A Promised Land

Author: Barack Obama

Rating: 10/10

If you enjoy memoirs and biographies, I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading this one.

It’s incredibly beautifully written—I’ve highlighted numerous passages and phrases simply because it’s rare to see such a masterful command of the language in modern non-fiction books nowadays. From his years living in Indonesia to a school in South Carolina, the author evokes the sense of place with a light but sure hand.

This first of two volumes starts early in his life, giving a glimpse of the family values that were instilled in him, charting his initial political campaigns, and providing a rare insight into the decision-making process that the 44th President of the United States, his team, and his family went through during his years in the White House.

The President himself narrates the audiobook, so I highly recommend it.

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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. The result was not just a change in material conditions but a sense of dignity for people and communities, a bond between those who had once seemed far apart.

I took it upon myself to purge such softness with a regimen of self-improvement that I’ve never entirely shed. Michelle and the girls point out that to this day I can’t get into a pool or the ocean without feeling compelled to swim laps.

Enthusiasm makes for a host of deficiencies.

A night owl by nature, I manned the late shift so Michelle could sleep, resting Malia on my thighs to read to her as she with big questioning eyes, or dozing as she lay on my chest, a burp and good poop behind us, so warm and serene.

I thought about the generations of men who had missed such moments, and I thought about my own father, whose absence had done more to shape me than the brief spent with him, and I realized that there was no place on earth I’d I would rather be.

It’s hard, in retrospect, to understand why you did something stupid.

I don’t mean the small stuff-ruining your favorite tie because you tried to eat soup in the car or throwing out your back because you got talked into playing tackle football on Thanksgiving. I mean dumb choices in the wake of considerable deliberation: those times when you identify a real problem in your life, analyze it, and then with utter confidence come up with precisely the wrong answer.

I thought now about the promise I’d made to myself after Malia was born; that my kids would know me, that they’d grow up knowing my love for them, feeling that I had always put them first.

In other words, following my ill-fated run for Congress, I experienced a certain letting go-if not of my desire to make a difference in the world, then at least of the insistence that it had to be done on a larger stage. What might have begun as a sense of resignation at whatever limits fate had imposed on my life came to feel more like gratitude for the bounty it had already delivered.

“Here’s the thing.” I would say. “Most people, wherever they’re from, whatever they look like, are looking for the same thing. They’re not trying to get filthy rich. They don’t expect someone else to do what they can do for themselves.

But they do expect that if they’re willing to work, they should be able to find a job that supports a family. They expect that they shouldn’t go bankrupt just because they get sick. They expect that their kids should be able to get a good education, one that prepares them for this new economy, and they should be able to afford college if they’ve put in the effort. They want to be safe, from criminals or terrorists. And they figure that after a lifetime of work, they should be able to retire with dignity and respect.

That’s about it. It’s not a lot.

There’s a physical feeling, a current of emotion that passes back and forth between you and the crowd, as if your lives and theirs are suddenly spliced together, like a movie reel, projecting backward and forward in time, and your voice creeps right up to the edge of cracking, because for an instant, yo them deeply; you can see them whole. You’ve tapped into some collective spirit, a thing we all know and wish for-a sense of connection that overrides our differences and replaces them with a giant swell of possibility-and like all things that matter most, you know the moment is fleeting and that soon the spell will be broken.

You think you may not be ready, that you’ll do it at a more convenient time. But you don’t choose the time. The time chooses you. Either you seize what may turn out to be the only chance you have, or you decide you’re willing to live with the knowledge that the chance has passed you by.

The process can be exhilarating, but it’s mostly misery. It’s like a stress test, an EKG on the soul. And for all your talent, I don’t know how you’l1 respond.

Neither do you. The whole thing is so crazy so undignified and brutal, that you have to be a little pathological to do what it takes to win. And I just don’t know if you’ve got that hunger in you.

I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently I know that kids all around this country -Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in–they’ll see themselves differently, too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone… that would be worth it.”

“Your problem,” he said, “is you keep trying to answer the question.”

“Isn’t that the point?” I said.

“No, Barack,” Axe said, “that is not the point. The point is to get your message across. What are your values? What are your priorities? That’s what people care about. Look, half the time the moderator is just using the question to try to trip you up. Your job is to avoid the trap they’ve set.

Take whatever question they give you, give them a quick line to make it seem like you answered it … and then talk about what you want to talk about.”

“That’s bullshit,” I said.

“Exactly,” he said

The most effective debate answers, it seemed, were designed not to, illuminate but to evoke an emotion, or identify the enemy. or signal to a constituency that you, more than anyone else on that stage, were and would always be on their side. It was easy to dismiss the exercise as superficial. Then again, a president wasn’t a lawyer or an accountant or a pilot, hired to carry out some narrow, specialized task. Mobilizing public opinion, shaping working coalitions – that was the job. Whether I liked it or not, people were moved by emotion, not facts.

I’ve often been asked about this personality trait-my ability to maintain composure in the middle of a crisis. Sometimes I’ll say that it’s just a matter of temperament, or a consequence of being raised in Hawaii, since it’s hard to get stressed when it’s eighty degrees and sunny and you’re five minutes from the beach. If I’m talking to a group of young people, I’ll describe how over time I’ve trained myself to take the long view, about how important it is to stay focused on your goals rather than getting hung up on the daily ups and downs.

There’s truth in all of this. But there’s another factor at play. In tough spots, I tend to channel my grandmother.

Toot showed me how to balance a checkbook and resist buying stuff I didn’t need. She was the reason why, even in my most revolutionary moments as a young man, I could admire a well-run business and read the financial pages, and why I felt compelled to disregard overly broad claims about the need to tear things up and remake society from the whole.

She taught me the value of working hard and doing your best even when the work was unpleasant, and about fulfilling your responsibilities even when doing so was inconvenient. She taught me to marry passion with reason, to not get overly excited when life was going well, and to not get too down when it went badly.

Those were my daughters. That’s what I’d given up by being away so much. That’s why the days we stole in Hawaii that August were worth it, even if we lost some ground against McCain in the polls. Splashing in the ocean with the girls, letting them bury me in the sand without having to tell them I had to get on a conference call or leave for the airport-it was worth it. Watching the sun go down over the Pacific with my arms wrapped around Michelle, just listening to the wind and rustling palms. It was worth it.

Seeing Toot hunched over on her living room couch, barely able to raise her head but still smiling with quiet satisfaction as her great-granddaughters laughed and played on the floor, and then feeling her mottled, blue-veined hand squeeze mine for perhaps the last time.

A precious sacrament.

As we sat in the afternoon sun, he gave me a quick tutorial on the burgeoning subprime mortgage market. Whereas banks had once typically held the mortgage loans they made in their own portfolios, a huge percentage of mortgages were now bundled and sold as securities on Wall Street. Since banks could now off-load their risk that any particular borrower might default on their loan, this “securitization” of mortgages had led banks to steadily loosen their lending standards. Credit rating agencies, paid by the issuers, had stamped these securities as “AAA,” or least risky, without adequately analyzing the default risk on the underlying mortgages. Global investors, awash in cash and eager for higher returns, rushed in to buy these products, pumping more and more money into housing finance. Meanwhile, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two giant companies that Congress had authorized to purchase qualified mortgages to encourage homeownership-and which, by virtue of their quasi-governmental status, could borrow money much more cheaply than other companies-were knee-deep in the subprime market, with their shareholders making money hand over fist as the housing market swelled.

As soon as large numbers of homeowners started defaulting, investors would realize that a lot of mortgage-backed securities weren’t so AAA after all. They’d likely rush for the exits, dumping the securities as fast as they could. Banks that held these securities would be vulnerable to runs, and would probably pull back on lending to cover losses or maintain capital requirements, making it hard for even qualified families to get a mortgage, which in turn would depress the housing market even further.

It would be a vicious cycle, likely to trigger a market panic, and because of the sheer amount of money involved, the result could be an economic crisis the likes of which we hadn’t seen in our lifetimes.

I didn’t believe in ghosts or leprechauns, and while I might have made a wish when blowing out birthday candles or tossing a penny into a fountain, my mother had always been quick to remind me that there’s a direct link between doing your work and having your wishes come true.

“She was one of those quiet heroes that we have all across America,”

I said. “They’re not famous. Their names aren’t in the newspapers. But each and every day they work hard. They look after their families. They sacrifice for their children and their grandchildren. They aren’t seeking the limelight-all they try to do is just do the right thing.

“And in this crowd, there are a lot of quiet heroes like that-mothers and fathers, grandparents, who have worked hard and sacrificed all their lives. And the satisfaction that they get is seeing that their children and maybe their grandchildren or their great-grandchildren live a better life than they did.

“That’s what America’s about. That’s what we’re fighting for.”

My mother-in-law never complained about anything. Whenever I interacted with her, I’d remember that, no matter what kind of mess I was dealing with, no one had forced me to be the president and that I needed to just suck it up and do my job.

“Trust me,” he said. “The presidency is like a new car. It starts depreciating the minute you drive it off the lot.”

As ambitious as it was at the time, New Deal spending actually proved too modest to fully counteract the Great Depression, especially after FDR succumbed to 1936 election-year pressures and pulled back too early on what was then seen by many elite opinion-makers as government profligacy. It would take the ultimate stimulus of World War II, when the entire nation mobilized to build an Arsenal of Democracy. to finally break the Depression once and for all.

Without any constitutional basis, public debate, or even the knowledge of most Americans, passing legislation through Congress had come to effectively require 60 votes in the Senate, or what was often referred to as a “supermajority.” By the time I was elected president, the filibuster had become so thoroughly integrated into Senate practice-viewed as an essential and time-honored tradition-that nobody much bothered to discuss the possibility of reforming or doing away with it altogether.

Which is how the United States and other advanced democracies came to create the modern social contract. As our society grew more complex, more and more of the government’s function took the form of social insurance, with each of us chipping in through our tax dollars to protect ourselves collectively-for disaster relief if our house was destroyed in a hurricane; unemployment insurance if we lost a job; Social Security and Medicare to lessen the indignities of old age; reliable electricity and phone service for those who lived in rural areas where utility companies wouldn’t otherwise make a profit; public schools and universities to make education more egalitarian.

Accepting that African Americans and other minority groups might need extra help from the government-that their specific hardships could be traced to a brutal history of discrimination rather than immutable characteristics or individual choices-required a level of empathy, of fellow feeling, that many white voters found difficult to muster.

Tim’s proposed solution would come to be known as a “stress test”.

The Federal Reserve would set a benchmark for how much capital each of the nineteen systemically significant banks needed to survive a worst-case scenario. The Fed would then dispatch regulators to pore over each bank’s books, rigorously assessing whether or not it had enough of a financial cushion to make it through a depression; if not, the bank would be given six months to raise that amount of capital from private sources.

It still fell short, the government would then step in to provide enough capital to meet the benchmark, with nationalization coming into play only if the government’s infusion exceeded 50 percent. Either way, the markets would finally have a clear picture of each bank’s condition.

Shareholders would see their shares in a bank diluted, but only in proportion to the amount of capital needed for the bank to get well. And taxpayers would be on the hook only as a last resort.

“There’s only one thing you can count on, Mr. President,” he said, “On any given moment in any given day, somebody somewhere is screwing up.”

In such circumstances, chasing after the perfect solution led to paralysis. On the other hand, going with your gut too often meant letting preconceived notions or the path of least political resistance guide a decision-with cherry-picked facts used to justify it. But with a sound process-one in which I was able to empty out my ego and really listen, following the facts and logic as best I could and considering them alongside my goals and my principles-I realized I could make tough decisions and still sleep easy at night, knowing at a minimum that no one in my position, given the same information, could have made the decision any better. A good process also meant I could allow each member of the team to feel ownership over the decision-which meant better execution and less relitigation of White House decisions through leaks to The New York Times or The Washington Post.

That was another lesson the presidency was teaching me: Sometimes it didn’t matter how good your process was. Sometimes you were just screwed, and the best you could do was have a stiff drink-and light instructed Tim to keep up a cigarette.

I found myself thinking about my grandmother, how in my mind her Kansas prairie character represented what a banker was supposed to be:

Honest. Prudent. Exacting. Risk-averse. Someone who refused to cut corners, hated waste and extravagance, lived by the code of delayed gratification, and was perfectly content to be a little bit boring in how she did business.

I’d set down the letter after reading it and pull out a notecard to write the person a brief response. I imagined them getting the official envelope from the White House and opening it up with a look of puzzlement, then a smile. They’d show it to their family, maybe even take it to work. Eventually, the letter would fall into a drawer somewhere, forgotten under the accumulation of the new joys and pains that make up a life.

That was okay. I couldn’t expect people to understand how much their voices actually meant to me-how they had sustained my spirit and beat back whispering doubts on those late, solitary nights.

AT THE START of each day of my presidency, I would find a leather binder waiting for me at the breakfast table. Michelle called it “The Death, Destruction, and Horrible Things Book,” though officially it was known as the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB. Top secret, usually about ten to fifteen pages in length, and prepared overnight by the CIA in concert with the other intelligence agencies, the PDB was intended to provide the president a summary of world events and intelligence analysis, particularly anything that was likely to affect America’s national security. On a given day, I might read about terrorist cells in Somalia or unrest in Iraq, or the fact that the Chinese or Russians were developing new weapons systems.

The economic rationale was straightforward: For years, U.S. consumer spending turbocharged with credit card debt and home equity loans-had been the primary engine of global economic growth.

Americans bought cars from Germany, electronics from South Korea, and practically everything else from China; these countries, in turn, bought raw materials from countries further down the global supply chain. Now the party was over.

Unique among world leaders, the American president travels fully equipped so as not to rely on another government’s services or security forces. This meant that an armada of Beasts, security vehicles, ambulances, tactical teams, and, when necessary, Marine One helicopters were flown in on air force C-17 transport planes in advance and prepositioned on the tarmac for my arrival.

Together, the BRICS represented just over 40 percent of the world’s population but about a quarter of the world’s GDP and only a fraction of its wealth. Decisions made in the corporate boardrooms of New York, London, or Paris often had more impact on their economies than the policy choices of their own governments. Their influence within the World Bank and the IMF remained limited, despite the remarkable economic transformations that had taken place in China, India, and Brazil.

And then there was China. Since the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping effectively abandoned Mao Zedong’s Marxist-Leninist vision in favor of an export-driven, state-managed form of capitalism, no nation in history had developed faster or moved more people out of abject poverty. Once little more than a hub of low-grade manufacturing and assembly for foreign companies looking to take advantage of its endless supply of low-wage workers, China now boasted top-flight engineers and world-class companies working at the cutting edge of advanced technology. Its massive trade surplus made it a major investor on every continent; gleaming cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou had become sophisticated financial centers, home to a burgeoning consumer class.

Given its growth rate and sheer size, China’s GDP was guaranteed at some point to surpass America’s. When you added this to the country’s powerful military, increasingly skilled workforce, shrewd and pragmatic government, and cohesive five-thousand-year-old culture, the conclusion felt obvious: If any country was likely to challenge U.S. preeminence on the world stage, it was China.

This was the thing that would strike me not just during the London summit but at every international forum I attended while president:

Even those who complained about America’s role in the world still relied on us to keep the system afloat. To varying degrees, other countries were willing to pitch in-contributing troops to U.N. peacekeeping efforts, say, or providing cash and logistical support for famine relief.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said about politics during the Soviet era, that “the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State.”

The Court’s role in the American government has always been controversial. After all, the idea of giving nine unelected, tenured-for-life lawyers in black robes the power to strike down laws passed by a majority of the people’s representatives doesn’t sound very democratic. But since Marbury v. Madison, the 1803 Supreme Court case.

a that the Court final say on the meaning of the U.S. Constitution gave and established the principle of judicial review over the actions of the Congress and the president, that’s how our system of checks and balances has worked.

Not only were Judge Sotomayor’s academic credentials outstanding, but I understood the kind of intelligence, grit, and adaptability required of someone of her background to get to where she was. A breadth of experience, familiarity with the vagaries of life, the combination of brains and heart-that, I thought, was where wisdom came from.

It was my first indicator of how the issue of Black folks and the police was more polarizing than just about any other subject in American life. It seemed to tap into some of the deepest undercurrents of our nation’s psyche, touching on the rawest of nerves, perhaps because it reminded all of us, Black and white alike, that the basis of our nation’s social order had never been simply about consent; that it was also about centuries of state-sponsored violence by whites against Black and brown people, and that who controlled legally sanctioned violence, how it was wielded and against whom, still mattered in the recesses of our tribal minds much more than we cared to admit.

the sort of long summer road trip I’d made when I was eleven after my mother and Toot decided it was time for Maya and me to see the mainland of the United States. It had lasted a month and burned a lasting impression into my mind-and not just because we went to Disneyland (although that was obviously outstanding). We had dug for clams during low tide in Puget Sound, ridden horses through a creek at the base of Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, watched the endless Kansas prairie unfold from a train window, spotted a herd of bison on a dusky plain in Yellowstone, and ended each day with the simple pleasures of a motel ice machine, the occasional swimming pool, or just air-conditioning and clean sheets. That one trip gave me a glimpse of the dizzying freedom of the open road, how vast America was, and how full of wonder.

“I guess the question for you, Mr. President, is, Do you feel lucky?”

I looked at him and smiled. “Where are we, Phil?”

Phil hesitated, wondering if it was a trick question. “The Oval Office?”

“And what’s my name?”

“Barack Obama.”

I smiled. “Barack Hussein Obama. And I’m here with you in the Oval Office. Brother, I always feel lucky.”

There was a reason, I told Valerie, why Republicans tended to do the opposite-why Ronald Reagan could preside over huge increases in the federal budget, federal deficit, and federal workforce and still be lionized by the GOP faithful as the guy who successfully shrank the federal government. They understood that in politics, the stories told were often as important as the substance achieved.

To be known. To be heard. To have one’s unique identity recognized and seen as worthy. It was a universal human desire, I thought, as true for nations and peoples as it was for individuals.

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