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A Promised Land by Barack Obama review – behind the power and the pomp

America’s former commander-in-chief shares his character flaws and fears for the presidency in this poetic, introspective account of his childhood and

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America’s former commander-in-chief shares his character flaws and fears for the presidency in this poetic, introspective account of his childhood and first term in the White House

Like the best autobiographers, Barack Obama writes about himself in the hope of discovering who or even what he is. It’s a paradoxical project for a man who is universally known and idolised, but this uncertainty or insecurity is his motivating force and his most endearing quality. Born to a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, brought up in Indonesia and Hawaii, educated in California and New York, he has a plural personality. His mother anglicised his given name by calling him Barry, though he liked to pretend that it was a tribal epithet that identified him as a chieftain. As a candidate for the Senate, he admitted that he was “improbable”; campaigning for the presidency, he revised the adjective to “audacious”. Now, in this searchingly introspective account of his first presidential term, he divests himself of the “power and pomp” of office, disassembles the “ill-fitting parts” that make him up and ponders his similarity to “a platypus or some imaginary beast”, unsure of its dwindling habitat.

The book, he says, was written by hand, because he mistrusts the smooth gloss of a digital text: he wants to expose “half-baked thoughts”, to scrutinise the first drafts of a person. He mistrusts his own eloquence as an orator, even though it “taps into some collective spirit” and leaves him with a “sugar high”. Hunched at his desk, he has to renounce those winged words and submit to a more reflective self-interrogation. “Is it worth it?”his wife, Michelle, demands as his political ambition upends their placid family life. “When is it going to be enough?” she asks later. Obama, glimpsing himself through her eyes as “this strange guy with a scruffy wardrobe and crazy dreams”, is not sure how to answer. After his election to the Senate, a reporter deferentially inquires: “What do you consider your place in history?”, to which Obama replies with incredulous laughter. Told that he has been awarded the Nobel peace prize, he addresses the question more probingly to himself: “For what?” he says.

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