Now that America has a new president, those of us who are interested in American politics and the people involved in policy-making have the opportunity to read a whole new raft of books. To help navigate the glut of books, I thought I’d compile a quick list of the books that might be of most interest. The list is not comprehensive, and I hope to update it as administration members are confirmed (I may be jumping the gun with some of these), and also as new books are announced and published.
Joe Biden, PROMISES TO KEEP (Random House)
“I remain captivated by the possibilities of politics and public service. In fact, I believe that my chosen profession is a noble calling.” — Joe Biden
Joe Biden has both witnessed and participated in a momentous epoch of American history. In Promises to Keep, Joe Biden reveals what these experiences taught him about himself, his colleagues, and the institutions of government.
With his customary candor and wit, Biden movingly recounts growing up in a staunchly Catholic multigenerational household in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Delaware; overcoming personal tragedy, life-threatening illness, and career setbacks; his relationships with presidents, with world leaders, and with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle; and his leadership of powerful Senate committees.
Through these and other recollections, Biden shows us how the guiding principles he learned early in life — to work to make people’s lives better; to honor family and faith; to value persistence, candor, and honesty — are the foundation on which he has based his life’s work as husband, father, and public servant.
Promises to Keep is an intimate series of reflections from a public servant who surmounted numerous challenges to become one of our most effective leaders and who refuses to be cynical about politics. It is also a stirring testament to the promise of the United States.
Promises to Keep is Joe Biden’s first memoir, published to coincide with his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. It’s published by Random House in North America, and Scribe in the UK.
Joe Biden, PROMISE ME, DAD (Flatiron Books)
In November 2014, thirteen members of the Biden family gathered on Nantucket for Thanksgiving, a tradition they had been celebrating for the past forty years; it was the one constant in what had become a hectic, scrutinized, and overscheduled life. The Thanksgiving holiday was a much-needed respite, a time to connect, a time to reflect on what the year had brought, and what the future might hold. But this year felt different from all those that had come before. Joe and Jill Biden’s eldest son, Beau, had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor fifteen months earlier, and his survival was uncertain. “Promise me, Dad,” Beau had told his father. “Give me your word that no matter what happens, you’re going to be all right.” Joe Biden gave him his word.
Promise Me, Dad chronicles the year that followed, which would be the most momentous and challenging in Joe Biden’s extraordinary life and career. As vice president, Biden traveled more than a hundred thousand miles that year, across the world, dealing with crises in Ukraine, Central America, and Iraq. When a call came from New York, or Capitol Hill, or Kyiv, or Baghdad—“Joe, I need your help”—he responded. For twelve months, while Beau fought for and then lost his life, the vice president balanced the twin imperatives of living up to his responsibilities to his country and his responsibilities to his family. And never far away was the insistent and urgent question of whether he should seek the presidency in 2016.
The year brought real triumph and accomplishment, and wrenching pain. But even in the worst times, Biden was able to lean on the strength of his long, deep bonds with his family, on his faith, and on his deepening friendship with the man in the Oval Office, Barack Obama.
Writing with poignancy and immediacy, Joe Biden allows readers to feel the urgency of each moment, to experience the days when he felt unable to move forward as well as the days when he felt like he could not afford to stop.
This is a book written not just by the president, but by a father, grandfather, friend, and husband. Promise Me, Dadis a story of how family and friendships sustain us and how hope, purpose, and action can guide us through the pain of personal loss into the light of a new future.
Evan Osnos, JOE BIDEN (Scribner)
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been called both the luckiest man and the unluckiest — fortunate to have sustained a fifty-year political career that reached the White House, but also marked by deep personal losses and disappointments that he has suffered.
Yet even as Biden’s life has been shaped by drama, it has also been powered by a willingness, rare at the top ranks of politics, to confront his shortcomings, errors, and reversals of fortune. As he says, “Failure at some point in your life is inevitable, but giving up is unforgivable.” His trials have forged in him a deep empathy for others in hardship — an essential quality as he leads America toward recovery and renewal.
Blending up-close journalism and broader context, Evan Osnos, who won the National Book Award in 2014, draws on nearly a decade of reporting for The New Yorker to capture the characters and meaning of 2020’s extraordinary presidential election. It is based on lengthy interviews with Biden and on revealing conversations with more than a hundred others, including President Barack Obama, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and a range of activists, advisers, opponents, and Biden family members.
This portrayal illuminates Biden’s long and eventful career in the Senate, his eight years as Obama’s vice president, his sojourn in the political wilderness after being passed over for Hillary Clinton in 2016, his decision to challenge Donald Trump for the presidency, and his choice of Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate.
Osnos ponders the difficulties Biden faces as his presidency begins and weighs how a changing country, a deep well of experiences, and a rigorous approach to the issues, have altered his positions. In this nuanced portrait, Biden emerges as flawed, yet resolute, and tempered by the flame of tragedy — a man who just may be uncannily suited for his moment in history.
The First Lady
Jill Biden, WHERE THE LIGHT ENTERS (Flatiron Books)
“How did you get this number?” Those were the first words Jill Biden spoke to U.S. senator Joe Biden when he called her out of the blue to ask her on a date.
Growing up, Jill had wanted two things: a marriage like her parents’ — strong, loving, and full of laughter — and a career. An early heartbreak had left her uncertain about love, until she met Joe. But as they grew closer, Jill faced difficult questions: How would politics shape her family and professional life? And was she ready to become a mother to Joe’s two young sons?
She soon found herself falling in love with her three “boys,” learning to balance life as a mother, wife, educator, and political spouse. Through the challenges of public scrutiny, complicated family dynamics, and personal losses, she grew alongside her family, and she extended the family circle at every turn: with her students, military families, friends and staff at the White House, and more.
This is the story of how Jill built a family — and a life — of her own. From the pranks she played to keep everyone laughing to the traditions she formed that would carry them through tragedy, hers is the spirited journey of a woman embracing many roles.
Where the Light Enters is a candid, heartwarming glimpse into the creation of a beloved American family, and the life of a woman at its center.
The Vice President
Kamala Harris, THE TRUTHS WE HOLD (Penguin Press)
Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’s commitment to speaking truth is informed by her upbringing. The daughter of immigrants, she was raised in an Oakland, California community that cared deeply about social justice; her parents–an esteemed economist from Jamaica and an admired cancer researcher from India–met as activists in the civil rights movement when they were graduate students at Berkeley. Growing up, Harris herself never hid her passion for justice, and when she became a prosecutor out of law school, a deputy district attorney, she quickly established herself as one of the most innovative change agents in American law enforcement. She progressed rapidly to become the elected District Attorney for San Francisco, and then the chief law enforcement officer of the state of California as a whole. Known for bringing a voice to the voiceless, she took on the big banks during the foreclosure crisis, winning a historic settlement for California’s working families. Her hallmarks were applying a holistic, data-driven approach to many of California’s thorniest issues, always eschewing stale “tough on crime” rhetoric as presenting a series of false choices. Neither “tough” nor “soft” but smart on crime became her mantra. Being smart means learning the truths that can make us better as a community, and supporting those truths with all our might. That has been the pole star that guided Harris to a transformational career as California’s attorney general, as a United States senator, and now as vice president-elect, grappling in every role with an array of complex issues, from health care and the new economy to immigration, national security, the opioid crisis, and accelerating inequality.
By reckoning with the big challenges we face together, drawing on the hard-won wisdom and insight from her own career and the work of those who have most inspired her, Kamala Harris offers in THE TRUTHS WE HOLD a master class in problem solving, in crisis management, and leadership in challenging times. Through the arc of her own life, on into the great work of our day, she communicates a vision of shared struggle, shared purpose, and shared values. In a book rich in many home truths, not least is that a relatively small number of people work very hard to convince a great many of us that we have less in common than we actually do, but it falls to us to look past them and get on with the good work of living our common truth. When we do, our shared effort will continue to sustain us and this great nation, now and in the years to come.
Dan Morain, KAMALA’S WAY (Simon & Schuster)
A revelatory biography of the first Black woman to stand for Vice President, charting how the daughter of two immigrants in segregated California became one of this country’s most effective power players.
There’s very little that’s conventional about Kamala Harris, and yet her personal story also represents the best of America. She grew up the eldest daughter of a single mother, a no-nonsense cancer researcher who emigrated from India at the age of nineteen in search of a better education. She and her husband, an accomplished economist from Jamaica, split up when Kamala was only five.
The Kamala Harris the public knows today is tough, smart, quick-witted, and demanding. She’s a prosecutor — her one-liners are legendary — but she’s more reticent when it comes to sharing much about herself, even in her memoirs. Fortunately, former Los Angeles Times reporter Dan Morain has been there from the start.
In Kamala’s Way, he charts her career from its beginnings handling child molestation cases and homicides for the Alameda County District Attorney’s office and her relationship as a twenty-nine-year-old with the most powerful man in the state: married Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a relationship that would prove life-changing. Morain takes readers through Harris’s years in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, explores her audacious embrace of the little-known Barack Obama, and shows the sharp elbows she deployed to make it to the US Senate. He analyzes her failure as a presidential candidate and the behind-the-scenes campaign she waged to land the Vice President spot. Along the way, he paints a vivid picture of her values and priorities, the kind of people she brings into her orbit, the sorts of problems she’s good at solving, and the missteps, risks, and bold moves she’s made on her way to the top.
CIA Director [To Be Confirmed]
William J. Burns, THE BACK CHANNEL (Random House)
Over the course of more than three decades as an American diplomat, William J. Burns played a central role in the most consequential diplomatic episodes of his time — from the bloodless end of the Cold War to the collapse of post-Cold War relations with Putin’s Russia, from post-9/11 tumult in the Middle East to the secret nuclear talks with Iran.
In The Back Channel, Burns recounts, with novelistic detail and incisive analysis, some of the seminal moments of his career. Drawing on a trove of newly declassified cables and memos, he gives readers a rare inside look at American diplomacy in action. His dispatches from war-torn Chechnya and Qaddafi’s bizarre camp in the Libyan desert and his warnings of the “Perfect Storm” that would be unleashed by the Iraq War will reshape our understanding of history — and inform the policy debates of the future. Burns sketches the contours of effective American leadership in a world that resembles neither the zero-sum Cold War contest of his early years as a diplomat nor the “unipolar moment” of American primacy that followed.
Ultimately, The Back Channel is an eloquent, deeply informed, and timely story of a life spent in service of American interests abroad. It is also a powerful reminder, in a time of great turmoil, of the enduring importance of diplomacy.
Follow William J. Burns Goodreads
Special Presidential Envoy for Climate
John Kerry & Teresa Heinz Kerry, THIS MOMENT ON EARTH (PublicAffairs)
The environment, and the movement that grew up to protect it, is under attack-concerted and purposeful. Yet the need for solutions to pressing environmental problems grows more urgent each day. Teresa Heinz Kerry and Senator John Kerry describe how these issues unite people across party and ideological lines. From the San Juan Basin to the Gulf of Mexico to the South Bronx, from mothers on Cape Cod to Colorado ranchers, they found a vibrant coalition of people and communities deploying ingenuity, technology, and sheer will power to save the world they know and love. Now, in this passionate and personal book, Senator John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry shine the spotlight on an inspiring cross-section of these new environmental pioneers.
The book combines intensive research with keenly observed personal experiences to present a portrait of Americans devoted to the natural diversity and spectacular uniqueness of our country. It also includes an extensive guide on where and how readers can get involved.
This Moment on Earth is out now, published by PublicAffairs.
John Kerry, EVERY DAY IS EXTRA (Simon & Schuster)
Every Day Is Extra is John Kerry’s candid personal story. A Yale graduate, Kerry enlisted in the US Navy in 1966, and served in Vietnam. He returned home highly decorated but disillusioned, and he testified powerfully before Congress as a young veteran opposed to the war. Kerry was elected to the Senate in 1984, eventually serving five terms. In 2004 he was the Democratic presidential nominee and came within one state — Ohio — of winning. He succeeded Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State in 2013. In that position he tried to find peace in the Middle East; dealt with the Syrian civil war while combatting ISIS; and negotiated the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement.
“In these pages Kerry shows remarkable honesty, depth, even spirituality… There is remarkable poignancy — not the usual currency of the career politician and the country’s top diplomat” (The Boston Globe). A witness to some of the most important events of our recent history, Kerry tells wonderful stories about colleagues Ted Kennedy and John McCain, as well as President Obama and other major figures. He writes movingly of recovering his faith while in the Senate, and how he deplores the hyper-partisanship that has infected Washington.
Every Day Is Extra “draws back the curtain on a life you thought you knew, but turns out to be a bit different…A surprisingly personal book” (The Washington Post) that shows Kerry for the dedicated, witty, and authentic man that he is and provides forceful testimony for the importance of diplomacy and American leadership to address the increasingly complex challenges of a more globalized world.
Deputy Secretary of State [To Be Confirmed]
Wendy R. Sherman, NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART (PublicAffairs)
The art of diplomacy requires courage, persistence, and above all, authenticity. In Not for the Faint of Heart, Ambassador Wendy Sherman argues that we can all learn to put these qualities to work in our lives.
In this book, Sherman shares stories of her time in the State Department negotiating the most sensitive issues of our time (often as the lone woman in the room), along with personal stories that show how our private experiences affect our professional lives. She argues that we negotiate best when we are our authentic selves, not reliant on stratagems or manipulation but on all of the skills we’ve gained through our experiences.
Not for the Faint of Heart brings readers inside the world of international diplomacy and into the mind of one of our most effective diplomatic negotiators, revealing that success takes courage, the ability to forge common ground, and an understanding of the nature and use of power.
Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, hasn’t written a book, but his Deputy Secretary of State has. Based on Sherman’s career in the State Department and as an ambassador. Not For the Faint of Heart is published by PublicAffairs in North America and in the UK.
Secretary of Transportation [To Be Confirmed]
Pete Buttigieg, SHORTEST WAY HOME (Liveright)
The meteoric rise of the mayor of a small Midwest city, who defied every pundit’s odds with his electrifying run for the presidency, created one of the most surprising candidacies in recent American history. The fact that his New York Times best-selling memoir, Shortest Way Home, didn’t read like your typical campaign book only added to “Mayor Pete’s” transcendent appeal. Readers everywhere, old and young, came to appreciate the “stirring, honest, and often beautiful” (Jill Lepore, New Yorker) personal stories and gripping mayoral tales, which provided, in lyrical prose, the political and philosophical foundations of his historic campaign.
Now featuring a new introduction and a “Back Home” afterword, in which Buttigieg movingly returns with the reader to his roots in his hometown city of South Bend, Indiana, as well as a transcript of the eulogy for his father, Joseph Buttigieg, Shortest Way Home, already considered a classic of the political memoir form, provides us with a beacon of hope at a time of social despair and political crisis.
Pete Buttigieg, TRUST (Liveright)
Trust is essential to the foundation of America’s democracy, asserts Pete Buttigieg, the former presidential candidate and South Bend mayor. Yet, in a century warped by terrorism, financial collapse, Trumpist populism, systemic racism, and now a global pandemic, trust has been squandered, sacrificed, abused, stolen, or never properly built in the first place. And now, more so than ever before, Americans must work side by side to reckon with the monumental challenges posed by our present moment.
Interweaving history, political philosophy, and affecting passages of memoir, Buttigieg explores the strong relationship between measures of prosperity and levels of social trust. He provides an impassioned account of a threefold crisis of trust: in our institutions, in each other, and in the American project itself. Today, these perilous patterns of distrust have wreaked havoc on nearly every sector of society, as Americans increasingly resent the very government that needs to be part of the solution. With the internet and partisan television networks acting as accelerants, Americans jettison any sense of shared reality, lose confidence in experts and scientists, and cope with the grim national tragedy of a pandemic that has only further exemplified the lethality of distrust.
Buttigieg contends that our success, or failure, at confronting the greatest challenges of the decade—racial and economic justice, pandemic resilience, and climate action—will rest on whether we can effectively cultivate, deepen, and, where necessary, repair the networks of trust that are now endangered, or for so many, have never even existed.
An urgent call to foster an “American way of trust” at this painfully polarized juncture in the nation’s history, Trust is a direct reckoning with the prevailing corruption of social responsibility. Yet refusing to give in to the despair that threatens our foundations, Trust seeks to inspire Americans to build a powerful movement that will define all of us in the years to come.
Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development [To Be Confirmed]
Samantha Power, THE EDUCATION OF AN IDEALIST (Dey Street)
Tracing her distinctly American journey from immigrant to war correspondent to presidential Cabinet official, Samantha Power’s acclaimed memoir is a unique blend of suspenseful storytelling, vivid character portraits, and shrewd political insight. After her critiques of US foreign policy caught the eye of Senator Barack Obama, he invited her to work with him on Capitol Hill and then on his presidential campaign. When Obama won the presidency, Power went from being an activist outsider to serving as his human rights adviser and, in 2013, becoming the youngest-ever US Ambassador to the United Nations.
Power transports us from her childhood in Dublin to the streets of war-torn Bosnia to the White House Situation Room and the world of high-stakes diplomacy, offering a compelling and deeply honest look at navigating the halls of power while trying to put one’s ideals into practice. Along the way, she lays bare the searing battles and defining moments of her life, shows how she juggled the demands of a 24/7 national security job with raising two young children, and makes the case for how we each can advance the cause of human dignity.
This is an unforgettable account of the power of idealism — and of one person’s fierce determination to make a difference.
Samantha Power, A PROBLEM FROM HELL (Basic Books)
In 1993, as a 23-year-old correspondent covering the wars in the Balkans, I was initially comforted by the roar of NATO planes flying overhead. President Clinton and other western leaders had sent the planes to monitor the Bosnian war, which had killed almost 200,000 civilians. But it soon became clear that NATO was unwilling to target those engaged in brutal “ethnic cleansing.” American statesmen described Bosnia as “a problem from hell,” and for three and a half years refused to invest the diplomatic and military capital needed to stop the murder of innocents.
In Rwanda, around the same time, some 800,000 Tutsi and opposition Hutu were exterminated in the swiftest killing spree of the twentieth century. Again, the United States failed to intervene. This time U.S. policy-makers avoided labeling events “genocide” and spearheaded the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers stationed in Rwanda who might have stopped the massacres underway.
Whatever America’s commitment to Holocaust remembrance (embodied in the presence of the Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C.), the United States has never intervened to stop genocide. This book is an effort to understand why. While the history of America’s response to genocide is not an uplifting one, “A Problem from Hell” tells the stories of countless Americans who took seriously the slogan of “never again” and tried to secure American intervention. Only by understanding the reasons for their small successes and colossal failures can we understand what we as a country, and we as citizens, could have done to stop the most savage crimes of the last century.
Senior Official for Asia Policy
Kurt M. Campbell, THE PIVOT: THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN STATECRAFT IN ASIA (Twelve)
The definitive analysis and explanation of the new major shift in American foreign policy, its interests and assets, to Asia.
There is a quiet drama playing out in American foreign policy far from the dark contours of upheaval in the Middle East and South Asia and the hovering drone attacks of the war on terror. The United States is in the midst of a substantial and long-term national project, which is proceeding in fits and starts, to reorient its foreign policy to the East. The central tenet of this policy shift, aka the Pivot, is that the United States will need to do more with and in the Asia-Pacific hemisphere to help revitalize its own economy, to realize the full potential of the region’s dramatic innovation, and to keep the peace in the world’s most dynamic region where the lion’s share of the history of the twenty-first century will be written.
This book is about a necessary course correction for American diplomacy, commercial engagement, and military innovation during a time of unrelenting and largely unrewarding conflict. While the United States has intensified its focus on the Asia-Pacific arena relative to previous administrations, much more remains to be done.
The Pivot is about that future. It explores how the United States should construct a strategy that will position it to maneuver across the East and offers a clarion call for cunning, dexterity, and ingenuity in the period ahead for American statecraft in the Asia-Pacific region.
Campbell served as President Obama’s top diplomat to Asia, and is considered the architect of the “Asia pivot” strategy, which is likely to be revived by President Biden. The Pivot is published by Twelve Books in North America and in the UK.
Follow Kurt M. Campbell: Goodreads
Secretary of Energy [To Be Confirmed]
Jennifer M. Granholm, A GOVERNOR’S STORY (PublicAffairs)
Jennifer Granholm was the two-term governor of Michigan, a state synonymous with manufacturing during a financial crisis that threatened to put all America’s major car companies into bankruptcy. The immediate and knock-on effects were catastrophic. Granholm’s grand plans for education reform, economic revitalization, clean energy, and infrastructure development were blitzed by a perfect economic storm.
Granholm was a determined and undefeated governor, who enjoyed close access to the White House at critical moments (Granholm stood in for Sarah Palin during Joe Biden’s debate preparation), and her account offers a front row seat on the effects of the crisis. Ultimately, her story is a model of hope. She hauls Michigan towards unprecedented private-public partnerships, forged in the chaos of financial freefall, built on new technologies that promise to revolutionize not only the century-old auto industry but Michigan’s entire manufacturing base. They offer the potential for a remarkable recovery not just for her state, but for American industry nationwide.
More to come…
[Feel free to recommend any books I think I should include, too.]