Book notes: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

A Promised Land by Barack Obama book summary review and key ideas.

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A Promised Land by Barack Obama


A riveting, deeply personal account of history in the making – from the president who inspired us to believe in the power of democracy

In the stirring, highly anticipated first volume of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from young man searching for his identity to leader of the free world, describing in strikingly personal detail both his political education and the landmark moments of the first term of his historic presidency – a time of dramatic transformation and turmoil.

A Promised Land is extraordinarily intimate and introspective – the story of one man’s bet with history, the faith of a community organizer tested on the world stage.

This beautifully written and powerful book captures Barack Obama’s conviction that democracy is not a gift from on high but something founded on empathy and common understanding and built together, day by day.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

I’ve read Obama’s 2 other books and they were phenomenal. This book came out recently and was already a bestseller and I think set records? Either way, I’m super stoked to listen to this

Key notes:

  • The purpose of this book is to pull the curtains back and give the reader insight into what it’s like being the president
  • At the heart of all the American activism is a simple question: do care to match the reality of America to its ideals? If so, do we really believe that our notions of self government and individual freedom, equality of opportunity and equality before the law, apply to everybody?

Part one: the bet

Chapter 1

  • He didn’t come from a political family
  • During HS he started asking questions
    • A lot were about either race or class, observations about society
  • Because of his mixed heritage, it felt like he was from everywhere and nowhere at once
  • He knew early on that he needed to stitch his life together and situate himself along some firm axis
  • He did find refuge in books, and developed a reading habit early on
  • He didn’t excuse the horrors and wrongs because of American exceptionalism, but he clung to the ideals and promise of America with a strong stubbornness
  • People stood up a little straighter, saw themselves differently when they learned their voices mattered
  • He felt that no matter how much organizing he did, people needed the power to shape budgets and guide policy. That power lies elsewhere
  • He told his daughters that enthusiasm makes up for a host of deficiencies

Chapter 2 

  • He and Michelle not only had chemistry and shared the same values, but they complimented one another
  • Michelle asked him if he ever noticed that if there’s a hard way and easy way, he chooses the hard way every time

Chapter 3

  • During his US Senate campaign, he tried to connect more with his audience and listen more to the people
  • After Hurricane Katrina and his visit to Iraq, he realized he needed to make more of an impact and a bigger change

Chapter 4 

  • He felt like the reason why he was constantly reaching for more and working hard was because there was some sort of hole he was trying to fill

Part two: yes we can

Chapter 5

  • While most campaigns usually started off small, his started off extremely large with a lot of momentum from the beginning which was overwhelming
  • The efforts of his team in Iowa inspired him with their hard work and enthusiasm, as they were able to connect with people on the ground

Chapter 6 

  • His New Hampshire loss showed his supporters a quality he had learned about himself that proved useful for the 8 years that followed
    • He often felt steadiest when things were going to hell
    • His ability to maintain composure during a crisis
  • During his campaign, it was his grandmothers perspective that came to mind. It was her values instilled in him that kept him grounded
    • She taught him 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 him to marry passion with reason
    • To not get overly excited when life was going well, and not get too down when it went badly
  • He needed to embrace white people as allies rather than impediments to change
    • He was aware that appealing to common interests discounted the continuing effects of discrimination
  • He was sensitive to the warnings and criticisms about him running for the presidency
    • Not only for his safety and to not be disappointed, but also not taking the black vote for granted by pandering to white interests and not black ones
    • But he inherently wanted to prove to everyone that he could reach all people with his communication and make policy changes that serve the greater good
  • He realized he wasn’t running against Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, or even the Republicans
    • He was running against the weight of the past in the country. The inertia, fatalism, and the fear it produced 

Chapter 7

  • What struck him was the growing role that technology played in his victories
    • The extraordinary youth of his team allowed him to embrace and refine the digital networks
    • Their status as upstarts force them to trust the energy and creativity of his Internet savvy volunteers
  • Not only was he criticize and attacked by trivial things, racial stereotypes, and double standards, but so was Michelle
  • Although his meetings started to feel like rock concerts, he realized that people saw past him as an individual with flaws and molded him into a vessel for their hopes and aspirations
    • The opposites were also true in the detractors could mold him into a symbol to hate
  • During the campaign he also had to get used to an ever increasing level of security detail following him around
  • Well there are moments in life as in politics where avoidance, if not retreat, is the better part of valor
    • There are other times were the only option is to steal yourself and go for broke
  • He won the Democratic primary against Hillary against all odds
    • He was humbled by the support of so many people, and the hard work and loyalty of his team

Chapter 8

  • Although he respected and revered John McCain, he was confident of his chances going up against him in 2008
    • They also decided he should make trips overseas to show people that he was able to handle for an affairs. Although it was a risk if he made any mistakes, his team felt it was worth it
  • Before the DNC, he made the decision to take a week off with his family to go to Hawaii
    • Not only did he want to prevent the same mistake happening with his grandmother, he also felt guilty about being away from his family for so long
    • He constantly questioned if this was worth the time he lost with his daughters that he would never get back
    • Every moment he could steal away from the campaign to be present with his family was entirely worth it
  • Joe Biden was so different from him both on paper and in temperament
    • Where Obama was cool and more measured, Joe was warm, said what he felt, and spent a lot of time speaking and connecting with people
  • Despite his gaffs, his strengths far outweighed them
    • He had a breadth and depth of experience, was intelligent, and most importantly had heart
    • He’s overcome many challenges and suffered through many tragedies
  • Joe said he wanted to be able to give Barack his best judgment and Frank advice
    • Joe will defend whatever he decides, but Joe also wanted to be the last guy in the room on any major decision
  • He believed Joe was the perfect contrast he needed for his ticket, and was fully capable of stepping in as president
    • But most importantly, his gut told him that Joe was decent, honest, and loyal
    • He believed Joe cared about ordinary people and when things got tough, he could trust Joe
  • Although adding Sarah Palin to John McCain’s ticket reinvigorated his campaign with a lot of buzz and energy, it was obvious that she didn’t have the needed experience in politics to lead as president if need be

Chapter 9

  • Before the housing crisis, a friend of his actually broke down the whole subprime mortgage bubblethat would eventually burst
    • His friend took a pretty sturdy short position in anticipation of it
    • He couldn’t understand why nobody was talking about this huge risk
  • By 2007, the Americn economy was not only producing greater inequality than any other wealthy nation, but also delivering less upward mobility
    • He believes that these outcomes were not inevitable but rather the results of political choices dating back to Ronald Reagan
    • Underneath the banner of economic freedom and an ownership society, America was fed a study diet of tax cuts for the wealthy
    • There have been efforts to privatize or cut the social safety net and federal budgets have consistently under invested in everything from early childhood education to infrastructure
      • All of this further accelerated inequality
  • Although he knew that many of the investment bankers in those fields fit the stereotype and rightly got what they deserved with those risky bets, he knew that it was hard to isolate good businesses from bad
    • Everyone would feel the impact of this economic crisis
  • During the campaign and the economic crisis, he knew he had to put politics aside and do what was best for the country to help stabilize the economy
    • He instructed his campaign to not make any remarks that would jeopardize congresses ability to get the stimulus bill passed
    • John McCains team and their in ability to navigate the economic crisis was a weak point that Obama’s team exploited
  • He got some of the best financial means to give him different plans and strategies to handle the economic crisis, which made him more prepared during the debates
  • Although he disagreed with every single major policy decision from President Bush, he grew to like the man because he was straightforward, disarming, and self-deprecating with his humor
  • They had a joint meeting with President Bush about TAARP, and the Republicans showed that they didn’t have a concrete plan
  • Before the debates he started to develop a routine that got him into the zone
  • McCain proved he was a man of decency and character because whenever people would comment with their violent and xenophobic rhetoric, McCain would politely push back
  • He became the 44th president of the US

Part Three: Renegade 

Chapter 10

  • His mother-in-law was a grounding presence to the entire family while she lived with them in the White House
  • He realized that now this is part of his job, to maintain an outward sense of normalcy for others despite knowing that at any given moment, chaos can ensue
  • His nightly prayer throughout his presidency: a prayer for thanks of all he had been given, a prayer that his sins be forgiven, a prayer that his family and the American people be kept safe from harm, a prayer for guidance

Chapter 11

  • His nightly prayer throughout his presidency: a prayer for thanks of all he had been given, a prayer that his sins be forgiven, a prayer that his family and the American people be kept safe from harm, a prayer for guidance
  • His valets, chefs, and butlers were either black, Latino, or Asian American
    • His executive chef was a Filipina American named Cristeta Comerford(?), the first woman to hold the job
  • Mitch McConnell and the Republicans did everything they could to block anything Obama and the Democrats tried to do or pass in a fight for power
    • They also threatened any of their own party if they even tried to compromise in any way
  • Passing the stimulus bill was a huge accomplishment, but they still had a few more major moves to do to end the crisis

Chapter 12

  • It was his idea to read 10 letters from citizens every night with a good cross-section
    • He felt like this would be a good IV drip into the mind of his constituents and take him outside of his daily bubble
  • When America started to build a social safety net programs to help people from hitting the bottom, life improved overall
    • But the system is based on trust, and for some reason when these programs benefit black and brown people, there’s usually resistance and backlash based on ill-founded stereotypes and racist ideas
  • Promoting the story of resentment and lack of trust in the government had come to define the modern Republican Party
    • The narrative of the Republican party was that the government was taking money jobs and opportunity away from the deserving and giving it to the undeserving minorities
  • He believed that if we trusted one another, democracy worked. If we trusted one another, the social compact held, and we could solve big problems
  • His emphasis on process was born of necessity. He had as many people he could to weigh in to see if they could find the best solutions
    • What he was quickly discovering about the presidency was that no problem that landed on his desk had a clean 100% solution. If it had, someone else down the chain of command would’ve solved it already
      • Instead he was constantly dealing with probabilities.
  • Another lesson the presidency taught him was that no matter how good the process was, sometimes you were just screwed
    • And the best you could do was have a stiff drink and light up a cigarette
  • Looking back, this was clearly a great accomplishment which pulled them out of the recession faster than any other nation and better than anyone has ever done historically with such a shock, followed by the longest period of growth
    • But his critics still said that it was a missed opportunity to restructure and make things better than they were before 
  • Other people looking back say there could’ve been better options, but he’s not sure if he could go back that he would change anything he did
    • He realized he wasn’t the type to put others at risk. It revealed a strand of his political character
    • He was a reformer, conservative in temperament if not in vision

Chapter 13

  • It’s a truism that the presidents singular most important job is to keep the American people safe
  • Contrary to what some of his critics said, he believed he was the most clear eyed after his visit to Walter Reed Hospital to visit wounded service people and military

Part Four: The Good Fight

Chapter 14

  • His demeanor and respectful way of dealing with foreign leaders was seen by republicans and his critics as weak, lacking patriotism, and “apologetic”, though no actual apology could be found in any of his statements or actions
  • Every president felt saddled with the previous administrations choices and mistakes
    • 90% of the job was navigating inherited problems and unanticipated crises
    • Only if you did that well enough, with discipline and purpose, did you get a real shot at shaping the future

Chapter 15

  • Recounting the incident with captain Phillips and the Somali pirates
  • Military efforts and counterterrorism what’s another important part of the job as president
    • As much as he would like to help improve the situation around the world, many of these terrorist groups were actively plotting to do terrible things against innocent civilians, so fighting back was a necessary function
  • As he saw it, his job was to fix those aspects of our CT effort that needed fixing, rather than tearing it out root and branch and starting over

Chapter 16

  • Ted Kennedy was instrumental in pushing for the agenda of universal healthcare and the increasingly wealth dependent healthcare system
  • The healthcare crisis in America starts with the heavily for-profit industry of overinflated healthcare costs
    • This makes people wait until they absolutely need treatment which results in more costly care. Which in terms promotes higher insurance premiums for insured people
    • This explains why the US spends more per person on healthcare than any other advanced economy, for similar or worse results
  • Even though it would be a major uphill battle, and likely hurt his re-election prospect, he still wanted to try and tackle the healthcare issue because it would help millions of people
    • It was personal for him because of all the people he’s met and people in his own life who have had problems with healthcare
    • The resistance to change in the system came from worries of changes negatively affecting coverage and premiums for them
  • Legislators knew they had to replace the for-profit healthcare system and private insurance with a single payer system
  • The evidence from other countries showed that a single national system, basically Medicare for all, was a cost effective way to deliver quality healthcare
  • They soon got hit with H1N1 or swine flu, the first pandemic in 40 years
  • The nature of the presidency: sometimes your most important work involved the stuff nobody noticed
  • Wisdom comes from the breadth of experience, familiarity with the vagaries of life, the combination of brains and heart 
  • He believed empathy and understanding things in context is important for a Supreme Court Justice in interpreting the law
  • He discovered how the issue of black folks and the police was more polarizing than just about any other subject in American life

Chapter 17

  • In politics, the stories told we’re often as important as the substance achieved
  • They finally got the 900+ page Affordable Care Act passed

Part Five: The World As It Is

Chapter 18

  • One morning he was awarded the Nobel peace prize
    • He told the press that while he was honored, the award should be shared with others doing tireless work, as well as it should be seen as a call to action to further highlight leaders in the efforts to establish peace in the world 

Chapter 19

  • In his foreign-policy activities, he wanted to change the tone America has had and emphasize diplomacy
    • First he wanted to make sure every foreign policy statement emphasize cooperation and America’s intention to engage all nations, big or small, on the basis of mutual interest and respect
  • Their most effective public diplomacy tool internationally was in hosting town hall meetings with young people
  • The sight of a Head of State making him or herself accessible for direct questioning from citizens was a novelty and a more meaningful argument for democracy than any lecture he might give
  • The young activists from marginalized and minority groups he allowed to speak inspired him and reminded him of the youthful idealism
  • He understood that for men like Putin, they operated in a self-protecting way because it was to their advantage, it wasn’t a flaw

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

  • He learned from his mother that for most of human kind, concern for the environment came only after their basic material needs were met
    • He knew he had to make climate change a priority for his presidency, but it was notoriously one of the hardest issues to tackle
  • It was expected of the presidency that not everything will work out as planned
    • Even successful initiatives, well-executed and with the purest intentions, usually harbored some hidden or unanticipated consequences
    • Getting stuff done meant subjecting yourself to criticism
      • The alternative of playing it safe and avoiding controversy and following the polls was not only a recipe for mediocrity, but a betrayal of the hopes of the people who put you in office
  • Their initiatives to use regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions showed that when done properly, ambitious regulatory standards actually spurred businesses to innovate
  • He characterized Lindsey Graham as charming with a lot of political savvy, but the type of guy who would betray his comrades in order to save his own skin

Part Six: In The Barrel

Chapter 22

  • Another issue was stabilizing Greece financially which had a ripple effect on other nations in Europe
  • Keeping up morale was something he could not delegate
    • He tried to be generous with his praise and measured with his criticism
    • In meetings, he made a point to elicit everyone’s views, including junior staff
    • Small stuff mattered like making sure it was him who brought out the birthday cake for someone’s birthday
  • People around him were genuinely surprised that he was so calm and looked okay, like all of the issues he was dealing with didn’t phase him
  • A lot of people even reached out to see if he was okay because the media really shapes how people see you, especially when you’re the president
    • The media was constantly showing pictures of him looking at tired and weary all the time
    • However, he found that obstacles and struggles rarely check him to the core
      • Even during his worst days as president, he never felt depressed and useless
      • He felt that the job didn’t allow him to feel boredom or existential paralysis
        • When he sat down with his team to figure out the answer to a tough problem, are usually left feeling energized rather than drained
  • The job, connecting with people and empathizing with how they feel, made his heart bigger
    • He could do without the pomp of the presidency, but he loved the work
  • They managed to sign into law the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act
    • It was a significant triumph and the most sweeping change to the rules governing americas financial sector since the new deal

Chapter 23

  • They were throwing everything they had at the Blackwater Horizon oil spill disaster
  • They lost a lot of seats in Congress, especially by a lot of Democratic congress people who took a stand against lobbyists for what they felt was right

Chapter 24

  • He learned that the current president never looked as smart as the ex-president sitting on the sidelines
  • Instead of issuing an executive order, he wanted to get legislation passed to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
    • He believed that getting exposed to other people’s truths will help get attitude changed
  • Everyone agreed that immigration was a big issue
    • This is due to the large economic gap between us and our neighbors to the south
    • The hardening of the border also shored the industry of illegal border crossings in barbaric and dangerous ways
    • Although these border crossings got the most media attention, 40% of America’s unauthorized immigrants came through the airports and simply overstayed their visas
  • Slowly his approval rating started to go up, not because his policy stances changed but because they were starting to get things done in legislation

Part Seven: On The Highwire

Chapter 25

  • The absence of peace between Israel and the Palestinians made America less safe
    • The conflict also weighed on him personally. Some of the earliest moral instruction he got from his mother revolved around the Holocaust
      • It was a catastrophe that was like slavery rooted in the inability or unwillingness to recognize the humanity of others
  • During the protests in Egypt, he made the decision to stand with the peaceful protesters and encourage Egyptian leader to initiate a quick transfer of power for free and fair elections
  • He acknowledged that the world was messy
    • In the conduct of foreign policy, he had to constantly balance competing interests, interest shaped by the choices of previous administrations and contingencies of the moment
    • And just because he couldn’t in every instance elevate our human rights agenda over other considerations, didn’t mean that he shouldn’t try to do what he could when he could to advance what he considered America’s highest values 
  • When it came to protecting another nations citizens against government, there were so many questions with what criteria the US would get involved from a military standpoint, and how involved they would get
  • The truth is war is never tidy and always results in unintended consequences even when launched against seemingly powerless countries on behalf of a righteous cause
  • They had a tough decision to make with either getting involved in Benghazi or not

Chapter 26

  • In regards to what it’s like to be the president of the US, he thinks about that time he sat helplessly during that state dinner in Chile, contemplating the knifes edge between perceived success and potential catastrophe
    • It wasn’t just that each decision he made was a high stakes wager, it was the fact that a single mishap could cost a life and overwhelm whatever broader objective he might have achieved
  • For the Republicans, it was as though his very presence in the White House had triggered a deep seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted
  • Donald Trump started to spread the conspiracy theory about Obama’s birth
    • New York developers and business leaders Barack knew uniformly described Trump as “all hype”
  • The media played a huge role and giving Donald Trump more spotlight and not calling him out on his lies and spreading conspiracy theories

Chapter 27

  • Early on he told his staff that he wanted to make it a priority to find Osama bin Laden
    • This would set an example that terrorists would be tried and executed
  • The chance to work closely with the men and women of the US Armed Forces, to witness firsthand their teamwork and sense of duty, has been one of the most humbling aspects of his two years in office
    • And if he had to pick one individual to represent everything right about our military, Bill McRaven might have been that person
  • He took the time to do a live press conference to remind the media that we don’t have time to focus on all the silliness and conspiracy theories because we all have important work to do. He looked the press in the eyes and said we can do better than us
  • Although he couldn’t guarantee the outcome, he was confident and ready to make this decision about the raid to get Bin Laden
  • So much of what really mattered in government came down to the daily, unheralded acts of those who weren’t seeking attention but simply knew what they were doing and did it with pride
  • He couldn’t help but wonder what they are as a nation could accomplish if they put the same focus and unity they did behind killing a terrorist instead behind causes like educating children, fighting homelessness, reducing poverty and curbing greenhouse gases

Closing thoughts:

I really enjoyed this book, but I suppose that was to be expected. I really enjoyed his first two books, so I was definitely looking forward to reading this.

This book covers some big insights you get about leadership, government/public service, and being the president of the U.S., but it also tells some great behind the scenes stories from his presidency. I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys reading books about these themes, or is simply just a fan of Barack Obama.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

There are a lot of good takeaways from this book that can be applied to various aspects of life, from personal to professional. However, one of the biggest takeaways I’d like to implement in my own life would be:

  • Great leadership is about doing the right things in service to others without needing credit, connecting and empathizing with others, and keeping up morale by paying attention to the little things that matter

I think leadership is one of those big things that make all the difference in any group or organization. Moreover, good leadership is hard to come by. Given that these ideas were passed on by the guy who had arguably one of the toughest jobs in the world, I’d say the advice must be solid.


Barack Obama shares an inside look into his first term, insights about leadership, and what it’s like to be president of the United States.

Similar books:


Rating: 4 out of 5.


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