In the land of promise

April 25, 2021

In this memoir, President Obama demythologises presidency while reflecting on what it is like for a person to face extraordinary experiences and excel

Barack Obama’s A Promised Land reflects upon what it is like for a person to face extraordinary experiences and excel. Obama demythologises presidency while, at the same time, sustaining the American narrative on democracy and leadership.

The book has elements of a memoir, and an autobiography. Its reflections are suffused with flashbacks and some anecdotes.

Obama’s unpretentious, engaging and persuasive style, as he reveals elsewhere, owes much to his interactions with his mother and grandmother, who instituted in him the love for African storytelling tradition. For the same reason, perhaps, his text is relatable. It has a certain kind of sly humour in the form of comic relief pitted with witty reflections that keep the reader interested. An honest narrative style enables him to bring out his own flaws and confusions while switching between options during his demanding presidential moments. His guilt on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, while keeping a large army in Afghanistan, is one such instance.

In this heavily loaded narrative, Obama appears to be trying to convince not just the reader but also himself of the rationale of his decisions. He openly discusses the obstacles a US president faces in materialising the American Dream. His ideal resonates with what Michelle Obama calls in her memoir, Becoming, “Becoming Me, Becoming Us, Becoming More”.

The discourse that emerged out of the idyllic roots of American Dream through the efforts of icons like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman created and shaped a land of promise. However, in striving to ‘become more’, Obama remains grounded in reality by moving beyond the idealism of achieving the American Dream of ensuring the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. As he mentions in his earlier book, The Audacity of Hope (2006), the Declaration of Independence inspires Americans to utilise their abilities by exercising their freedom of choice and expression. Favouring universal humanitarianism and harmonious co-existence, he finds freedom of expression, human rights and democracy equally necessary for other countries.

The book projects Obama as a people’s man burdened by frustrations as a president who inherits a legacy, which, at times, he finds too unwieldy to handle. This turns the narrative into a motivational discourse, especially for his younger fellow citizens, in terms of how they can work on things that appear larger than them. The book, therefore, requires an objective reading.

An African-American, Obama discusses race relations but makes a deliberate effort to produce a reconciliatory tone lest his background and personal experiences should blur his vision about “what the country was, and what it could become’’. He is constantly emphasising the role of democratic and inclusive leadership to help unlock the potential of other people, especially the youth.

Obama opens up in various roles and different situations. These include a peep into his childhood; his four formative years in Indonesia; return to Hawaii and impression about his life with his maternal grandparents; reflections on his community organising days; state Senate experience and the presidential campaign; his overwhelming sense of responsibility on receiving the briefcase with nuclear detonation codes; his casual chat with the gardener; his struggle to fight off jet lag and faking interest in speeches by world leaders or day to day paper work at his office; the ‘heartburn’ over the Troubled Asset Relief Programme and his resolve not to succumb to the pressure brought to bear by by political opponents; his dissatisfaction with media icons; his fight for the Healthcare Bill and his shock on receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Given its many qualities, the book lacks reader inclusivity and universality. Most of it is addressed to American readers, particularly those well versed in political affairs. Some political figures and matters of local policy remain unrelatable to a majority of the readers. In some places, lengthy explanations become tedious and unnecessarily slow the narrative pace.

Obama does not say much about Pakistan. When he mentions it, it is in relation to its involvement in promoting Talibanisation and its peripheral role in the raid to capture and kill Osama bin Laden, which he narrates in Hollywood style, applauding the US Navy Seals for their bravery and commitment in accomplishing the mission.

The autobiography also contains glimpses of Obama’s eventful life in the form of photographs that beautifully fence off the narrative. Overall, the beauty of the book lies in its admission of uncertainty. Says Obama, “those of us who rise to power are mere conduits for deep, relentless current 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, or childhood traumas or memories of unexpected kindness carry as much force as any technological shift or socioeconomic trend.”

A Promised Land

Author: Barack Obama

Publisher: Random House, New York. 2020

Pages: 768 (Hardcover)

Price: Rs 4,555

The writer has a doctorate in Nigerian drama. She serves at the Department of English and Literary Studies, University of Management and   Technology, Lahore, as assistant professor and chairperson

In the land of promise