Just before Thanksgiving, former President Barack Obama surprised high schoolers in Chicago at a virtual public assembly, and he came bearing gifts ― a free copy of his new memoir, A Promised Land, for each student.
“If some of you are interested in maybe getting a little bit of a sense of what led me to get into government and politics and public service ― the connection between the organizing work I did in Chicago and what I ended up doing in the presidency — then this is a chance for you guys to have access to that without having to pay,” Obama told students. “I want young people to understand that the ability for you to have an impact in this world — to make a difference to improve your communities ― that you have that power in you.”
The scripture-inspired title of Obama’s latest book comes from the idea that a better America ― one that lives more fully into its democractic promise ― is still possible. “[E]ven if we experience hardships and disappointments along the way, that I at least still have faith we can create a more perfect union. Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union,” Obama told CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley in a Nov. 16 interview.
When students in Chicago dive into their free digital download or hardback copy, they may see how the former president’s own entry into public life came not by design, but as a result of him trying to figure out his purpose.
It all started when a teenage Obama came across a box of old hardcover books at rummage sale at Central Union Church in Honolulu where he lived with his grandparents during his high school years. As a 10th grader, Obama didn’t quite understand everything Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Robert Penn Warren, and Ralph Waldo Emerson were trying to convey about America in writings that have become cornerstones of the literary canon.
But the questions that arose from his independent study ― along with his observations about race and class and his own non-traditional upbringing ― were the beginnings of his path to public service and the White House.
“That America fell perpetually short of its ideals, I readily conceded … But the idea of America, the promise of America: this I clung to with a stubbornness that surprised even me,” Obama writes. “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ — that was my America.”
In A Promised Land — the first volume of a two-part memoir in which the 44th U.S. president, four years out of office, retells his eight years in the Oval Office — Obama starts 768-pages of storytelling by asking himself a question: What was the connection between his years as an organizer for a church-funded initiative to improve a disadvantaged community on Chicago’s South Side and his eventual pursuit of political power?
Back then, he sought grassroots-level solutions to his deep thinking about inequality in America.
‘I saw the possibility of practicing the values my mother taught me; how you could build power not by putting others down but by lifting them up. This was true democracy at work — democracy not as a gift from on high, or a division of spoils between interest groups, but rather democracy that was earned, the work of everybody,” Obama writes.
Especially compelling are Obama’s observations on the impact civic participation had on the urban communities he served in Chicago.
“I came to love the men and women I worked with … I saw the transformation that took place when citizens held their leaders and institutions to account, even on something as small as putting in a stop sign on a busy corner or getting more police patrols,” Obama writes.
“I noticed how people stood up a little straighter, saw themselves differently, when they learned their voices mattered.”
But he ultimately became restless at the grassroots.
“I told myself then — and like to tell myself still — that I left organizing because I saw the path as too slow, too limited, not being able to match the needs of the people that I hoped to serve ... The power to shape budgets and guide policy was what was needed, and that power lay elsewhere,” Obama writes.
Like other memoirs authored by politicians, Obama seeks to give an accounting of his time in office. But the book’s arrival at the end of 2020 on the heels of a protracted election cycle during a global pandemic, makes the book launch for The Promised Land different. Polling shows a sharply divided American society, including divisions that were present when Obama started along his path and, he says, are even sharper today.
“I think Democratic and Republican voters have become much more partisan,” Obama told CBS 60 Minutes in that Nov. 16 interview. “It becomes very difficult, even for folks who want to cooperate, to cooperate ... You already saw some of these trends taking place early in my presidency. But I do think they've kept on getting worse.”
Despite deep divisions revealed throughout his presidency and the past four years, Obama says that consensus for getting closer to America’s ideals can be found.
“I think that we have to work at a local level,” Obama told 60 Minutes. “When you start getting to the local level, mayors, county commissioners, et cetera, they've actually gotta make real decisions … It's like, ‘We need to fix this road. We need to get this snow plowed. We need to make sure our kids have a safe playground to play in.’ ... That's where we have to start in terms of rebuilding the social trust we need for democracy to work.”
Nevertheless, in this first of two volumes, Obama ponders whether his desire for cooperation and consensus kept him from achieving more during his presidency.
“There have been times during the course of writing this book … when I’ve had to ask myself whether I was too tempered in speaking the truth as I saw it, too cautious in either word or deed, convinced as I was that by appealing to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature I stood a greater chance of leading us in the direction of the America we’ve been promised.”