Here’s an Excerpt From Barack Obama’s Forthcoming Memoir, ‘A Promised Land.’
The Atlantic is pleased to offer, below, an adapted and updated excerpt from former President Barack Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land, which will be published on Tuesday by Crown.
About the book, Barack Obama expressed the following:
I wrote my book for young people—as an invitation 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.
In the excerpt below, Obama writes about his undiminished belief in the American idea, and about the impetus to put his presidency down on paper.
At the end of my presidency, Michelle and I boarded Air Force One for the last time and traveled west for a long-deferred break. The mood on the plane was bittersweet. Both of us were drained, physically and emotionally, not only by the labors of the previous eight years but by the unexpected results of an election in which someone diametrically opposed to everything we stood for had been chosen as my successor. Still, having run our leg of the race to completion, we took satisfaction in knowing that we’d done our very best—and that however much I’d fallen short as president, whatever projects I’d hoped but failed to accomplish, the country was in better shape than it had been when I’d started.
For a month, Michelle and I slept late, ate leisurely dinners, went for long walks, swam in the ocean, took stock, replenished our friendship, rediscovered our love, and planned for a less eventful but hopefully no less satisfying second act. For me, that included writing my presidential memoirs. And by the time I sat down with a pen and yellow pad (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), I had a clear outline of a book in my head.
This post was excerpted from Obama’s forthcoming book.
First and foremost, I hoped to give an honest rendering of my time in office—not just a historical record of key events that happened on my watch and important figures with whom I interacted but also an account of some of the political, economic, and cultural crosscurrents that helped determine the challenges my administration faced and the choices my team and I made in response.
Where possible, I wanted to offer readers a sense of what it’s like to be the president of the United States; I wanted to pull the curtain back a bit and remind people that, for all its power and pomp, the presidency is still just a job and our federal government is a human enterprise like any other, and the men and women who work in the White House experience the same daily mix of satisfaction, disappointment, office friction, screwups, and small triumphs as the rest of their fellow citizens.
Finally, I wanted to tell a more personal story that might inspire young people considering a life of public service: how my career in politics 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.
I figured I could do all that in maybe 500 pages. I expected to be done in a year.
It’s fair to say that the writing process didn’t go exactly as I’d planned. Despite my best intentions, the book kept growing in length and scope—the reason I eventually decided to break it into two volumes. I’m painfully aware that a more gifted writer could have found a way to tell the same story with greater brevity (after all, my home office in the White House sat right next to the Lincoln Bedroom, where a signed copy of the 272-word Gettysburg Address rests inside a glass case). But each time that I sat down to write—whether it was to describe the early phases of my campaign, or my administration’s handling of the financial crisis, or negotiations with the Russians on nuclear-arms control, or the forces that led to the Arab Spring—I found my mind resisting a simple linear narrative.
Often, I felt obliged to provide context for the decisions I and others had made, and I didn’t want to relegate that background to a footnote or an endnote (I hate footnotes and endnotes). I discovered that I couldn’t always explain my motivations just by referencing reams of economic data or recalling an exhaustive Oval Office briefing, for they’d been shaped by a conversation I’d had with a stranger on the campaign trail, a visit to a military hospital, or a childhood lesson I’d received years earlier from my motheRepeatedly my memories would toss up seemingly incidental details (trying to find a discreet location to grab an evening smoke; my staff and I having a laugh while playing cards aboard Air Force One) that captured, in a way the public record never could, my lived experience during the eight years I spent in the White House.
Listen to the preface as it appears in the book, read by President Obama:
Beyond the struggle to put words on a page, what I didn’t fully anticipate was the way events would unfold during the more than three and a half years that have passed since that last flight on Air Force One. The country is in the grips of a global pandemic and an accompanying economic crisis, with more than 230,000 Americans dead, businesses shuttered, and millions of people out of work. Across the nation, people from all walks of life have poured into the streets to protest the deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of the police. Perhaps most troubling of all, our democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of crisis—a crisis rooted in a fundamental contest between two opposing visions of what America is and what it should be; a crisis that has left the body politic divided, angry, and mistrustful, and has allowed for an ongoing breach of institutional norms, procedural safeguards, and the adherence to basic facts that both Republicans and Democrats once took for granted.
This article is excerpted from Obama’s forthcoming book, A Promised Land.