Book Notes: A Promised Land By Barack Obama

Reading Time: 12 minutes

A Promised Land

A Promised Land, by Barack Obama

PublisherCrown (2020)

ISBN-13 : 978-1524763169

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Main Ideas

  1. Can Americans work together to create a reality of America that lives up to the promise of its ideals as expressed in the nation’s constitution and founding documents, such as self-government, individual liberty, equality of opportunity and equality before the law? Do these ideals apply to everybody, or are they reserved for a privileged few? Barack Obama believes that the government has a positive role to play in improving all people’s lives: that it can provide a level playing field, expand opportunity, and foster a free and fair economic marketplace that is open to all Americans.
  2. The Presidency is a job, like many other jobs, but also unlike any other. There are disagreements about policies (goals), coworkers you don’t get along with (Congress), an ambivalent marketplace (the voting public), and naysaying observers (the media). It’s subject to many of the same high pressure decision-making, evaluation, and management processes that also occur in other mentally demanding knowledge jobs.
  3. Through the lens of race, President Obama represents both the promise and peril of America. As the first African American President, Obama’s ascension inspires pride and represents progress to many. At the same time, his leadership generates fear and racial backlash; his success inspires the birtherism rumor that, amplified by the media, ultimately propels Donald Trump to the Presidency in 2016.
  4. What is the nature of change? Should it be dramatic and fast or incremental? How much of a difference can being the most powerful man in the world make?

Key Takeaways

  1. The radicalization of the GOP occurs during Obama’s Presidency; old norms and traditions that enabled bipartisan legislation grind to a halt, and his administration is severely hampered by a Republican opposition that is absolutely determined to never give Obama a political or legislative win, no matter the merits or benefits to the country.
  2. Social media grows exponentially in its ability to connect and organize millions of people. It also dampens the importance of traditional media gatekeepers. Moreover, the dark underbelly of social media is the rampant misinformation and disinformation it disseminates and its ability to accentuate polarization, anger, and fear .
  3. Being a politician’s, and especially, the President’s, spouse is a tough job; the Presidency can place enormous strain on a marriage. A political spouse often has to sacrifice a lot, for instance, sacrificing one’s own job or career, home, autonomy, and rearranging your life to support your spouse’s ambitions.
  4. A President, especially a charismatic one, must reckon with the impossibility of fulfilling outsized expectations. There is a huge gap between expectations and what a single (albeit charismatic) President can actually accomplish.
  5. Although being President of the United States is the highest office in the land, there are limitations to the Presidency; one cannot possibly be prepared for every unexpected thing happening in every single corner of the world, and external events, both foreseen and unforeseen, can have significant consequences for a Presidency and its best laid plans.
  6. Many domestic policy debates implicitly center around the notion of “us versus them”: it boils down to the question of who is seen as deserving of government assistance and benefits and who is not worthy.
  7. Congress is extremely dysfunctional. And, especially in the Senate, the 60-vote threshold for passing major legislation is a major impediment to the actual law-making process.
  8. Barack Obama is fundamentally conservative on the nature of progress and change; his preference is for incremental progressivism, rather than radical or drastic revolutionary change. He admits this himself, several times in the book, and demonstrates it through his actions and policies.

Top 3 Quotes

  • Perhaps most troubling of all, our democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of crisis—a crisis rooted in a fundamental contest between two opposing visions of what America is and what it should be; a crisis that has left the body politic divided, angry, and mistrustful, and has allowed for an ongoing breach of institutional norms, procedural safeguards, and the adherence to basic facts that both Republicans and Democrats once took for granted. pg. 8
  • Do we care to match the reality of America to its ideals? If so, do we really believe that our notions of self-government and individual freedom, equality of opportunity and equality before the law, apply to everybody? Or are we instead committed, in practice if not in statute, to reserving those things for a privileged few? pg. 9
  • The power to inspire is rare. Moments like this are rare. You think you may not be ready, that you’ll do it at a more convenient time. But you don’t choose the time. The time chooses you. Either you seize what may turn out to be the only chance you have, or you decide you’re willing to live with the knowledge that the chance has passed you by.” [Ted Kennedy] pg. 92



Looking back, I sometimes ponder the age-old question of how much difference the particular characteristics of individual leaders make in the sweep of history—whether those of us who rise to power are mere conduits for the deep, relentless currents of the times or whether we’re at least partly the authors of what’s to come. I wonder whether our insecurities and our hopes, our childhood traumas or memories of unexpected kindness carry as much force as any technological shift or socioeconomic trend.” (pg. 768)

A Promised Land (2020) by former US President Barack Obama is the first in what is intended to be a two-volume memoir that recounts the story of his Presidency. In A Promised Land, he tells the story of his journey from an unremarkable young man of mixed race growing up in Hawaii (and Indonesia), to becoming a US Senator for Illinois in 2004, and ultimately, on November 4, 2008, the first African American President of the United States of America.

It is a book written by a former president writing for the historical record and trying to protect his legacy. In a way, Obama can be seen as trying to answer the question, “How much change, how much of a difference can one person make?

Obama recounts his political awakening, from his undergraduate years at Occidental College, and Columbia University, as well as the dramatic milestones of the first term of his presidency, including dealing with the most devastating financial crisis since the Great Depression, managing two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, passing the Affordable Care Act, tackling Wall Street reform, and authorizing Operation Neptune’s Spear, the mission to capture and kill Osama Bin Laden.

It’s also an intimate memoir, and Obama speaks frankly about the unique circumstance of being the first Black President, the almost absurd high hopes and expectations placed upon him, the power and limitations of the Presidency, being a good father to his two young daughters, and the strains that living in the White House place on his marriage to Michelle Obama. He is also very good at seizing the measure of other political leaders, from Vladimir Putin (Russia), Manmohan Singh (India) to Mitch MccConnell and Lindsey Graham. He speaks about the considerable congressional opposition he faces throughout his Presidency, and, with the benefit of hindsight, evaluates the rise of Sarah Palin, the power of social media, and the radicalization of the Republican Party during his tenure that ultimately leads to the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

The book ends on a high note, in May 2011, with the killing of Osama bin Laden, but the overall tone is mournful, and slightly regretful. Those who follow politics (or watch the news) are aware of what happens next. Despite Obama winning reelection in 2012, the Democratic Party loses even more congressional seats, and Obama spends the rest of his Presidency with a Republican House and Senate. Much of his legislative agenda is stalled and blocked (in a break with tradition, even Merrick Garland, his Supreme Court nominee in 2016, is blocked from even receiving a congressional hearing 9 months before the 2016 Presidential election). Ferguson and Black Lives Matter happens. Trayvon Martin. Newtown. And, in November 2016, Donald Trump, a man who is Obama’s polar opposite in almost all ways, defeats Hillary Clinton to become the 46th President of the United States.

Consequently, there is a sense of unmet potential, dreams unfulfilled. For instance, after the Democrats lose the House and Senate in the 2010 midterms (a “shellacking”), there is a remarkably productive lame duck session. Obama remarks, “It was as if, for the span of a month and a half, democracy was normal again, with the usual give-and-take between parties, the push and pull of interest groups, the mixed blessing of compromise. What more might we have accomplished, I wondered, and how much further along would the economic recovery be, had this sort of atmosphere prevailed from the start of my term?” (753)

There is also a keen sense that Obama himself regrets the high pedestal of “hope and change” that he was placed upon (even though he himself encouraged such messianic dreams). “At some basic level people were no longer seeing me, I realized, with all my quirks and shortcomings. Instead, they had taken possession of my likeness and made it a vessel for a million different dreams. I knew a time would come when I would disappoint them, falling short of the image that my campaign and I had helped to construct.” (172) Obama outlines the awe, reach, and power of the Presidency, but also makes it clear that he never sought to be the sole vessel of such outsize expectations, and that there is a limit to the capabilities of the Presidency and what one person can reasonably be expected to accomplish.

A Promised Land is the memoir of a man, elected on the promise of “hope and change” conflicted about the nature of that change, but still, as always, hopeful about its promise.

But the idea of America, the promise of America: this I clung to with a stubbornness that surprised even me. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”—that was my America.” ( 24)



PREFACE: The preface acknowledges the release of the book in the middle of a presidential election – the 2020 reelection campaign of Donald Trump – and the ongoing 2020 coronavirus pandemic. It also teases out the ideals and promises of the American experiment in democracy.

PART ONE: THE BET:  Part One of the book describes Obama’s past, his background and upbringing and the origins of his journey into politics.

PART TWO: YES WE CAN: Part Two covers his presidential campaign, from deciding to run around 2006, primaries, debates, etc to his election victory in November 2008.

PART THREE: RENEGADE: Part Three describes the early days of his administration, from assembling his cabinet, to working with Congress, trying to stabilize the economy in the face of the 2008 financial crisis, and dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

PART FOUR: THE GOOD FIGHT: Part Four largely deals with healthcare reform, the struggle to pass the Affordable Care Act, and the rise of the Tea Party. It also describes Obama’s first G20 summit with other world leaders.

PART FIVE: THE WORLD AS IT IS: Part Five goes into foreign policy in more detail, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

PART SIX: IN THE BARREL: Part Six deals with the many rough stretches Obama faces, including the public revolt due to the bailouts required to mitigate the financial crisis. It describes the implacable Republican commitment to congressional obstruction, and how it becomes a winning issue that leads to devastating midterm electoral losses for the Democrats.

PART SEVEN: ON THE HIGH WIRE: Part Seven focuses on foreign policy and military operations, including the successful mission to hunt and kill Osama Bin Laden. It also briefly mentions Donald Trump spouting “birtherism” lies, and using it to gain media attention which becomes its own form of currency and power.


Democracy & The Promise

  • Do we care to match the reality of America to its ideals? If so, do we really believe that our notions of self-government and individual freedom, equality of opportunity and equality before the law, apply to everybody? Or are we instead committed, in practice if not in statute, to reserving those things for a privileged few? (9)

Great Expectations

  • At some basic level people were no longer seeing me, I realized, with all my quirks and shortcomings. Instead, they had taken possession of my likeness and made it a vessel for a million different dreams. I knew a time would come when I would disappoint them, falling short of the image that my campaign and I had helped to construct. (172)


  • Could I really hope to find common ground with a party that increasingly seemed to consider opposition to me to be its unifying principle, the objective that superseded all others? There was a reason why in selling our recent budget deal to his caucus, Boehner had apparently emphasized how “angry” I was during our discussions—a useful fiction that I’d told my team not to dispute in the interest of keeping the deal on track. For his members, there was no greater selling point. In fact, more and more, I’d noticed how the mood we’d first witnessed in the fading days of Sarah Palin’s campaign rallies and on through the Tea Party summer had migrated from the fringe of GOP politics to the center—an emotional, almost visceral, reaction to my presidency, distinct from any differences in policy or ideology. It was as if my very presence in the White House had triggered a deep-seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted. (814)


  • To be known. To be heard. To have one’s unique identity recognized and seen as worthy. It was a universal human desire, I thought, as true for nations and peoples as it was for individuals. If I understood that basic truth more than some of my predecessors, perhaps it was because I’d spent a big chunk of my childhood abroad and had family in places long considered “backward” and “underdeveloped.” Or maybe it was because as an African American, I’d experienced what it was like not to be fully seen inside my own country. (546)


  • “It’s like you have a hole to fill,” Michelle had told me early in our marriage, after a stretch in which she’d watched me work myself to near exhaustion. “That’s why you can’t slow down.”  (94)

The Radicalization of the Republican Party

  • Through Palin, it seemed as if the dark spirits that had long been lurking on the edges of the modern Republican Party—xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, an antipathy toward Black and brown folks—were finding their way to center stage. (244)

Process and Decision-Making

  • In such circumstances, chasing after the perfect solution led to paralysis. On the other hand, going with your gut too often meant letting preconceived notions or the path of least political resistance guide a decision—with cherry-picked facts used to justify it. But with a sound process—one in which I was able to empty out my ego and really listen, following the facts and logic as best I could and considering them alongside my goals and my principles—I realized I could make tough decisions and still sleep easy at night, knowing at a minimum that no one in my position, given the same information, could have made the decision any better.  (364)

Gender & Discrimination

  • it became clear the degree to which patterns of behavior that were second nature for many of the senior men on the team—shouting or cursing during a policy debate; dominating a conversation by constantly interrupting other people (especially women) in mid-sentence; restating a point that somebody else (often a female staffer) had made half an hour earlier as if it were your own—had left them feeling diminished, ignored, and increasingly reluctant to voice their opinions. (651)

Hope & Inspiration

  • Here’s one thing I know for sure, though. I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around this country—Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in—they’ll see themselves differently, too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone…that would be worth it.” (102)

The Stress of the Presidency on a Marriage

  • And yet, despite Michelle’s success and popularity, I continued to sense an undercurrent of tension in her, subtle but constant, like the faint thrum of a hidden machine. It was as if, confined as we were within the walls of the White House, all of her previous sources of frustration became more concentrated, more vivid, whether it was my round-the-clock absorption with work, or the way politics exposed our family to constant scrutiny and attacks, or the tendency of even friends and family members to treat her role as secondary in importance.  (660)

Incrementalism vs Radical Change

  • To this day, I survey reports of America’s escalating inequality, its reduced upward mobility and still-stagnant wages, with all the consequent anger and distortions such trends stir in our democracy, and I wonder whether I should have been bolder in those early months, willing to exact more economic pain in the short term in pursuit of a permanently altered and more just economic order.  (377)

The Presidency as a Job

  • … I wanted to pull the curtain back a bit and remind people that, for all its power and pomp, the presidency is still just a job and our federal government is a human enterprise like any other. (7)

The Limits of Power

  • …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.  (628)

Organizing & Community

  • how you could build power not by putting others down but by lifting them up. This was true democracy at work—democracy not as a gift from on high, or a division of spoils between interest groups, but rather democracy that was earned, the work of everybody.  (21)


  • This, too, can be found in my journal entries from that time, a pretty accurate chronicle of all my shortcomings. My preference for navel-gazing over action. A certain reserve, even shyness, traceable perhaps to my Hawaiian and Indonesian upbringing, but also the result of a deep self-consciousness. A sensitivity to rejection or looking stupid. Maybe even a fundamental laziness.  (23)

Technology and Media

  • What I couldn’t fully appreciate yet was just how malleable this technology would prove to be; how quickly it would be absorbed by commercial interests and wielded by entrenched powers; how readily it could be used not to unify people but to distract or divide them; and how one day many of the same tools that had put me in the White House would be deployed in opposition to everything I stood for.  (165)

The Role of Government

  • Beyond any specific policy, I wanted to restore in the minds of the American people the crucial role that government had always played in expanding opportunity, fostering competition and fair dealing, and making sure the marketplace worked for everybody. (222)

Congressional Obstruction

  • “I hate to say it,” a Republican senator told me when he came by the White House for another matter, “but the worse people feel right now, the better it is for us.” (699)


  • FDR understood that to be effective, governance couldn’t be so antiseptic that it set aside the basic stuff of politics: You had to sell your program, reward supporters, punch back against opponents, and amplify the facts that helped your cause while fudging the details that didn’t. (636)

Recommended Reading

You may also enjoy the following books:

Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018)