So this has been the major hold up in the book reviews in the past month and a bit, because in case you haven’t purchased this expensive yet sturdy doorstop yet, you won’t know that this book is over 700 pages long in a small size font. It will strike fear in your heart to learn that this is only the first part of Obama’s presidential memoirs, but my oh my days does the detail pay off.
For some context, I entered the festive period with this at the very tip top of my list for Father Christmas, and thankfully my boyfriends parents were the ones to bestow it upon me. (Worth noting that both my family and my boyfriend had in fact forgotten it was part of my list at all…. not that I’m bitter or anything). Anywho! As I say, it’s taken a month and a bit to get through, but it got really intense toward the end with me doing a reading sesh of over 300 pages in 2 days to finish it off on a lazy winters Monday.
My first warning would be to those that don’t like to get involved in politics. I would suggest that you need a basic grasp of how US Government works to be able to truly appreciate Obama’s struggles throughout the presidential part of the book. Mainly I would recommend knowing the functions of the House of Representatives and Senate, and maybe an understanding on how voting works/how many votes are required to get something through and passed. You’d definitely also benefit from knowing Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell like the back of your hand. As you go through though, I genuinely found it useful to google the person Obama was speaking about, just to picture them in my mind. It was really refreshing towards the end to have a bit of a who’s who in my head of all the different staffers and cabinet members.
I say all this because I like to think I know a bit about American politics. I’m a casual viewer, and sometimes I couldn’t make head or tail of some of the things Obama was talking about. Especially when G8/G20 meetings were discussed, I felt I was in the know due to the virtue of living in the United Kingdom (another member) and when talking about terms such as BRICS/NATO etc (as geopolitics formed part of my degree). It’s a testament then, that despite the subject, I felt I was always in the loop. Like I knew what was needed and when, and who were the key players in each chapter. Even when Obama would talk about struggles I couldn’t relate to. Top marks good sir!
Obama is king of his craft. The book is a triumph for anecdotes interwoven into the prose, while maintaining a constant thread of key issues being brought to the forefront. It’s genuinely difficult to describe how well the book ebbs and flows through Obamas personal and political life, all the while describing events on the worlds biggest stage. For example, at one stage Obama is having a conversation about tigers with his daughter; the next he’s at the UN drafting climate legislation. The relevance of his points are never questioned as there isn’t a single dud in the entire book. Even in the times things don’t work out, Obama tells us his personal reflections and lessons learned, allowing us a meaningful insight into how he thought this would fit into his agenda, campaign and ultimately legacy.
The only criticism I have of this style, is sometimes it was difficult to know when these things were occurring. It isn’t essential to know this, but when later in the book events start interweaving and overlap, it becomes a bit of a mess knowing how much was going on at once. I mean full credit though, dealing with that much work and being able to split it out to talk about each individual crisis individually takes some skillful writing.
The book itself starts off slow, but that’s natural given the first 2 sections of the book are dedicated to his time before the presidency. The first part in particular is a gentle introduction to his life, and gives a brief but detailed overview of his career up to around 35 years old. As a junior member of the political environment in comparison to other presidential candidates, it’s extremely relatable to have a naïve mindset within these sections which he fully admits to. Following on, it’s a warming reminder that from humble beginnings, Obamas ascent to the White House was started as a grass roots campaign and was brought through the promise of change. It’s honestly refreshing for him to struggle with this throughout the book; to deliver the change he promised in such an established political environment.
It’s from this point when reading this book, I can’t help but feel sadness at some of the points raised. At the way the USA has travelled since Obama has left office, and how some of the ways Obama tried to change the worst parts of the office he held immediately be diminished by the person who followed him. It’s not really a surprise when Obama doesn’t speak highly of Trump (albeit this book only covering up to around mid 2011); with his Fox News induced personality. The issue of his birth certificate is brought up towards the end, and to his credit Obama sees the ridiculousness but also the humour to this, which reaches a climax at the annual White House Correspondence Dinner. Interestingly, some claim this is the moment which spurred Trump to seriously consider a presidential bid 5 years later.
The subjects covered range wildly from bin Laden to the economic crisis, from climate change agendas to asking the King of Saudi Arabia “How do you manage to keep up with 12 wives?”. It’s funny and sombre, relevant and inconsequential. A particular highlight comes when talking about climate change, running from meeting room to meeting room trying to broker a deal between European leaders and the emerging BRICS economies. The tone of the book can flip on a dime, but it never feels rushed or forced. I don’t want to spoil the intricacies of some of the subjects of the book, mainly because each is really interesting to read about specifically from Obamas perspective, and partly because I can’t remember most of it due to the sheer number of subjects raised. This just means you’ll have to read about it yourself… (I’m still waiting for that call from Obama’s PR team by the way)
I would highly recommend this book to anyone, and encourage this to be essential reading of 2021. Obama fully admits that he likes to elaborate and over-explain… You can see why this may cause a problem in a political environment, but when writing a book it really pays off. Pictures are painted with luscious descriptions and frankly, even when the subject is as dry as the nitty gritty of the economic crisis, you can’t help but be enthralled.