I finished reading Barack Obama’s A Promised Land recently (all 750 pages of it!), and when I put it down, I was sorry that it was over, a feeling one usually has when one finishes a really good novel. But the good news is that this is just volume one of a two-part memoir, so I have more to look forward to. This volume only discussed recollections of his election campaign, which ended with his historic election as the first African-American president in November 2008 as well as his first term as president 2009-2013. As we know, he was a two-term president, and therefore we will expect more and even better in volume two.My response to this book is: Wow! What a beautifully written personal and political story!
Reading this superbly constructed book reminded in very stark terms how much I have missed Obama as president of the US during the past four years. In complete contrast to the ignorant monster who currently holds the job (but thank God, not for much longer), I was catalyzed to remember in almost every chapter of this memoir what a responsible, reliable and reasonable leader really is. I was repeatedly impressed and inspired by the sincere, serious and sensitive reflections by the 44th president of the US.I learned a great deal about Obama’s struggles and crises during his first term as president, but even more about Obama the man – his character and personality, as well as his moral outlook on the world.First of all, I was impressed by how much of a family man Obama was and is – how much he loves and cherishes his wife Michelle (can you blame him?) and his two daughters, who grew up in the White House as kids. While he was president, he made it a point to have dinner with his family almost every night in the private residence of the White House. He and Michelle did a physical workout with personal trainers every morning together in the White House gym. And from time, to time, they went on family trips – either to Hawaii to visit his family – or sometimes on presidential missions overseas, such as the time, they went to London and met the royal family, or the time that they all went to China together. Despite all the challenges and crises of the job, Obama remained a deeply committed family man.Secondly, I was overwhelmed by his intelligence and his deliberative style which comes through very strongly in this book. As a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law school, this man certainly was educated to write well as well as to think profoundly. This was a president who deliberated deeply and distinctively about all the issues of the day, from domestic policy to foreign policy. He assembled and worked with many teams of brilliant and committed advisers to help him in every field of endeavor, from economics to health to climate change to international relations; he worked with them consistently and conscientiously on very serious and sensitive crises of which there were many during his first term as president, as recalled in depth in this book.In every chapter of the book, with regard to every issue he grappled with, he constantly talked about “my team”. Without doubt, Obama was a team player -- he relied on many experts to help him in so many crises, whether it was extricating America from the economic collapse of 2008 and restoring the country to economic health – which he and his team accomplished against great odds and much opposition -- to the success of the landmark legislation called the Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare”, signed into law by Obama in March 2010, which brought basic health care to millions of previously uninsured Americans.One of the most remarkable things that I learned about Obama as president from his telling of the story was how much he cared about the people on his many teams. We learn over and over again in the narrative how he inquired about their health and that of their families, how he sought their advice – including people with whom he did not agree in advance – and whom he cherished as human beings. This ranged from his professional staff at the highest levels of cabinet ministers and senior staff to the cooks and butlers in the White House dining room to his security staff, with whom he was especially friendly. It is no wonder that so many Jews, including myself, like to refer to Obama as a mensch – a Yiddish word for a very decent and genuine human being. This basic quality comes across very strongly in this book.Related to this is Obama’s ethical outlook on the world. After he became president, he brought in someone with whom he studied law at Harvard to be in charge of ethics at the White House. He made it very clear to everyone who worked there that he did not want any scandals to occur under his watch! And indeed, none did occur, because ethical leadership starts from the top. (Once again, what a remarkable contrast to the current scandal-ridden occupant of the White House!)Another character trait which I admire about Obama after reading this memoir is resilience. You may recall that one of his earlier books was called The Audacity of Hope. Obama is a hopeful man, a positivist, one who sees the cup as half full, not half empty. He was well aware that he could not cure all the ills of American society – from institutional racism to economic inequality to unnecessary “wars against terrorism” – in one or two terms as president. But he was always trying to make progress, to make things better for American citizens, even in small ways. Despite many defeats – and constant obstructionism by irresponsible Republicans, he always regrouped and renewed his energies – and those of his teams – to advance his comprehensive liberal agenda to improve the lives of the people of the US.Speaking of irresponsible Republicans, it is clear from this book that the craziness of the current “Republican” administration had its origins in conspiracy theories and unethical rumor-mongering espoused by Tea Party people during Obama’s campaign for president, and even during his first term in office. He was faced with slander about his place of birth, his race, his religion and much more, but he learned to eloquently and efficiently overcome it and move on. (The current occupant of the White House was one of the leading perpetrators of baseless conspiracy theories, with the help of Fox News and right-wing social networks, especially regarding the issue of the place of his birth.)Another character trait that comes across from this book is Obama’s sense of humor which was especially useful to him in helping form deep and lasting relations with his staff (some of whom now work for him at the Obama Foundation) and with the American people and people all over the world, especially young people, in public appearances. I can vouch for this myself. The one time I heard President Obama speak in person was in front of an enthusiastic audience of 5000 liberal American Jews at the Biennial Convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, which took place in Washington, DC, in 2011, the year that my friend and colleague Rabbi Eric Yoffie retired as president (of the URJ, not the US, although it too is an imperfect union). Not only did he pepper his superb speech with Hebrew words and phrases, but he was sure to tell us about the struggles he and Michelle were having with two daughters who had to choose appropriate attire for Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties. This was to let us know that he empathized with the struggles of child-rearing of American Jewish parents. He spoke on this occasion with eloquence, charm, grace and good humor, as he did in thousands of speeches in the USA and throughout the world during his eight years as president. He is a gifted orator, as we recently witnessed towards the end of the presidential elections in the US a few months ago.As a citizen of Israel for more than 40 years, I want to add one thought to this reflection about Obama’s relationship with Israel. From this memoir, it is very clear that Obama was deeply committed to the survival and prosperous development of the State of Israel He was – and is – very close to many liberal Jews, some of whom served in his administration, and it is no surprise that his approach to Israel was as an American liberal politician, in the tradition of many other Democratic presidents before him. During his presidency, he sincerely sought peace for Israel and the Palestinians and made sincere efforts to broker negotiations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by appointing Sen. George Mitchell (who succeeded in bringing about the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland in March 1998) as special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But, as he makes clear in this book, Obama – and Mitchell and their teams – were constantly rebuffed by the intransigence of both Netanyahu and Abbas, neither of whom was actually committed to making the painful compromises that were necessary in order to achieve a peace agreement. In addition, Obama’s support for the security of Israel was unprecedented. His government arranged the largest military aid package that Israel ever received Yet, the same right-wing Tea Party people in America – along with right-wing Jews in Israel led by the current prime minister of Israel – purposefully twisted and maligned his support of Israel to support their political purposes, which was very unfortunate. Obama was supportive of peace and of Israel but not of Netanyahu’s rejectionist ideology.All in all, this first memoir by Obama is a profoundly poignant, personal and political presentation by a prescient young man (who, like many of us, is no longer as young as he used to be). You really get to know the man – what and how he thinks, what are his primary values, what is his outlook on the world and on interpersonal relations, the importance of teamwork, cooperation, and consideration of others, the value of dialogue and deliberation when grappling with immense national and international issues and much more. While reading this magnificent memoir, I was once again inspired by a courageous and conceptual leader, whose vision of a better world – and how to get there carefully, gradually and empathetically– is one that is sorely needed these days. I am grateful for his wonderful writing, profound thinking and excellent sense of humor.■