Barack Obama: A Promised Land is About Principles

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What is Barack Obama’s book A Promised Land about? How does Obama tell the story of his life and political career?

A Promised Land by Barack Obama is about his life, entrance into politics, and his first term as President of the United States. Barack Obama’s life and ideals shaped his politics, and he goes into depth about how and why in his book A Promised Land.

Read more about Barack Obama, A Promised Land, and the book’s major themes and ideas.

What Is A Promised Land by Barack Obama About?

A Promised Land is former U.S. President Barack Obama’s memoir, taking us on his journey from being a biracial kid raised by a single mother to a transformative historical figure as the nation’s first African-American president. Published in 2020, A Promised Land is Obama’s third book (preceded by 1995’s Dreams From My Father and 2006’s The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream), and it is the first in a planned series of memoirs covering his presidency from 2009 to 2017.

At every step of his political career—from obscure state senator to national convention keynote speaker to U.S. Senator to President—Barack Obama was guided by a deep and abiding faith in the fundamental unity of Americans, the potential and promise of America, and the power of the democratic system to effect real change for ordinary people. 

In telling the story of Barack Obama’s rise, A Promised Land functions on one level as a simple biography, one that many readers are likely familiar with. Obama describes his political awakenings as a young man, his early career as an Illinois state senator, his electrifying keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and his election in 2008 as the country’s first Black president. 

Once in office, Obama details the challenges his administration faced, including:

  • The push to rescue a collapsing economy following the 2008 financial crisis
  • The fight to pass the Affordable Care Act and take the nation’s first steps toward universal health care
  • Drawing down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and bringing the War on Terror more closely in line with America’s constitutional values
  • A polarized political climate, characterized by root-and-branch opposition from the Republican Party and the rise of a new racialized form of politics
  • The successful effort to bring Osama bin Laden to justice

Beyond the straightforward narrative of Obama’s life and career, A Promised Land explores several important themes:

  • The centrality of race in America
  • The power of democracy to bring about change
  • The importance of working within the system of electoral politics 
  • The need to make compromises and adopt a pragmatic approach
  • Faith in the idea of America and its crucial role as a beacon of hope and inspiration to countries around the world

The Work Ahead

By May 2011, Obama could take stock of all that he and his administration had achieved. He’d gone from being a brooding biracial kid from Honolulu with middling high school grades to the nation’s first African-American president.

His campaign and his presidency had been a source of inspiration for billions of young people both in the United States and around the world, showcasing the power and efficacy of democracy. As president, his administration has rescued the world economy from a depression, saved the American auto industry, taken a crucial step toward guaranteeing health insurance for all Americans, laid plans for a withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, and brought the nation’s main public enemy to justice.

All told, it was an impressive record of achievement. But Obama knew that there remained so much work to be done. Depending on the fate of his 2012 reelection bid, he would still have another six years as president to make change and guide America toward a safer, more prosperous, and more democratic future. 

Seeing the exuberant celebrations across the nation at the news of bin Laden’s death, Obama wondered if the country could muster the same patriotism and unity of purpose toward building a better society as it could for war and killing terrorists. Could he rally Americans to unite behind a spirit of national purpose when it came to educating children, providing health care to their fellow citizens, expanding access to voting, or protecting the natural environment they all shared?

Obama wasn’t sure he could answer this question. But it would be the work of the rest of his time in office to push the nation toward these goals.

Barack Obama: A Promised Land is About Principles

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Barack Obama's "A Promised Land" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full A Promised Land summary:

  • How Barack Obama went from relative obscurity to the first Black president
  • What principles guided his political leadership style
  • Why Obama retained an unshakable faith in the potential and promise of America

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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