the events that followed Obama’s presidency, in which Donald Trump pursued policies that Obama believes traded on the prejudices that he, as president, had sought to help America and the world overcome.
In the book, Obama uses a mixture of personal reflection, historical background, narration of events, and political analysis. He does not hesitate to go deep in detail while explaining what happened during his administration and the choices he made, making sure the reader is thoroughly informed as they contemplate his arguments. Explicitly stating that he is leaving his “motives open to interpretation,” Obama critiques the choices he made and shares his regrets. In particular, he repeatedly expresses his consciousness that being first lady was very difficult for Michelle, and he fears he made the situation more difficult by failing to communicate and “contributing to her loneliness.”
However, Obama also defends his actions, even when political failure is their consequence: “I didn’t regret paving the way for twenty million people to get health insurance … I didn’t regret how we’d handled the financial crisis.” Foregrounding Republican opposition, he attributes many of the difficulties he had to their “refusal to work with [him] or members of [his] administration, regardless of the circumstances, the issue, or the consequence for the country.” He indicts the press for the “predictable script” in which they report what each side says equally and “leave it to an opinion poll to sort out who’s right.” The American public also comes in for blame due to its regular failure, according to Obama, to understand the administration’s accomplishments, goals, or motives. In spite of these frustrations with how things work in American politics, he expresses hope for what America can accomplish in the future. The book ends partway through his first term, and he concludes on a note of reflection concerning how far he had to go at that point: “my presidency still fell short of what I wanted it to be.”
On a larger scale, Obama seeks to draw a contrast between the rise...
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of forces he associates with “humanity’s baser impulses” and the potential for America and the world to rise above them. He argues that there is still potential for “a politics that bridge[s] America’s racial, ethnic, and religious divides,” and he encourages the reader to help pursue that future. In spite of all the compromises he had to make and all the prejudices he found himself fighting against, he maintains that democracy can triumph if people are willing to communicate and open themselves to others’ identities and needs. He believes that the things people share in common are far more important than their differences.