A Promised Land is the story of a nervous young President who knows he has to learn the ropes fast if faith in his ability to govern, on the part of Americans as well as people around the world, is not to dwindle into despair.
It would be quite all right to argue the point that if Barack Obama had not been in politics, he could have created a good space for himself in creative writing. His works, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, are proof.
The idea of Obama being a writer the literary world comes through once again in his new book, A Promised Land. The former President of the United States would have readers know that a second volume is on the way. This present work is but a memoir which covers the period of his entry into politics proper, going all the way to the first term of his presidency.
The uniqueness of the Obama story is not that he has been President. It is something else - that he stormed through the barricades to enter the White House as the first African-American President of the United States.
It was a risk he took in 2007, when he decided that he could take a crack at what is certainly the most powerful office in the world, unless of course you choose to point to the many constraints the US Congress hems a President in with, limiting his authority.
In his first term, as Obama points out ever so often, those constraints had been there with Republican Congressmen and Senators blocking his every move to give shape to his programmes. The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as it is popularly known, was a tough sell, with politicians like Mitch McConnell determined to give the President a rough time.
Obama dwells on the barriers put in his way by McConnell and John Boehner. An early instance of the contempt in which he is held by individuals unable to accept his presidency comes when, as he delivers his State of the Union address, a Republican Congressman, in defiance of civility, shouts, 'You lie!'
The man subsequently and in private apologised to Obama for his misdemeanor. But the incident is a reminder for the President of the times when, in his youth, he experienced more than once the stop-and-search measures carried out by the police.
The message is clear: the colour of his skin was the problem. And later, in his presidency, arose the so-called birther controversy, raised and fanned by an unscrupulous Donald Trump. The 44th President of the US is patently bitter at the fact that rather than swatting such people down, the media clearly took what can be considered perverse happiness in the idea of his not being born in America and therefore not being a legitimate occupant of the White House.
That he was a closet Muslim, that he had been planted at the highest level of the American government to undermine the country were the ridiculous tales spun by conspiracy theorists. The birther fire is doused only when an exasperated Obama produces a copy of his date of birth from the Honolulu hospital where he was born.
A Promised Land is a work written in erudite language, which again is natural given Obama's command of English at its intellectual level. He writes movingly of his grandparents and his mother. He recalls his childhood in Indonesia, a country where his mother had found her second husband.
Obama does not focus much on his Kenyan father ('… when I was ten, he travelled from Kenya to stay with us for a month in Honolulu. That was the first and last I saw of him'), but he does make it a point to bear in some corner of his mind the part of his legacy associated with the Luo tribe in his father's country. His affection for his half-sister Maya never wavers.
Perhaps it is as a result of seeing his parents' marriage collapse and his white mother unable to find the tranquility she craved for in life (she was to die before her son came to public prominence) that Obama realized early on that family mattered.
Marriage to Michelle Lavaughn Robinson, a successful lawyer when they first met, has been for Obama a powerful underpinning in life. With daughters Malia and Sasha, the couple made sure that despite all the politics and the protocol enveloping the family, privacy would matter. Michelle and Barack have been a power couple, a thought which the writer hints at more than once in this narrative.
A refreshing sort of frankness about the burdens symbolized by the presidency is what Obama offers here. Candour is at work. But one would be quite justified in asking why, in only his first term in the US Senate, Obama began to entertain an even higher ambition of being President. One tends to recall here Jimmy Carter who, having in his pre-presidential years met such prominent political figures as Edward Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller, persuaded himself into believing that he too could be President.
And then there was Bill Clinton, whose political ambitions began to take shape the day he met, as a teenager, President Kennedy on the south lawn of the White House as part of a Boys Nation group. But where Carter and Clinton had served for pretty lengthy periods as governors of Georgia and Arkansas, in that order, Obama was hardly settled in the Senate when thoughts of a run for the presidency began to assail him. The decision to run was given finality when Senator Harry Reid, noticing the freshness and the talent in the young man, told him he should seek the White House.
Many were the pundits and pollsters who initially were reluctant to give the Senator from Illinois any chance. Besides, there was the formidable Clinton machine, with Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady and at the time Senator from New York, already looked upon as the Democratic presidential nominee to beat in the primaries and then in November 2008.
Obama's self-confidence, coupled with the team he gathered around him, slowly but surely chipped away at Clinton's lead. It was a meticulous operation and would take Obama all the way to the moment when he would trounce John McCain, his Republican rival, at the election.
Obama's slogan, Yes We Can, carried the day. The narrative here is of a young politician possessed of the confidence to provide leadership to his country despite the gigantic problems arrayed against him. Taking a leaf out of Doris Kearns Goodwin's revealing work on America's Civil War President, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Obama reached out to Hillary Clinton and persuaded her to join his cabinet as Secretary of State. He opted to have Robert Gates, Secretary of Defence under President George W. Bush, carry on in his government.
This work is a candid assessment of the mountain of problems which greeted the Obama presidency in January 2009. The recession and the collapse of financial institutions which marked the final days of the Bush White House were problems Obama and his team inherited.
His account of how his government weathered it all makes for fascinating reading. That a politician grows in office is an image which greets the reader as Obama spells out the measures he, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, took to stabilize the economy. The richness of A Promised Land is also to be measured in terms of the men and women President Obama gathers in his administration.
David Axelrod, Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Eric Holder, Robert Gibbs and Reggie Love were invaluable in the advice they gave Obama on a range of issues. If the Republicans gave him a hard time --- he correctly paints Mitch McConnell as a regular obstructionist --- in the House and the Senate, there were the politicians of positivism, Nancy Pelosi for instance, he could depend on to do his work uninterrupted.
And till his death in August 2009, Senator Edward Kennedy was an enthusiastic advocate for Obama's social security-related policies. Vice President Joe Biden, all experience and expertise, was a calming, reassuring presence.
The book is revealing of Obama's interaction with leaders around the globe. His respect for Germany's Angela Merkel comes through, though the same cannot be said of his feelings about France's Nicolas Sarkozy. His admiration for Britain's young leader David Cameron is evident, as is his appreciation of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
A meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow leaves Obama unimpressed. Obama lets Putin let off steam, much of it related to what the latter sees as being wrong with the way America carries itself in global politics.
On a visit to China, Obama notes that in response to his comments on a variety of issues, President Hu Jintao reads out his responses from the stack of papers before him. With Premier Wen Jiabao, however, the conversation gets better. Obama's visit to India elicits from him a ton of admiration for Gandhi, but that does not detract from the problems he feels Delhi grapples with.
His conversation with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is polite. At dinner hosted by Singh, Sonia Gandhi ('… a striking woman in her sixties, dressed in a traditional sari, with dark, probing eyes and a quiet regal presence') prefers to let Singh carry on the dialogue with the President. Obama is obviously less than impressed with Rahul Gandhi. As he puts it, '… there was a nervous, unformed quality about him, as if he were a student who'd done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject.' This is in response to the younger man's assessment of the future of progressive politics, laid out before the visitor.
In Prague, Obama is happy with the brief meeting he has with former Czech leader Vaclav Havel. In Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev meets him, though the brevity of it surely could not have made the former Soviet leader happy.
Obama dwells at considerable length on the Middle East, particularly on the intractable Palestine issue. His ire at Benjamin Netanyahu, whose obduracy clearly irritates him, is obvious. The Arab Spring, the result of the self-immolation of the young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, is reason for Obama to go into detailed assessments of the protests that were to lead to the end of the regimes of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
Iraq is a problem he inherits from his predecessor, but the bigger problem is Afghanistan, where he is constrained to order an increase in American military presence. The former President provides a graphic account of the operation that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. Privy to images of a dead bin Laden, he nevertheless decides not to make the photographs public. Neither is his administration willing to have the al-Qaeda leader interred in a grave, for the grave could become a pilgrimage site for jihadists. Bin Laden is buried at sea.
A Promised Land is the story of a nervous young President who knows he has to learn the ropes fast if faith in his ability to govern, on the part of Americans as well as people around the world, is not to dwindle into despair. A massive work, 751 pages in all, it does not lead to tedium. There is a reason: apart from spelling out the details of his politics, Barack Obama offers his reflections on the world. It is his worldview, shaped in the cerebral nature of his individuality, which shines through in the book.
And Obama has been reading books all his life. 'The reading habit was my mother's doing', he notes, 'instilled early in my childhood.'