A Promised Land (Crown Publishing, 2020), former US President Barack Obama's long-heralded post-presidency memoir, is now here, and it arrives at a national moment when a pandemic is surging at steep, horrifying numbers in the US and when Donald Trump, the outgoing President, is loudly claiming he was cheated of victory by the Deep State and the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Obama's two-term Vice President Joe Biden was elected President over a month ago and will take office in a country where over 80 million of its citizens have been convinced by his predecessor that he's a thief and an imposter.
It's a natural human impulse to want A Promised Land to speak to the moment, and it decidedly, almost obstinately does not.
There are hints, of course. Looking at the seismic changes in the political landscape during his lifetime, Obama watches for warning tremors and centres on the same one many earlier commenters have: John McCain's selection of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, despite the fact that, as Obama observes, "on just about every subject relevant to governing the country she had absolutely no idea what the hell she was talking about." In one of his book's few gestures at the current state of the country, Obama writes that elevation of Palin to national politics in order to appeal to an extremely uninformed rural Republican base of voters was a harbinger of worse things to come, "a larger, darker reality in which partisan affiliation and political expedience would threaten to blot out everything—your previous positions; your stated principles; even what your own senses, your eyes and ears, told you to be true."
There can hardly be a reader at the end of 2020 who doesn't wish that A Promised Land dealt more often with that darker reality. Obama at one point worries that over the last few years he might have been too reticent and reserved, "too tempered in speaking the truth as I saw it, too cautious in either word or deed."
This is putting it mildly. For years, while Donald Trump's administration ripped apart his legacy, separated little children from their parents at the southern border (and destroyed the records necessary to reunite them), attempted to coerce foreign countries to provide propaganda against Trump's political rivals, and debased the dignity of the Oval Office, for years of this, Obama stayed silent when his immense popularity and oratorical gifts would have been a great boon to the forces of resistance against the evils of the Trump years. No doubt Obama thought he was upholding the unspoken tradition that former US Presidents refrain from pointedly criticizing their successors. But even so, he's no fool; long, long after he must have seen Donald Trump for the thuggish proto-fascist he is, he still remained silent.
And, maddeningly, he mostly remains silent still in A Promised Land. As readers might expect from the spellbinding author of Dreams from My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006), this new book is both unfailingly engaging and often wonderfully written (about the Illinois state capitol building, for instance: "On any given day, under the high dome of the capitol, you'd see a cross section of America on full display, a Carl Sandburg poem come to life"). Its gallery of characters, from foreign leaders to White House staff to the author's family, are realised in vivid, memorable prose throughout. Likewise the drama of Obama's unlikely rise to the presidency and the key points of his two terms in office—including dealing with the Bush-era economic recession and finding and killing Osama bin Laden—makes for gripping storytelling. The language can be salty (surely this book has more f-bombs than all previous Presidential memoirs combined), but the narrative bristles with intelligence.
One sad and slightly ironic note in A Promised Land: the intense concentrations of the Oval Office seem to have blocked out most of the leisure reading of this very bookish President. Whereas his pre-administration days had been saturated with reading of all kinds - everything from modern and ancient histories to the novels of John Le Carré and Toni Morrison - these White House years were steadily subsumed by late nights poring over: "The latest economic data. Decision memos. Informational memos. Intelligence briefings. Legislative proposals. Drafts of speeches. Press conference talking points." All of which, however affectingly human (and heartbreakingly different from his successor) quite often feels infuriatingly beside the point, like reading a four-star review of the dinner service on the Titanic.
A Promised Land appears in bookstores at the same time when Donald Trump is calling the election he lost "fake" and "rigged" and fomenting sedition among his millions of followers and minions inside and outside the government. This is unprecedented behaviour in a US President and unbelievably dangerous for the country. It strains the patience to watch it all accumulate day by day while reading Obama rehash—however eloquently—the quotidia of his time in office.
As clearly as he sees everything else, he sees the dangers Trump represents, sees the kind of person he is. "[Trump] understood instinctively what moved the conservative base most, and he offered it up in an unadulterated form," Obama writes. "He'd figured out that whatever guardrails had once defined the boundaries of acceptable political discourse had long since been knocked down."
A Promised Land is the most engrossing and effective US Presidential memoir since Bill Clinton's My Life (2004), an unfailingly good reading experience through its whole considerable length. If its target readers are a bit distracted by the fact that the US is teetering on the edge of destruction, well, maybe someday Obama will write a book about that too.
Steve Donoghue is a book critic whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, and the National.