The Library: We Cannot Walk Alone

obama

Barack Obama began writing his presidential memoirs shortly after the end of his presidency. Sitting down with a pen and paper and a clear outline in his head, he wanted to provide an honest rendering of his time in office—not just a historical record of key events that happened on his watch and important figures he interacted with, but also an account of some of the political, economic, and cultural crosscurrents that helped determine the challenges his administration faced, and the choices he and his team made together.

He wanted also to offer readers a real sense of what it’s like to be the president of the United States, to remind us that, for all its power and pomp, the presidency is ultimately just a job and that the men and women who work in the White House experience the same daily mix of satisfaction, disappointment, friction, and small triumphs as their fellow citizens. And he sought to tell a more personal story, one that might inspire young people considering a life in public service, drawing upon his realization that his own political career “really started with a search for a place to fit in, a way to explain the different strands of my mixed-up heritage, and how it was only by hitching my wagon to something larger than myself that I was ultimately able to locate a community and purpose for my life.”

Now, in A Promised Land the highly anticipated first volume of his presidential memoirs, Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from a young man searching for his identity to the leader of the free world, describing in strikingly intimate detail both his political education and the landmark moments of the first term of his historic presidency—a time of dramatic transformation and turmoil.

Summoning all of his gifts as a writer, he 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. Artfully blending the personal with the political, he pulls back the curtain on his experience in the Oval Office, seamlessly interweaving the arc of his life and the arc of democracy and reminding us that “for all our differences, we remain bound as one people, and that, together, men and women of goodwill can find a way to a better future.”

Divided into seven parts—from “The Bet” to “On the High Wire”— A Promised Land is also the dramatic story of one man’s wager with history, the faith of a community organizer tested on the world stage. Obama writes candidly 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 and revealing about how living in the White House affected his wife Michelle and their daughters. And he is open about the loneliness that comes with holding the nation’s highest office and about how every decision he made weighed heavily on him, especially those that would affect the lives of millions of Americans.

Unafraid to reveal the self-doubt and disappointment that come with living in a hard-fought political arena defined by an increasingly bitter contest between two competing visions for America, he yet remains emotionally connected to the optimism and idealism of his younger self, never wavering from his belief that inside the great, ongoing American experiment, progress is always possible.

Reflecting on the presidency, Obama 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, including America’s role in the world. He 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, describes the forces that led to the Arab Spring, overcomes the seemingly insurmountable odds to secure passage of the Affordable Care Act, clashes with generals about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, tackles Wall Street reform, saves the U.S. auto industry, outlines climate change action, 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 includes Obama’s hard-earned lessons about political and civic leadership: that beyond executing well-reasoned policy, awareness of custom and ritual matters; that symbols, protocol, and body language matter; that you can’t delegate keeping up morale; that it is important to ask what staffers think could be done better; that you’ll never be able to satisfy all interested parties; that sometimes the most important work you do is to prevent disasters from happening, which makes it pretty much invisible; and that no matter how steep the climb, you have to try anyway.

Perhaps one of the most inspiring beliefs that Obama shares in his book is that, as Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said in his 1963 March on Washington speech, “we cannot walk alone.” Obama believes democracy is something we actively create together, not something handed down to us. That we as citizens can be powerful if we band together.

A major literary achievement that brings history vividly to life, A Promised Land extends an invitation to all of us—and especially to young people—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.”

As President Obama writes, “At a time when America is going through such enormous upheaval, the book offers some of my broader thoughts on how we can heal the divisions in our country going forward and make our democracy work for everybody—a task that won’t depend on any single president, but on all of us as engaged citizens.”