"First and foremost, I hoped to give an honest rendering of my time in office," the former president writes in his new memoir

By Sam Gillette
November 27, 2020 11:38 AM
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Barack Obama made history when he became the first Black president of the United States, and it looks like he'll be making another bit of history with the release of A Promised Land.

The book reportedly sold 1.7 million copies in its first week on sale, far outpacing other recent presidential memoirs.

"First and foremost, I hoped to give an honest rendering of my time in office," the former president writes in the first of two planned volumes, published last week.

(The second installment is underway, though these things take time: Obama writes in longhand on legal pads before typing up his manuscripts — as he recently explained to PEOPLE: "I think my brain just works at the same pace as my hand, and it forces me to take the time to think about what I'm trying to say.")

With A Promised Land, he writes, he set out "to tell a more personal story that might inspire young people considering a life of public service, how my career in politics really started with a search for a place to fit in, a way to explain the different strands of my mixed-up heritage, and how it was only by hitching my wagon to something larger than myself that I was ultimately able to locate a community and purpose for my life."

In a candid, hour-long interview for this week's PEOPLE cover story, the former president discusses his kaleidoscopic, 768-page work, which explores his journey from a young, hopeful organizer to the country's highest office and the choices he made all along the way.

• For more from PEOPLE's interview with former President Barack Obama, including details of the former first family's life together in quarantine this year, subscribe now or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands now.

Obama originally expected to finish the first volume in a year. Instead, almost four years passed until the memoir was released on Nov. 17.

"It's hard for me to just sit at a computer and start writing because everything looks so neat and tidy on the page, that I think I'm making sense. Usually, on a first draft, you're not making sense," Obama says. "When I write with a pen and on a legal pad, I feel as if it's okay to cross things out or put an arrow and circle it over."

That has some upsides, though: "The one thing that my editors, I think, appreciated about me was that my first drafts tended to be pretty good because I'd done a lot of the editing from the time that I looked at those yellow pads [to when] I typed it in," he says. (Expect a few of those same pages to one day end up in his presidential library, though Obama says with a laugh that "I'm not sure people want to see all 500.")

What results, with A Promised Land, is an intimate and elegantly written reflection on historical moments in Obama's presidency — like his interaction with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the raid that resulted in Osama bin Laden's death and the repercussions for teasing Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents' Dinner — and how politics impacted his family, from the strain on his relationship with the first lady to the "great shame" he felt after his mother's passing because he put ambition first.

"I think that we came out of it whole," the 44th president, 59, says of his family's post-White House life. (He shares daughters Malia, 22, and Sasha, 19, with former First Lady Michelle Obama, 56.)

"As I write about, there were great joys during our time in the White House," he tells PEOPLE. "There was never a time where we didn't recognize what an extraordinary privilege it was to be there. I think most importantly, our children emerged intact and they are wonderful, kind, thoughtful, creative, and not entitled young women. So I think that's a big sigh of relief."

Keep reading for some of the most memorable moments in A Promised Land.

From left: Michelle and Barack Obama read to children at the annual Easter Egg Roll at the White House on March 28, 2016.
| Credit: Getty
From left: Malia, Barack, Sasha and Michelle Obama walk through Lafayette Park to St. John's Church to attend service on Oct. 27, 2013.
| Credit: Getty
From left: Michelle and Barack Obama dance during the inaugural ball on Jan. 20, 2009.
| Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Barack and Michelle Obama's time in the White House strained their marriage

Even before Barack Obama was a presidential candidate, he and the future first lady had "fierce" fights — but always made up.

"In those early years of our courtship, our arguments could be fierce," Obama writes. "As cocksure as I could be, she never gave ground. Her brother, Craig... used to joke that the family didn’t think Michelle ('Miche,' they called her) would ever get married because she was too tough—no guy could keep up with her. The weird thing was, I liked that about her; how she constantly challenged me and kept me honest."

In 2006, they had another difficult discussion when Obama finally revealed to his wife that he was considering running for president, he writes. The then-senator explained that he would only run if she gave her approval.

"You get the final say," Obama told Mrs. Obama, according to his book.

"'If that’s really true, then the answer is no,' " he remembers she told him. "'I don’t want you to run for president, at least not now.' She gave me a hard look and got up from the couch. 'God, Barack…When is it going to be enough?'"

Obama ends the scene by explaining that he continued to keep the possibility of a presidential run open, even though he "could easily close the door still. If one of the qualifications of running for the most powerful office in the world was megalomania, it appeared I was passing the test."

Despite her misgivings, Mrs. Obama supported her husband throughout his presidency, even though the responsibilities that come with being the president and first lady of the United Stats put pressure on their relationship.

"There were times where I think she was frustrated or sad or angry but knew that I had Afghanistan or the financial crisis to worry about, so she would tamp it down," the former president tells PEOPLE. "Once [the presidency] was done, there was the possibility of her opening up about how she felt. [And] just being able to let out a breath."

He adds: "You know the old adage 'if mom’s happy, everybody’s happy?' It very much applies in our household. She has been more relaxed and joyful. That allowed us to just enjoy the deep love that comes with a marriage this long. But also to be friends again."

• Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Barack Obama on PeopleTV.com or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.

Former President Barack Obama plays football with the family dog Bo on the South Lawn of the White House May 12, 2009.
| Credit: Getty
From left: Barack, Malia, Michelle and Sasha Obama during an event to celebrate Independence Day and to honor military families on July 4, 2009.
| Credit: Getty

Barack Obama's code name was "Renegade"

The president's time in the White House wasn't solely focused on the president's daily brief — or "The Death, Destruction and Horrible Things Book," as it was dubbed by the first lady. There were also moments of levity, including the times when the Secret Service would describe Obama's everyday activities by using his code name, "Renegade," along with particular jargon.

"I discovered that whenever the Secret Service agents whispered into their wrist microphones, they were broadcasting my movements over a staff-monitored radio channel," Obama writes. "'Renegade heading to residence' or 'Renegade to Situation Room' or 'Renegade to Secondary Hold,' which was their discreet way of saying I was going to the bathroom."

The president was prepared for a terrorist attack on Inauguration Day

The night before President Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009, he was informed that four Somali nationals were planning an attack at the ceremony — and "were still at large," he writes in his memoir. And so he secretly carried in his breast pocket "evacuation instructions that I'd give the crowd if an attack took place while I was onstage."

"I hadn’t even told Michelle, not wanting to add to the day’s stress. No one had nuclear war or terrorism on their minds. No one except me," he writes. "Scanning people in the pews—friends, family members, colleagues, some of whom caught my eye and smiled or waved with excitement—I realized this was now part of my job: maintaining an outward sense of normalcy, upholding for everyone the fiction that we live in a safe and orderly world, even as I stared down the dark hole of chance and prepared as best I could for the possibility that at any given moment on any given day chaos might break through."

Credit: Pari Dukovic/Penguin Random House

The president felt "great shame" after his mother's 1995 death

In A Promised Land, Obama writes that one of the lessons that stayed with him the most was what he learned during his 1995 campaign. He knew that his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was declining in the hospital and booked a flight to see her in Hawaii the following week, he writes. But it wasn't soon enough. Obama got a call from his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who told him, "I think you need to come now."

According to the book, the soon-to-be Illinois senator made plans to fly out the next morning, but his mother died a few hours after his sister's call.

After his mother's memorial service in Hawaii, Obama writes that he was not only grieving — he was ashamed.

"I thought about my mother and sister alone in that hospital room, and me not there, so busy with my grand pursuits," he writes. "I knew I could never get that moment back. On top of my sorrow, I felt a great shame."

President Barack Obama (left) talks on the phone with then-Speaker of the House John Boehner as Vice President Joe Biden listens in the Oval Office of the White House on Aug. 31, 2013.
| Credit: Getty

Obama describes Putin as "a ward boss"

According to Obama, the first time he met Vladimir Putin, Russia's autocratic president went on a diatribe for 45 minutes. His list of grievances against the United States ranged from President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, which destabilized the Middle East, to "the U.S. decision seven years earlier to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and its plans to house missile defense systems on Russia’s borders continued to be a source of strategic instability."

"As far as Putin was concerned, the Americans had been arrogant, dismissive, unwilling to treat Russia as an equal partner, and constantly trying to dictate terms to the rest of the world," Obama writes, "all of which, he said, made it hard to be optimistic about future relations."

Rather than interrupt, Obama let Putin air his displeasure before "answering him point by point."

"By the end of what had turned into a two-hour marathon, he expressed openness, if not enthusiasm, for the reset effort," Obama recounts in his book, explaining that, at the end, they shook hands. But Putin's endorsement was "dubious" at best.

Obama remembers privately comparing Putin to "a ward boss, except with nukes and a U.N. Security Council veto," he writes. "For them, as for Putin, life was a zero-sum game; you might do business with those outside your tribe, but in the end, you couldn’t trust them."

President Barack Obama (second from left) with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of the national security team receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden while in the Situation Room of the White House on May 1, 2011.
| Credit: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty

Watching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden

The former president writes about the tension-filled decision-making that led to the death of Osama bin Laden — the founder of al-Qaeda and a key organizer of the 9/11 attacks — and what it was like to watch the 2011 raid happen in real time.

"For twenty excruciating minutes, even [Adm. William] McRaven had a limited view of what was taking place—or perhaps he was staying silent on the details of the room-to-room search his team was conducting," Obama writes. "Then, with a suddenness I didn’t expect, we heard McRaven’s and [CIA Director Leon Panetta’s] voices, almost simultaneously, utter the words we’d been waiting to hear—the culmination of months of planning and years of intelligence gathering. 'Geronimo ID’d…Geronimo EKIA.' Enemy killed in action."

Obama continues: "Osama bin Laden—code-named 'Geronimo' for the purposes of the mission—the man responsible for the worst terrorist attack in American history, the man who had directed the murder of thousands of people and set in motion a tumultuous period of world history, had been brought to justice by a team of American Navy SEALs. Inside the conference room, there were audible gasps. My eyes remained glued to the video feed."

The president's first words were "we got him," he remembers.

President Barack Obama speaks at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner on April 30, 2011.
| Credit: Getty
A video is shown as President Barack Obama speaks about Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2011.

Roasting Trump

With the weight of the upcoming Abbottabad mission hanging over his head, Obama unenthusiastically attended the White House Correspondents' Dinner in April 2011. There, he roasted Donald Trump, then just a businessman and Apprentice host who had infamously helped popularize the false conspiracy theory that Obama hadn't been born in the United States.

"Fortunately it turned out that the country’s leading distraction had been invited to sit at the Washington Post’s table that night," Obama writes of Trump's attendance, "and those of us aware of what was going on took odd comfort in knowing that once Donald Trump entered the room, it was all but guaranteed that the media would not be thinking about Pakistan."

Obama used his own time at the microphone to needle Trump, who seemed to be the only one there not enjoying the jokes. Host Seth Meyers followed up with a similarly Trump-focused set.

"Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald," Obama said at the dinner. "And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?"

The audience roared with laughter, but Trump sat silently and barely smiled, Obama writes.

After Trump's surprising presidential win five years later, many observers and pundits linked that night to his eventual decision to run for office (something he had half-heartedly considered over the decades).

For his part, Trump has dismissed this notion, telling The Washington Post: "There are many reasons I'm running. But that's not one of them." (The dinner, he said, was a "phenomenal time" even if Meyers was "too nasty.")

President Donald Trump (center, left) and former President Barack Obama arrive for Trump's inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20, 2017.
| Credit: President-elect Donald Trump (center, left) and President Barack Obama arrive for Trump's inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20, 2017.

In A Promised Land, Obama writes about his own reaction to that night and to the presence of a TV celebrity who would become his successor.

"I couldn’t begin to guess what went through [Donald Trump's] mind during the few minutes I spent publicly ribbing him. What I knew was that he was a spectacle, and in the United States of America in 2011, that was a form of power," he writes. "Trump trafficked in a currency that, however shallow, seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day. The same reporters who laughed at my jokes would continue to give him airtime. Their publishers would vie to have him sit at their tables."

Obama continues: "Far from being ostracized for the conspiracies he’d peddled, he in fact had never been bigger."