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Barack Obama looks back, and forward

The former president’s memoir is breaking sales records and impressing critics.
Former President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign event in Florida in October. He published his memoir "A Promised Land" on Nov. 17.
Former President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign event in Florida in October. He published his memoir "A Promised Land" on Nov. 17. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]
Published Dec. 10, 2020

At a virtual book awards gala on Tuesday night, former President Barack Obama said, “I think it’s been noted that I’m a wannabe writer who ended up somehow falling into politics.”

For a wannabe, he’s doing really well.

Obama’s presidential memoir, A Promised Land, was published on Nov. 17 and sold 887,000 copies on its first day. That number smashed all previous first-day sale records for presidential memoirs. It was also the biggest first-day number ever for any book published by Penguin Random House — and they publish Fifty Shades of Grey and John Grisham novels.

Obama’s book also beat the first-day record for the biggest publishing phenomenon of 2018-2019, Michelle Obama’s Becoming, which sold 725,000 copies on its first day.

“But I’m not rubbing it in over dinner,” Obama cracked during an interview with Jimmy Kimmel.

A Promised Land went on to sell 1.7 million copies in its first week and continues to top every bestseller list for nonfiction. Its critical reception has been uniformly positive, with reviewers noting Obama’s graceful writing style, deep analysis, meticulous details and willingness to criticize himself.

Presidential memoirs are always much anticipated books, and most of them sell well. But A Promised Land stands out even in that field.

Obama already had a very successful career as an author. All of his previous books have been bestsellers: the memoirs Dreams From My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006) and a children’s book, Of Thee I Sing (2010).

The memoirs received glowing critical praise and helped propel him first into the U.S. Senate and then into the White House. Forbes reported that they earned Obama more than $15 million. (The proceeds from the children’s book went to charity.) Book sales, analysts say, are the chief source of the family’s net worth.

That figure was dwarfed by the contract Obama and his wife signed for their memoirs in 2017, said to be worth at least $60 million — another record-breaking figure.

A Promised Land stands out, too, because it took longer to see print than most modern presidential memoirs. It’s been almost four years since Obama left office; his two immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, each knocked out their presidential memoirs in under two years.

Most politician-authors work with ghostwriters or collaborators, but Obama by all accounts does his own writing, starting with a pen and yellow legal pad. He writes in the preface, “I still like writing things out in longhand, finding that a computer gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness.”

He apologizes in the preface for the book’s length — 768 pages — and, despite his best intentions, for not covering his entire presidency. A Promised Land will be the first of two volumes: It stops in 2011, just after the successful mission to find Osama bin Laden ended with the 9/11 mastermind’s death. That leaves Obama’s second presidential campaign and term and the years since he left office for the second volume.

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Because the book was published amid the coronavirus pandemic, Barack can’t undertake the kind of rock star book tour that promoted Michelle’s memoir, an unprecedented tour that filled sports stadiums and other large venues with thousands of cheering fans around the world.

Related: An article about Michelle Obama's "Becoming."

But he has worked the media skillfully, appearing on everything from 60 Minutes and Fresh Air to the late-night talk shows.

And, less than a month after the book’s publication, Obama got his first award for it. At a virtual gala on Tuesday night, Obama received the PEN America Voice of Influence Award for “the power of his soaring words, the promises he has unlocked in our nation, and the enduring American values that he has embodied.”

The book is likely to garner other awards. It’s the best presidential memoir I’ve read, not only for the quality of its prose, which is sometimes beautiful and always fluent, engaging and clear, but for its subject’s complex view of the presidency and of himself.

Obama writes about world events with the detail of a historian, but moves effortlessly between the historical and the personal. He didn’t know what to do with himself at the end of his first night in the White House, so he went around turning off all the lights before he went to bed.

Despite his cool and charisma, Obama is at heart a wonk, and he obviously loves the actual hard work of the job. “At the start of each day of my presidency,” he writes, “I would find a leather binder waiting for me at the breakfast table. Michelle called it ‘The Death, Destruction, and Horrible Things Book,’ though officially it was known as the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB.” Reading the briefing was just the beginning of a work day that often stretched into the night.

He writes frankly that those demands sometimes strained his marriage. A Promised Land is a less personal book than Becoming, but they complement each other just as their authors do. Obama’s love for his wife and daughters is a constant theme, and one of the things about Michelle that seems to delight him most is her aptitude for keeping his ego in check. When he got a predawn phone call telling him he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize, he writes, she said, “That’s wonderful, honey,” and rolled over and went back to sleep.

A Promised Land was published after the 2020 election, no doubt to avoid accusations of undue influence — Obama frequently praises Joe Biden as a valued adviser, the “last man in the room.” But the book is clearly in a kind of conversation with the administration that followed his.

Obama does not mention Donald Trump until Page 672, in the context of Trump’s “birtherism” conspiracy theory, and he calls it what it was: “For millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House, he promised an elixir for their racial anxiety.”

But there’s subtext in many other places, such as when Obama writes that he believes the attorney general “was first and foremost the people’s lawyer, not the president’s consigliere. Keeping politics out of the Justice Department’s investigative and prosecutorial decisions was a crucial democratic imperative.”

Unlike some people, Obama is not impressed with Russian leader Vladimir Putin: “With the fastidiousness of a teenager on Instagram, he curated a constant stream of photo ops, projecting an almost satirical image of masculine vigor.”

There are other clear contrasts: Obama’s voracious reading habit and his deep respect for writers; his emphasis on recruiting the most qualified people for his administration and listening to them when they disagree with him; his willingness not only to admit but to learn from his mistakes.

The contrast, indeed, is right there in the title of the book, which looks forward, not backward: A Promised Land.

A Promised Land

By Barack Obama

Crown, 768 pages, $45


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