The New Book To Read This Week

Since Barack Obama left the oval office in 2016, some might say his wife – former first lady Michelle Obama – has enjoyed most of the attention. Her widely acclaimed memoir ‘Becoming’ was an instant hit and was soon followed by a Netflix documentary of the same name. Now, the tables are turning once more, with his own memoir ‘A Promised Land’ hitting bookstores today. Here’s what we know about the hotly anticipated release and why it’s worth a read…

So, what does it cover?

Brace yourselves. Unlike Michelle Obama’s own tome, this 768-page volume is only the first of a projected multi-book series of Barack Obama’s personal memoirs. No stranger to the written word (his two previous books Dreams From My Father and The Audacity Of Hope helped propel him to presidential glory back in 2008), this instalment covers his earliest political aspirations, including the pivotal Iowa caucus victory and the watershed night of 4th November 2008, when he was elected 44th president of the United States, becoming the first African American to hold the nation's highest office. From there it quickly moves on to the early months the newly elected first family spent in the White House, as the president faced his most urgent and intense crisis: reforming the American healthcare system. In addition, it also covers the economic challenges faced by the administration in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, as well as the 2011 US raid in Pakistan that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. For now, a release date for the second volume has not been confirmed. 

When did he write it?

Insiders say Obama started collating his memoirs shortly after he left office in 2016, completing them this summer while on holiday in Martha’s Vineyard. It’s taken him longer than other former presidents to do – George W. Bush’s Decision Points, a single volume, came within two years of him leaving office. At the time Obama’s publishing deal was struck with Crown (a division of Penguin Random House) in 2017 for $65m (compared to a $40,000 advance Obama received for Dreams Of My Father), it was only expected that Obama would write one book. However, he won’t be the only former president in history to write more than one – Dwight Eisenhower also wrote two.  

Are there any personal anecdotes?

In short, yes – plenty. As well as taking readers through the gruelling Senate fights and up-all-night political crises, Obama gives plenty of space over to more personal anecdotes. During his first year in the White House, he says few days provided more pleasure than the arrival of Bo, “a huggable, four-legged black bundle of fur, with a snowy-white chest and front paws” – a gift from Ted Kennedy and his wife, Vicki. He claims Malia and Sasha – the Obama children – had been “lobbying for a puppy since before the campaign” and “squealed with delight” when they saw him for the first time. At times, Obama says, he felt Bo was the only reliable friend he had in Washington.

As well as taking readers through the gruelling Senate fights and up-all-night political crises, Obama gives plenty of space over to more personal anecdotes.

What about the Obamas’ relationship – any insights?

Excerpts released prior to the book’s publication don’t yet offer much insight into the former president’s relationship with the first lady. Michelle Obama has won serious praise for her – often frank – reflection on how Obama’s political ambitions and the presidency sometimes took a toll on their marriage, but for now, Obama has only gone as far to say the book will give readers a sense of his and Mrs Obama’s personal journey, “with all the incredible highs and lows”. 

Why the buzz? 

American political journal Politco has called it “the most anticipated presidential memoir in memory” – a sentiment reflected in the fact the US alone has ordered three million copies ahead of its release. That might sound like a lot, but Michelle Obama’s own book sold in excess of ten million copies, so there’s a benchmark to beat. Even so, it wouldn’t be unusual if the first lady’s own memoir outsold that of her husband’s – both Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan achieved the same feat. That said, the timing is bound to help sales – a new president-elect in the form of Democrat Joe Biden (Obama’s former VP) is due to take up office in January, promising to fight for the same policies put in place by his former boss.

What’s the bottom line?

Critics often decry the release of presidential memoirs both as a vanity project and a concerted effort to either bolster the former statesman’s image or that of their political party. According to Obama, he says the book’s major aim is to try and heal some the divisions currently felt across the country by offering suggestions on how readers can actively engage with the democratic process. Think what you will about his motivations, but that final fact hints at something any former president – living or not – would agree is in need of some serious inspiration right now.
 

A Promised Land is available here, and from all good bookstores now.

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