In the opening pages of A Promised Land, you discuss your complex view of America but also your enduring belief in its promise. What does “a promised land” mean to you? And how do you view that promise today, on the other side of your presidency?
Well, part of what I want to capture is my fundamental belief in America—despite our challenges, despite the history and tragedy of slavery and Jim Crow, of war and discrimination, despite all the times we may have fallen short.
Obviously, there’s a biblical reference to the fact that Moses doesn’t get to the promised land. We wander for forty years in the desert. It’s also a reference that is meaningful to the African American community and what Dr. King spoke about.
What I wanted to try to capture was a sense that, even though we may not get there in our lifetimes, even if we falter or stray along the way, I still have faith that eventually we’ll get there, that we can create a more perfect union—not a perfect union but a more perfect union.
Part of the journey I describe is of a young man who decides that he wants to be part of that process and ends up becoming the president of the United States, gets nicked and dinged and knocked around a little bit, but emerges on the other side still believing in possibilities.
You offer readers a real sense of what it’s like to be the president of the United States, including the daily mix of satisfaction, disappointment, friction, and small triumphs that come with it. After eight years in office, how did your understanding of the “job” of being president change?
I’d say a few things. The first is just what an extraordinary privilege it is to serve your fellow Americans in this capacity. We all understand that at an intellectual level, but to feel the weight of that every day is a different experience.
One of the metaphors that is used for the presidency is that you are a relay runner. I always viewed it as taking the baton from a whole range of people who had come before me, some of whom had been heroic, some of whom had been less than ideal. But wherever you were in the race, if you ran hard and you did your best, and you were able to pass that baton off successfully, with the country or the world a little bit better off than when you got there, then you could take some pride and feel good about your role. And I think that we were able to do that.
At the same time, you learn that for all the power and pomp the presidency is still just a job and our federal government is a human enterprise like any other, and it’s got many of the same dynamics and tensions that exist in a lot of workplaces, even if the setting surrounding it is quite a bit different..
Of course, you have to learn to live with the unique isolation of the presidency, both because of security issues and the nature of the job—suddenly you can’t go take a walk, or sit in a park and eat a sandwich, or go to a concert. You don’t fully appreciate some of the value of anonymity until you’ve lost it. It’s just unusual.
Having said that, there is a gift given to a president, or someone running for president, in that you see a bigger cross-section of the country, you meet more people and gain a better sense of the variety of our people and our commonality as a people. And all of those voices become a part of you, if you’re listening. And that is a profound gift, and it’s part of the basis for the optimism I continue to feel.
You share that you made it a point to end each day by reading letters written to you by ordinary citizens. Why was this so important to you?
When I was in office, every day the White House received thousands of letters and emails. I wanted to read ten of those letters a day, so I asked my staff to pull together a representative packet every evening. It was a way for me to remember that what I was doing was not about me. It wasn’t about the Washington calculus. It wasn’t about the political scoreboard. It was about the people who were out there living their lives, who were either looking for some help or angry about how I was screwing something up. People who deserved to be heard. I, maybe, didn’t understand when I first started the practice how meaningful it would end up being to me. But it helped me stay grounded in what mattered most.
And I believe that this process connected to a more fundamental vision of what we were trying to do in the campaign and in my presidency. It’s about listening to people. It’s about asking about their lives, about what’s important to them. How did they come to believe what they believe? What are they trying to pass on to their children? I learned in that process that if you listen hard enough, everybody’s got a sacred story. An organizing story, of who they are and what their place in the world is. And they’re willing to share it with you if they feel as if you actually care about it. And that ends up being the glue around which relationships are formed, and trust is formed, and communities are formed. And ultimately—my theory was, at least—that’s the glue around which democracies work.
The first few weeks of your presidency saw you dealing with numerous crises needing immediate attention, including several foreign policy challenges: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threats of terrorism and climate change, the international fallout from the financial crisis. What were your guiding principles for navigating international issues? What do you see as America’s role on the global stage?
At the outset of my presidency, it was clear that to take on our greatest challenges—from the global financial crisis to the ravages of climate change—we couldn’t act alone. In a world that only became more interconnected throughout the eight years of my presidency, we would have to offer American leadership to marshal others to act around our shared problems. Yet the same forces of global integration that have made us interdependent also expose deep fault lines in the existing international order.
Around the world, we’re dealing with a pandemic that coexists alongside longstanding challenges—refugee crises, economic disruptions, tribalism, and more. More than a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, the world is by many measures more prosperous than ever before, and yet our societies are filled with uncertainty and unease. Despite enormous progress, as people lose trust in institutions, governing becomes more difficult and tensions between nations more quickly rise to the surface.
So we face a choice. We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration. Or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.
I believe the answer can’t be a simple rejection of global integration. Instead, we’ve got to work together to make sure the benefits of such integration are broadly shared, and that the disruptions—economic, political, and cultural—that are caused by integration are squarely addressed.
And I believe that, even as we have our own challenges, the United States has a moral and practical obligation to promote an international order based on universal values and clearly established rules and norms. Our power does not flow from just our military and economic might—it comes from the story that we represent. And just as we have consistently worked to perfect our union at home, we must constantly strive to enhance our efforts around the world.
As the first Black president of the United States, you filled many Americans with a sense of pride and progress—but you write that your “very presence in the White House had triggered a sense that the natural order had been disrupted.” What do you see as the legacy of your presidency as it relates to race in America?
Well, first, I never believed that the fever of racism would be broken by my election. That I was pretty clear about. I never subscribed to the idea that we were living in a postracial era.
But I think that what did happen during my presidency was, yes, a backlash among some people who felt that somehow I symbolized the possibility that they or their group were losing status, not because of anything I did, but just by virtue of the fact that I didn’t look like all the other presidents who had come before. My mere presence worried folks, in some cases explicitly and in some cases subconsciously, and then there were those who were able to exploit those fears. If you think back to the power of Palin’s rallies compared with McCain’s rallies—just contrast the excitement you would see in the Republican base. I think this hinted at the degree to which appeals around identity politics, around nativism, conspiracies, were gaining traction. And you can draw a line from that to the birther conspiracy propagated by Donald Trump and then to Trump winning the presidency himself.
But, still, during my presidency you had a whole generation of kids who grew up not thinking it was weird or exceptional that the person who occupied the highest office in the land was Black.
I think the issues that have been at the heart of this country’s debate for a very long time, around not just race but around class, around gender, and you know, the sense that there are some people who are more American than others, more worthy of citizenship—who do we include under the label “We the People”—that’s always been contested. And over the last four years, we’ve seen that even when you don’t have a Black president those themes still have a lot of power.
But generally speaking, you talk to my kids and their generation, and, by and large, their attitudes instinctively are more open—and not just on racial issues but on gender issues, on sexual orientation issues. And that is why I tend not to despair. I still take it seriously because history doesn’t move in a straight line. Attitudes can go backward as well as forward. And all of us have to be vigilant in working as hard as we can to summon the better angels of our nature and put to rest some of the things that have been so destructive in American culture.
America as an experiment is genuinely important to the world not because of the accidents of history that made us the most powerful nation on Earth, but because America is the first real experiment in building a large, multiethnic, multicultural democracy. And we don’t know yet if that can hold. That’s the work of every generation.
You are very candid about the challenges of being a husband and a father while serving as president. How were you able to balance these different roles and manage the impact that your presidency had on your family?
From the beginning, running for president was a bet, a bet about what kind of country we are. And I was asking Michelle, Sasha, and Malia to make the bet with me, even though they didn’t love the idea of living a political life. We were blessed by good health, a strong circle of friends and family, a deep love for each other, and a shared belief that we had something to offer. So we took the bet.
And if I’m being honest, the hardest parenting happened in the time before we got to the White House—and it wasn’t done by me. It was done by Michelle when I was traveling from state to state campaigning. It’s hard to overstate the burden I placed on my family during those two years I ran for president—how much I relied on Michelle’s fortitude and parenting skills, and how much I depended on my daughters’ preternatural good cheer and maturity, which they seamlessly brought with them to the White House.
And I couldn’t be more proud of who our daughters have become. And as a family, we’ve had the privilege of seeing the world, meeting remarkable people, and witnessing the power and resilience of this nation up close. I also spent more time with the kids when they were growing up than I might have been able to if I had still been a senator—since, as I described it in the book, I lived above the store. Which meant I was able to have dinner with the family every night at six-thirty, even if I had to go back to work afterward.
That’s not to say there weren’t awkward or challenging moments like having to call a parent to explain why Secret Service agents needed to survey their house before Sasha came for a playdate or working with staffers to press a tabloid not to print a picture of Malia hanging out with her friends at the mall. Suddenly a father-daughter trip to get ice cream or a visit to a bookstore was a major production, involving road closures, tactical teams, and the press.
Have there been moments when I’ve felt doubt or been discouraged? Sure. Have there been strains on us as a family? Unfortunately, yes. But in a contest with my faith in America’s possibilities and our ability to progress toward a set of higher ideals, I think I speak for my whole family in saying that hope still wins.
You reflect on some of the early conflicts in your life—“between working for change within the system and pushing against it; wanting to lead but wanting to empower people to make change for themselves; wanting to be in politics but not of it.” What is your advice to the next generation who are struggling with these same questions and push-pull forces today?
Well, look, like so much in life this is not an either-or situation—it’s a both-and situation. When you’re trying to accomplish the kinds of transformative changes we’re talking about—whether it’s income inequality or racial injustice or the climate crisis—there’s no doubt that we need the kind of grassroots activism and protest that opens people’s eyes. That shakes them out of their complacency. That energizes them to believe that they can shape their own destiny. At the same time, we also need to work the levers of political power—including organizing, including voting, including running for office—to bring about the kind of large, sustaining change that leads to real progress.
And I’m optimistic. What we’ve seen over the past four years is just an enormous amount of energy and enthusiasm—and focus—from a huge swath of Americans of every background. And because people got engaged, and because they voted, we are sending Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the White House. And I have no doubt that they will do everything they can to unify our country. But that’s not going to be easy—so we have to stay involved and support them.
Because here’s the truth: You don’t just elect a president then kick back and hope he or she will get it done. You’ve got to stay informed and engaged—and you’ve got to keep voting. Because like we saw during my two terms, even if you start out with big governing majorities in the House and Senate, you might lose them. And if you’re stuck with a Senate that would rather block everything than work together, you’ve got to flip some seats. And the only way to do that is by participating—and continuing to participate and grow your coalition until you get a government that looks like you and reflects your interests. It’s true at the federal level and it’s true at the state and local levels.
You’ve said that democracy is not just something handed down to us but rather something we actively create together. In an increasingly polarized and divisive world, how can citizens uphold the ideals of democracy?
Look, there's no doubt that the country is deeply divided right now. When I think back even to my own first presidential election in 2008, the country didn’t feel this divided, fractured by a combination of political, cultural, ideological, and in some cases, religious and geographical divisions that seem to be deeper than just differences in policy. I think a lot of that has to do with changes in how people get information. I've spoken about this before, and I write about this in my book. If you watch Fox News, you perceive a different reality than if you read The New York Times, and that difference didn't use to be as stark because you had local newspapers and more overlap in terms of where Americans got their information.
But now, partly because of social media and the echo chamber of sources that we already agree with, a lot of the people who voted for Donald Trump do not believe that COVID was mishandled, contrary to the facts. And I think that until we can start having a common baseline of facts, if we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. So, as citizens, we need to push our institutions in the direction of addressing these challenges.
What is the message you hope to convey with A Promised Land?
I’ve spent the last few years reflecting on my presidency, and in A Promised Land I’ve tried to provide an honest accounting of my presidential campaign and my time in office: the key events and people who shaped it, my take on what I got right and the mistakes I made, and the political, economic, and cultural forces that my team and I had to confront then—and that as a nation we are grappling with still. In the book, I’ve also tried to give readers a sense of the personal journey that Michelle and I went through during those years, with all the incredible highs and lows. And finally, at a time when America is going through such enormous upheaval, the book offers some of my broader thoughts on how we can heal the divisions in our country going forward and make our democracy work for everybody—a task that won’t depend on any single president, but on all of us as engaged citizens. Along with being a fun and informative read, I hope more than anything that the book inspires young people across the country—and around the globe—to take up the baton, lift up their voices, and play their part in remaking the world for the better.
This beautifully written and powerful book captures his conviction that democracy is not a gift from on high, but something founded on empathy and common understanding and built together, day by day.