“Politics doesn’t have to be what people think it is. It can be something more.”
Long before I wanted Jacinda Ardern to be my prime minister, I wanted Barack Obama to be my president. Other than a few standout moments, like Julia Gillard’s efforts in establishing the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and our current prime minister’s poorly timed vacation while much of the country was burning in 2019, I couldn’t tell you a great deal about politics in Australia.
Billy Connolly taught me everything I knew about politics as a kid, with ‘The desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever becoming one’ and ‘Don’t vote, it just encourages them’ recited on a regular basis in my home when I was growing up.
In A Promised Land, Obama mentions something known as the “What’s the point of voting if nothing ever changes?” syndrome, which pretty much sums up my political worldview as an adult.
[I’d be hard pressed to tell you anything that impacts me personally that’s a priority for politicians in Australia. My single attempt at getting my local member of parliament to mobilise any of their resources to help members of their constituent and the rest of the state in positions similar to mine (those who were being screwed over by changes to the Worker’s Compensation system, which had already resulted in several deaths by suicide by the time I met with them) resulted in an incredulous, ‘What do you want me to do about it?!’ and towards the end of the meeting, a more pointed, ‘You’re f*cked’ (actually, they said that twice during the meeting), before the obligatory, ‘Vote for my party in the next election if you want to see changes’. So, yeah. Politics and I aren’t exactly friends.]
To say that this book is outside of my comfort zone is an understatement. I never thought I’d voluntarily read anything classified as a political memoir. But it’s Obama and I was interested in what he had to say, even if I had to sift through politics that I previously haven’t either cared about or understood to hear it.
This, I was coming to realize, was the nature of the presidency: Sometimes your most important work involved the stuff nobody noticed.
I was surprised by how much I loved this book. I learned so much about the ins and outs of political decisions and the fact that I found the details interesting says a lot about the quality of the writing. But the human stories were what really sucked me in.
This is a book where a football is not a football, where Dr. No scrutinises all things ethical to avoid scandal (“If it sounds fun, you can’t go.”) and the president is the one who brings out the cake for people’s birthdays. Also, and I may be the only one who thinks this is kinda cool, although I’d hate it if anyone was paying that much attention to me, “Renegade to Secondary Hold” was Secret Service code for Obama going to the bathroom.
Make no mistake: this is a heavy book, providing in depth details of decisions relating to the financial crisis, war, healthcare, foreign policy, immigration, human rights and a whole bunch of other unfolding crises that wind up on a president’s to do list.
No one had nuclear war or terrorism on their minds. No one except me. Scanning people in the pews – friends, family members, colleagues, some of whom caught my eye and smiled or waved with excitement – I realized this was now part of my job: maintaining an outward sense of normalcy, upholding for everyone the fiction that we live in a safe and orderly world, even as I stared down the dark hole of chance and prepared as best I could for the possibility that at any given moment on any given day chaos might break through.
I found myself getting bogged down in the details of the financial crisis and for a few days I’d catch myself daydreaming about some of the books I could be reading instead. Everything after that, though, I couldn’t get enough of. Having read little else for almost two weeks, part of me feels like I’ve always been reading this book and another part of me is sad that it wasn’t even longer.
This is also literally a very heavy book and an awkward one to hold; I lay in bed the first night, when I hadn’t even finished the first hundred pages, trying to figure out why my hands hurt so much. It turns out that simply holding onto this book is its own workout.
Handy hint: If you rest the book on your body as you’re reading and use your hands to gently balance it so it doesn’t fall on your face and crush you, your hands will thank you for it.
The pages are also crammed with words so it felt like I was reading a lot more than 700 pages. I was curious to find out just how many words fit on an average full page of text. Because I’m me, I finally decided to count the words on one page – 430. I don’t know what a normal page count is but that sounded like a lot to me.
There’s a lot of serious in this book but that’s not to say there aren’t some smiles and misty eye moments along the way. I chuckled when the secure mobile communications system broke down at the wrong moment, necessitating a very important and very serious phone call being made instead on “a device that had probably also been used to order pizza.”
I lost count of the times I could have easily wandered into ugly cry territory: the outcome of the DREAM Act, when Obama visited soldiers as they recovered from injuries sustained serving their country, personal family moments.
The fuss of being president, the pomp, the press, the physical constraints – all that I could have done without. The actual work, though?
The work, I loved. Even when it didn’t love me back.
There are probably over 700 reasons why I should never be president of anything, let alone the U.S. Here are my current top 5:
- The meetings. No one should have to attend so many meetings. I dreaded having to attend one team meeting each month at my last job. A coworker, who shared my disdain for meetings, and I frequently got in trouble for pulling faces at each other when everyone else had their serious faces on.
- Filibuster. Just reading that word makes me want to spit the dummy. That the opposition think it’s a great idea to do whatever they can to prevent the other side from winning anything, because it might make them look like they’re competent, rather than prioritising what’s best for the people they claim to be serving? That makes my blood boil.
- “The Death, Destruction, and Horrible Things Book”, A.K.A., the “President’s Daily Brief”. If I had to read about all of the possible ways the world might implode/explode every morning over breakfast, I’d not only forego the most important meal of the day, it’s highly likely I wouldn’t remain functional for very long.
- I wouldn’t be diplomatic enough. If another world leader was doing something stupid I would be calling them on it, probably in public, and would more than likely wind up causing more problems than I was attempting to solve.
- My priorities wouldn’t be overly presidential. My first order of business would be to get whoever had access to them to bring me the unredacted files relating to all things Area 51 and anything else Mulder might have a passing interest in. That’s what I’d be reading over breakfast.
I realized that for all the power inherent in the seat I now occupied, there would always be a chasm between what I knew should be done to achieve a better world and what in a day, week, or year I found myself actually able to accomplish.
When I was only about 200 pages in, I mentioned to someone that this book was really giving me a feel for the type of person Obama is. They asked me what type of person that is. My answer was something like, ‘He’s got values and acts in a way that is in accordance with them. He’s intelligent and likes to have a laugh. He’s a loyal and trustworthy friend and he absolutely adores his family. He’s the kind of person you’d want to know and someone I could see me being friends with.’
500 pages later and I can say with confidence that I still feel that way. My only cause for concern? The man doesn’t like sweets. That’s not something I usually look for in a friend but I suppose no one’s perfect. More sweets for me, I guess.
I’m wondering how it will be possible to fit everything else in only one more book as this one leaves readers in May 2011, but I’m really looking forward to reading the second volume. It turns out reading outside of your comfort zone can be a really good thing.
Whatever you do won’t be enough, I heard their voices say.
Once Upon a Blurb
A riveting, deeply personal account of history in the making – from the president who inspired us to believe in the power of democracy.
In the stirring, highly anticipated first volume of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from young man searching for his identity to leader of the free world, describing in strikingly personal detail both his political education and the landmark moments of the first term of his historic presidency – a time of dramatic transformation and turmoil.
Obama takes readers on a compelling journey from his earliest political aspirations to the pivotal Iowa caucus victory that demonstrated the power of grassroots activism to the watershed night of November 4, 2008, when he was elected 44th president of the United States, becoming the first African American to hold the nation’s highest office.
Reflecting on the presidency, he offers a unique and thoughtful exploration of both the awesome reach and the limits of presidential power, as well as singular insights into the dynamics of U.S. partisan politics and international diplomacy. Obama brings readers inside the Oval Office and the White House Situation Room, and to Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, and points beyond. We are privy to his thoughts as he assembles his cabinet, wrestles with a global financial crisis, takes the measure of Vladimir Putin, overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to secure passage of the Affordable Care Act, clashes with generals about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, tackles Wall Street reform, responds to the devastating Deepwater Horizon blowout, and authorises Operation Neptune’s Spear, which leads to the death of Osama bin Laden.
A Promised Land is extraordinarily intimate and introspective – the story of one man’s bet with history, the faith of a community organiser tested on the world stage. Obama is candid about the balancing act of running for office as a Black American, bearing the expectations of a generation buoyed by messages of “hope and change”, and meeting the moral challenges of high-stakes decision-making. He is frank about the forces that opposed him at home and abroad, open about how living in the White House affected his wife and daughters, and unafraid to reveal self-doubt and disappointment. Yet he never wavers from his belief that inside the great, ongoing American experiment, progress is always possible.
This beautifully written and powerful book captures Barack Obama’s conviction that democracy is not a gift from on high but something founded on empathy and common understanding and built together, day by day.