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BOOKS | REVIEWS: A Promised Land

Reading Barack Obama’s deeply introspective and at times elegiac new presidential memoir, I thought often about something the writer James Baldwin said in 1970, two years removed from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and despairing about America from abroad.

“Hope,” an exhausted Baldwin told a reporter from Ebony magazine, “is invented every day.”

Inventing hope has long been the Obama project, from his early days as an organizer through the 2008 campaign, a two-term presidency and now, in retrospect, his intermittent career as a memoirist. Finally free of electoral politics, the former president concedes that the project has gotten harder, that he has struggled at times to find hope — the very thing he personified for so many.

“A Promised Land” often reads like a conversation Obama is having with himself — questioning his ambition, wrestling with whether the sacrifices were worth it, toggling between pride in his administration’s accomplishments and self-doubt over whether he did enough. Written in the Trump era, under an administration bent on repudiating everything he stood for, his elegant prose is freighted with uncertainty about the state of our politics, about whether we can ever reach the titular promised land.

On that central question, he writes glumly in the book’s preface, “the jury’s still out.”

Covering only the first two and half years of his presidency, this 701-page tome — part one of two — isn’t the usual post-presidential legacy-burnishing project. There is a literary grandness, to be sure — references to Hemingway and Yeats and dramatic renderings of moments high and low captured in sometimes Sorkin-esque dialogue. But the triumphs are tempered with brooding reflections about the inevitable limitations of the presidency. In this surprisingly fast-moving volume, the audacity isn’t in the hopefulness but the acknowledgment of its low ebb.

Readers might have a hard time determining whether

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