A Promised Land

  • Status: Read
  • Started: 2021-01-02
  • Finished: 2021-02-02
  • Duration: 34 hours

A Promised Land is Barack Obama’s autobiography. He tells his story starting from his youth and college days, following through his yearly political activities until the end of his first term as the president of The United States.

I enjoyed his candidness on many topics: he talks about his early problems with his wife, many of them caused by his political ambitions. He talks about his contradictions, like earning a Peace Nobel and authorizing an increase in military operations at the same time, or being elected while promising a new way of doing politics and having to resort to the old politically and legally accepted “quid pro quo” deals to pass his legislation.

I found it interesting when he explains the organizational values and culture that he promoted through his campaigns and his presidency. He explains that he adopted an approach of giving people lots of responsibility, trusting them to do their work, and making them accountable for the results. This was a new way of organizing a political campaign since usually the rank and file folks would follow strict protocols and take decisions based on hierarchy channels. In the White House, he would constantly go out of his way to ask input from advisors, including asking questions to the staff of his leaders (eg. cabinet secretaries). As he put it, those are the people who actually do the work. That’s a very interesting insight, and it aligns with recent trends in organizational cultures of high-growth companies: valuing the people who do the real work and possess technical knowledge, as opposed to valuing only leadership, and fostering an almost startup-like organizational culture of empowerment, trust, and making people accountable for their results.

Obama gives an introduction to the American bigotry and extreme polarization that has grown and festered in the United States since his election. Starting with the populism of Sarah Palin, who found a way to inflame the until-then apathetic republicans voters; and the subsequent rise of the Tea Party movement as a strong grassroots republican political movement. Republicans started to relentlessly boycott his agenda in Congress after finding out that doing so would inflame their newly enthusiastic voters. During his presidency saw the rise in the abuse of the filibuster mechanism, which allows any party to essentially block the Senate agenda unless a majority of 60/100 is achieved. Combined with a polarized and radicalized opposition, this made it very difficult to govern onde the Democrats lost their 60% majority.

At some point, a certain Donald Trump started gaining prominence in the political news after promoting birtherism conspiracies. Obama mentions a personal lack of awareness at some moments about some of Trump’s and Republican’s movements and the popular reaction to them due to the fact that he watched very little television, mostly basketball games, a clear contrast to his successor famous binge-watching of TV news coverage.

Famous Obama’s roast of Donal Trump in the 2011 correspondents’ dinner

There are also very interesting takes on external politics. He gives some insightful descriptions of world leaders: the affecting and emotional president of France Sarkozy; the no-nonsense and analytical Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel; the old and oblivious President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak, the even-then already famously corrupt Lula da Silva. When traveling abroad Obama famously hosted town hall meetings and invited students, youth leaders, minority representatives, and other local people to ask questions and tell their stories. He tells his experience dealing with international issues like the Arab spring and the European economical crisis in the aftermath of the American crisis of 2008. He tells about a very interesting episode: after a lot of tries, he manages to get together the leaders of Egypt (Mubarak), Israel (Netanyahu), Palestine (Abbas), and Jordan (Abdullah) for a visit to the White House. They all have a great time together, with lots of small talk and respectful conversations, and there are promises about actions to achieve a peace treaty. Obama soon realizes what is going on: each of them is playing a part. They have all been around the previous US presidents who decided they would bring peace to that cursed part of the world. They all knew what to do: play along, talk nice, make the US president happy and maybe win some concessions in terms of trade deals or economical aid. After the show was over, each of them would go back to their country and to their old lives. War was not only the status quo for them, but it was politically good for each of them. There is nothing better to manipulate a population and increase your political power than war and an enemy, so none of them had any real interest in achieving peace.

In the months to come, I’d think back often to my dinner with Abbas and Netanyahu, Mubarak and King Abdullah, the pantomime of it, their lack of resolve. To insist that the old order in the Middle East would indefinitely hold, to believe that the children of despair wouldn’t revolt, at some point, against those who maintained it—that, it turned out, was the greatest illusion of all.

After years of antagonizing the Muslim world, the United States’ position changed with the Obama administration. In his famous 2009 speech in Cairo, Obama signals a change in the US attitude and famously greeted the audience with the traditional Muslim greeting “Assalamu alaikum”.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. Obama is certainly a very inspirational leader. His values of hard-work, ambitiousness, and kindness are an inspiration to anyone. He has certainly tried to steers America’s direction back to their traditional values that have made them the greatest and most powerful country in the modern world and at some point the most admired nation in the world. As he says in the book’s preface

more than anyone, this book is for those young people — an invitation to once again remake the world, and to bring about, through hard work, determination, and a big dose of imagination, an America that finally aligns with all that is best in us.