President-elect Barack Obama backstage at the U.S. Capitol before walking out to take the oath of office, January 20, 2009.

President-elect Barack Obama backstage at the U.S. Capitol before walking out to take the oath of office, January 20, 2009. Image: Pete Souza/The White House

It was publication day in July 1995, and a debut author sent flowers to his publisher to mark the occasion. According to Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote by Craig Fehrman, a few weeks earlier, the same author had gone to his local bookstore in Chicago, 57th Street Books, and asked if they would host a reading for his new work. It was called Dreams From My Father. The author was, of course, Barack Obama.

Twenty-five years later, and it’s publication day for A Promised Land, a phenomenal book written by an internationally bestselling author, who has more followers on Twitter than anyone on the planet – and who has also won a Nobel Peace Prize and two Grammy awards. It’s so brilliantly written that as well as describing Barack Obama's inspirational journey to the presidency, his first years in office, and the world today, it has elements of the literary classic, the thriller, the rock star autobiography, the comic novel and the uplifting family memoir. Above all, Obama fully gives a sense of what it was like to be president, with the book’s honesty, vividness and perspective making this a new sort of presidential memoir.

So you might know about some of the events, or have a sense of him as a person, or an idea of what he might think, but in A Promised Land, you’ll be surprised throughout by what you find out from Obama himself. Here are just five lines to get started.

1. “No problem that landed on my desk, foreign or domestic, had a clean, 100 percent solution. If it had, someone else down the chain of command would have solved it already.”

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Seated, from left: Brigadier General Marshall B. Webb, assistant commanding general, JSOC; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Standing, from left: Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Tony Blinken, national security advisor to the vice president; Audrey Tomason, director for counterterrorism; John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (out of frame).

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Image: Pete Souza/The White House

Obama is refreshingly frank in A Promised Land about how it feels to sit behind the desk where the buck stops. He brings you into his decision-making: the listening, the analysis, the final call, and the nature of uncertainty. And when it came to big decisions, he knew that whether on the financial crisis, healthcare or a hijacking by Somali pirates, “I could not have come up with a better process to evaluate those odds or surrounded myself with a better mix of people to help me weigh them”.

We’re also invited inside his head to see what it’s like once the decision is made. He describes hearing about a US fighter jet crashing over Libya and the wait while he found out about a soldier he had sent into war: “When someone asks me what it feels like to be President of the United States, I often think about that stretch of time spent sitting helplessly at the state dinner in Chile, contemplating the knife’s edge between perceived success and potential catastrophe – in this case, the drift of a soldier’s parachute over a faraway desert in the middle of the night”. For all that we read from anyone else, this is what it feels like to be President.

2. “For most of my first two years in office, Trump was apparently complimentary of my presidency.”

President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20th, 2009.

President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2009. image:Pete Souza/The White House

Former presidents are rarely critical of their predecessors, but in A Promised Land, as recent media coverage has shown, Obama is open in his views about the current president – who in the preface, he doesn’t name but merely alludes to as “someone diametrically opposed to everything we stood for”.

He notes that Trump said that a former radical activist was the author of Dreams From My Father, “since the book was too good to have been written by someone of my intellectual caliber”; and he reveals that “my closest contact with Trump had come midway through 2010, during the Deepwater Horizon crisis, when he’d called Axe [Senior Advisor David Axelrod] out of the blue to suggest that I put him in charge of plugging the well”. (When told that the well was almost sealed, Trump said he’d be willing to build a ballroom at the White House, “an offer that was politely declined”.)

Obama is also highly critical of Fox News, and points out that in terms of the breakdown of political traditions, there wasn’t much difference between Trump and other Republican leaders. But he has kinder words about John McCain, whose phone call at the end of the 2008 election “was as gracious as his concession speech”, and George W Bush, who did “all he could to make the eleven weeks between my election and his departure go smoothly”. 

3. “It turns out that there’s a standard design to every international summit...”

(From left) Japanese prime minister Taro Aso, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, President Barack Obama, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, British prime minister Gordon Brown, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, German chancellor  Angela Merkel, Swedish prime minister Fredrik  Reinfeldt, and head of the European Commission José  Manuel Barroso at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, on July 8, 2009.

President Barack Obama seen with other world leaders and the head of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, on July 8, 2009. Image: Pete Souza/The White House

A Promised Land often takes an unusual step back to recap not only elements of American and international history, but also the history of traditions that are taken for granted; and in doing so, Obama has surprising takes about many of the rituals of being President.

He refers to the State of the Union address having become “this absurd bit of theatre”. He writes about the down-to-earth nature of the Situation Room that he’d always imagined “as a cavernous, futuristic space”, finding that “the reality was less dazzling...its walls were bare except for digital clocks showing the time in various world capitals and a few flat-screens not much bigger than those found in a neighbourhood sports bar”.

And of international summits, he confesses: “You sit there, fighting off jet lag and doing your best to look interested, as everyone around the table, including yourself, takes turns reading a set of carefully scripted, anodyne, and invariably much-longer-than-the-time-allotted remarks about whatever topic happens to be on the agenda. Later... I would adopt the survival tactics of more experienced attendees...”

4. “‘I think you need an alias’, Malia [aged seven] declared...‘like Johnny McJohn John.’”

 President Barack Obama coaches Sasha’s basketball team with help from personal aide Reggie Love in Chevy Chase, MD, February 5, 2011.

President Barack Obama coaches Sasha’s basketball team with help from personal aide Reggie Love in Chevy Chase, MD, February 5, 2011. Image:Pete Souza/The White House

Presidential memoirs vary in how much and in what ways they refer to family, but usually it’s just a cameo role. By contrast, for Obama this is an integral part of the story, and we are treated to intimate details of life in The First Family – in many ways a normal family.

We find out about Malia suggesting from the back seat that to avoid crowds, Obama should give himself a new name; when Michelle hears about this, she says that “the only way for Daddy to disguise himself is if he has an operation to pin back his ears”.

When he wins the Nobel Peace Prize and tells Michelle, who’s in bed, she says “That’s wonderful, honey”, then rolls over to go back to sleep. He roots for Sasha's basketball team (Joe Biden’s grand-daughter was “the star of the team”) and eventually, along with Personal Aide Reggie Love, gives them some practice sessions. “When the Vipers won the league championship in an 18-16 nail-biter, Reggie and I celebrated like it was the NCAA League Finals,” he writes. “Every parent savors such moments, I suppose, when the world slows down, your strivings get pushed to the back of your mind, and all that matters is that you are present, fully, to witness the miracle of your child growing up.” 

5. “Maybe the best White House perk involved music.”

President Barack Obama hugs First Lady Michelle Obama in the Red Room of the White House, with senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, March 20th 2009.

President Barack Obama hugs First Lady Michelle Obama in the Red Room of the White House, with senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, March 20, 2009. Image: Pete Souza/The White House

You might think that the best perk was Air Force One, but not so. Household names like Stevie Wonder and Jennifer Lopez would conduct music workshops for young people at The White House before performing themselves, and when they practised, usually the day before, if Obama was upstairs, he says, “I could hear the sounds of drum and bass and electric guitar reverberating through the Treaty Room floor. Sometimes I’d sneak down the back stairs of the residence and slip into the East Room, standing in the rear so as not to attract attention...I’d marvel at everyone’s mastery of their instruments, the generosity they showed toward one another...and I’d feel a pang of envy at the pure, unambiguous joy of their endeavors, such a contrast to the political path I had chosen.”

Music is in fact a recurring theme in A Promised Land: before his presidential debates, Obama would listen to Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra, but ultimately the songs that “got my head in the right place” were Jay-Z’s ‘My 1st Song’ and Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’. “Both were about defying the odds and putting it all on the line...It was a way to cut through the artifice and remember who I was.”

  • A Promised Land

  • 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 authorizes 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 organizer 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.

  • Buy the book

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