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Think Like a President: Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of All Time

Wondering what are Obama’s favorite books? If you’re a fan of the former U.S. president, here is a list of all Obama’s favorite books.

Barack Obama's Favorite Books of All Time - Headway

Former President Barack Obama inspires many Americans looking to build a life-long career of leadership and triumph. Having served as the 44th President of the United States for eight consecutive years, there’s not much that Barack Obama can do to advance his career. 

That being said, the former president wasn’t always living the American dream. To get to his place of prestige, Obama attributes much of his success to his love of reading. As Obama has stated, books got him through many hardships in early life, teaching him perseverance and other critical skills that helped him in his self-discovery. Even during his presidential term, the politician took it upon himself to pick up a novel every now and then amid endless memos and proposals.

Since leaving office in 2017, Obama has taken on the responsibility of sharing his annual book lists to reach people in need of the same inspiration and knowledge he received from his reading and listening. Come every December, and you’ll find the former president’s top picks in gut-wrenching memoirs and books detailing business and technology fundamentals. Alongside his reading, Obama has also embraced the social media and podcast medium, either by guesting on various shows to discuss topics close to his heart or by recommending podcasts that align with his interests in social justice, leadership, and global affairs.

In his own wise words, ‘Reading is a gateway skill that makes all other learning possible.’ If you’re looking for some new books to add to your reading list, consider taking some inspiration from some of Obama’s all-time favorite books.

Key Points:

  • Barack Obama is an influential figure known especially for his time serving as the 44th President of the United States. During his presidential term, Obama has encouraged Americans and people beyond his serving nation to engage in self-care practices such as reading and finding opportunities for learning.

  • The former president claims that many of his greatest achievements in life can be chalked up to his affinity for reading. Some of President Obama’s favorite books include The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert and American Prison by Shane Bauer.

  • Like Obama, many people struggle with finding the time to balance their busy careers and personal lives with continuous self-development. In this case, the Headway app can be a valuable resource for those who need a little help in the self-care department.

Barack Obama’s favorite books ever

Barack Obama has stated that one of his preferred pastimes is reading — not just for entertainment purposes but to aid consistent growth in his career and personal life. For those looking to gain some insight into some of the strategies that motivated Obama to reach his high political status, consider taking a look into some of his top favorite books.

The former President recommended finding these books at your local library, an independent bookstore, or even in the audio format.

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates

In her riveting memoir, Melinda Gates shares her experiences with the women who have influenced her throughout her life — her mother, work colleagues, and many other teachers and leaders she has met along the way. As the former wife of world-renowned business magnate and founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, Melinda strives to tell her own story in the ordeal of her marriage and her active career.

After starting the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda made it a priority to be an equal contributor in her work alongside her husband. From the very beginning of Microsoft to her 20 years of philanthropic work, Melinda ties in many of her own experiences to the challenges that girls face in society. This includes empowering mothers, supporting contraceptives and family planning, and educating girls. Melinda also speaks up on more crucial issues such as child marriage, gender bias, and women in the workplace.

The title, The Moment of Lift, comes from the feeling you experience when taking liftoff in an airplane — the queasiness and anxiety that happens in the pit of your stomach as you anticipate the wheels lifting off the ground. As Melinda pondered on this feeling, she wondered if she, like the airplane, could create a moment of lift for humanity — and especially women. This book, therefore, focuses on the importance of female empowerment and building a society that lifts up women to choose their own destinies, fight for change, and have a voice of reason when their rights are being denied.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling

Despite what you may think of the world we live in, things aren’t actually going too bad — or at least, that’s what Hans Rosling declares in his book, Factfulness. In the news, there are about a thousand reasons why the world is apparently about to meet its impending doom with catastrophe or an apocalypse, but Rosling aims to put this theory to the test with ten thoughtful reasons why it won’t.

As the former president, Obama likely received a lot of negative news of circumstances occurring throughout the nation – which also tends to spread rapidly across various outlets for regular citizens. For this reason, Rosling encourages readers to get their news from multiple credible sources. As one outlet may claim that population growth is getting out of control, another might declare that it is likely to level off at some point or another. In this case, it’s easier to form an unbiased opinion of something when you receive insight from different viewpoints and perspectives. 

In this book, readers can become assured that the world that they live in is doing just fine in terms of several issues allegedly threatening our livelihood in the news. Delivering research in a way that is easy to understand, Rosling shows the importance of fact-checking and overcoming unnecessary biases.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Despite many advancements in the education of women in America in the past century, female education is still an issue that needs to be spoken about. Around the world, millions of girls are out of school due to their gender — but in rural America, some girls are still facing the effects of outdated patriarchal beliefs and consequently missing out on an education. 

Educated is a memoir about a young girl who was refused a proper education, prompting her to leave her family and pursue a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. Tara Westover was born to survivalists who isolated themselves in the mountains of Idaho. On this mountain, Westover lived her life secluded from mainstream society, never even visiting a doctor for serious medical issues. However, when her brother came home from college with news from the outer world, it was then that she decided to get her own taste of life beyond the mountain.

At seventeen years old, Westover decided to take the plunge into getting an education despite all odds pointing against her. Throughout the book, she details her passion for education and the fiery determination that led her to teach herself enough to be able to take the ACT. Without a doubt, Westover’s memoir is a tale of sacrifice, letting go, and reinventing oneself in the face of tragedy and adversity.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

Written by environmentalist, journalist, and National Book Award winner Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction details the phenomenon of species disappearing before our very eyes. Historically, mass extinctions have occurred due to external forces of nature — an asteroid plummeting to Earth and global warming, to name a few. However, according to Kolbert, the next extinction could be entirely human-induced.

It’s certainly no secret that the Earth is facing an environmental crisis caused by destructive human activity. From deforestation to industrialization, humans have contributed significantly to rising temperatures and habitat loss, therefore pushing many valuable species out of the biosphere. In her book, Kolbert speaks on her theory that humanity is due for a sixth mass extinction and proposes ways that people can turn back on their mistakes and postpone the rate at which these species are disappearing.

Americans are not any less responsible for the Earth’s shrinking biodiversity, especially in the form of deforestation and air pollution. In this case, it is crucial for everyone to maintain awareness of the impending dangers of environmental destruction. For those that are interested in learning about the importance of nature conservation and how humans have shaped the planet’s ecosystems, this book is a must-read.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

It’s no wonder why Obama would choose this as one of his favorite books of all time — his wife, the former First Lady of the United States, wrote it herself. Michelle Obama is widely known for her impactful public health campaign and inspiring speeches dedicated to female empowerment and diversity. 

Although committed to making a difference in America and beyond, Michelle’s confidence and support of Barack’s political efforts were not always so apparent. In fact, her story includes her foremost hesitancy of her husband’s presidential campaign and how, alongside Barack, she later came to build an empire based on helping people become healthier, happier, and more self-assured individuals.

In Becoming, Michelle details her journey before becoming the First Lady and the events that took place after that. Readers may experience a sense of getting to know the Obamas on a more personal level in terms of early life and struggles, such as career setbacks and hardships of being a presidential family. Delving deep into her upbringing, exploring her life as a mother in the White House, and ending with her legacy as First Lady, this book is a must-read for anyone who would like a deeper look into the lives of a nation’s well-known political family, or more specifically – the inspirational FLOTUS who called herself, ‘head mom in chief.’

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Life in the 21st century is vastly different than it was a hundred years ago when presidents like Roosevelt and McKinley were serving their terms. In particular, the internet has brought forth many changes in the way that people think and function. For instance, an unlimited supply of knowledge is now at our fingertips, and stimulation is always just one click away.

The Shallows is a critical component of Obama’s reading list – it focuses on the detrimental effects that the internet has on the brain, such as the ability to stay focused and maintain healthy happiness levels. As members of the digital age, people nowadays are in a constant state of stress as they are bombarded with an endless supply of digital news, notifications, and online content. 

Along with valuable insights into the neurological effects of the digital world, Carr also shares some remedies to this seemingly growing problem that everyone who uses the Internet should know. This includes being out in nature to reset the brain and allow the brain to take a break from neverending stimuli. As Carr suggests, readers should allow themselves to enter back into their roots with the natural world, as this will bring them back into a state of bliss and greatly improve their memory.

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land

Stephanie Land’s experiences in life may be vastly different than Barack Obama’s, but the former POTUS strongly believes in the power that can be found in sharing experiences and finding compassion in others’ stories. In doing so, people can gain a willingness to help and change unfortunate circumstances that are present in the very country they live in.

In Maid, Land speaks on her struggles as a single mom in America, working on a low salary as a housekeeper of under $1000 each month. As she entered her late 20s, Land had huge dreams that were put to a halt when she became the sole provider for her newborn child. Help was difficult to find, but Land managed to gain welfare beneficiaries to purchase necessities like lodging, sustenance, and formula for her child.

As Land navigated her newfound assistance, she experienced judgment and scorn from various individuals in her life — from complete strangers to once-trustworthy companions. When she used food stamps to buy groceries, she would receive disgraceful stares and belittling comments like ‘freeloader.’ It was then that Land began feeling her grievous situation’s mental and physical effects.
Readers of Maid can find empathy in Land’s challenging time on welfare and thus understand a piece of the struggle that many other American mothers face. This book, which has since become an acclaimed Netflix series, serves as a testament to the lesser-heard stories of poverty and excessive work in America to bring awareness to these ever-present issues.

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country in the World by Sarah Smarsh

As the former leader of a nation, Barack Obama held a high responsibility in his role for the well-being and livelihood of millions of people. Within this regard, his reading list includes stories from American people who received the low end from their government’s efforts. In truth, many people in America face extreme poverty, and yet these same people work their entire lives without any relief.

In Heartland, Sarah Smarsh shares a touching memoir of her experiences on the opposite side of her wealthy American neighbors — broke and struggling to put food on the table for her family. Growing up in rural Kansas, Smarsh’s family worked hard in physically demanding jobs to make ends meet but somehow remained financially strapped. As such, Smarsh intends to show the reasons why hard-working people become poor in a country known for its economy and prosperity.

This book analyzes the socioeconomic divide in America and prompts readers to notice the discrepancies that exist between certain jobs in the U.S. workforce. Some jobs are deemed more valuable to the government than others, which can cause differences in pay and benefits that lead to income inequalities. As such, the knowledge Smarsh presents can be useful for those looking to gain an awareness of poverty in America.

American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer

barack obama book recs

American Prison follows the journey of award-winning investigative journalist Shane Bauer as he takes a measly below-minimum-wage job at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. In an effort to shed light on some of America’s more pressing judicial issues, Bauer went undercover to reveal the dysfunction that is present in the country’s private prison system. Since there was no background check needed, Bauer used his real name without issue.

In this book, Bauer weaves his findings of the modern-day prison system with historical anecdotes from before the Civil War. From the roots of systemic injustice and slavery, private prisons were created as a way to gain profit from convicted African-American individuals, who would work for government paychecks that would take care of their needs at the prison. To his horror, what Bauer saw in these modern institutions was hardly different from what it was before the Thirteenth Amendment — inmates were essentially working for free and being treated as slaves to the government.

The longer he worked in this prison, Bauer found himself becoming more aggressive in these circumstances. The health and well-being of these inmates were clearly neglected, with unhealthy food choices and poorly-trained staff. Readers of this book can therefore gain awareness of the inner workings of America’s private prison system and understand the meaning behind human capital.

The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff

The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff

"The Vaster Wilds" by Lauren Groff weaves a compelling narrative that immerses readers in the raw essence of nature, constructing an uncharted world within its pages. This book resonates with themes reflective of President Obama’s environmental priorities, earning it a spot on his recommended reading list. It presents an original perspective on unnatural history by exploring the untamed aspects of our world.

"The Vaster Wilds" by Lauren Groff examines the complex relationship between humans and their environment, questioning the boundaries of civilization and the wild. Through the protagonist's journey, Groff explores the themes of isolation and connection and the transformative power of solitude. The narrative challenges readers to contemplate the true essence of wilderness, both external and within, and the profound impact it can have on one's identity and sense of belonging.

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese

favorite books of barack obama

Abraham Verghese’s "The Covenant of Water" analyzes human bonds, particularly in the context of healing and medicine. This narrative stands out on Obama’s bookshelf for its in-depth examination of the ways in which our lives are intertwined with others, especially during moments of vulnerability. Verghese’s storytelling brings to the forefront themes of compassion, cultural identity, and the moral dimensions of medical practice, offering readers thought-provoking insights into the heart of human interaction. These central ideas are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story, making "The Covenant of Water" a significant and accessible read for anyone interested in the profound connections that define our existence.

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann

David Grann’s "The Wager," a captivating story about perseverance and justice, merits consideration for the National Book Award. This book's subject matter resonates with Obama's interests, elevating its significance beyond merely being an intriguing addition to his personal collection—a sentiment underscored by a favorable review from the New York Times Book Review.

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

obamas favorite books

James McBride’s "The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store" explores the complexities of community and cultural identity. It stands out in Obama's reading list for its heartfelt portrayal of the human condition, reminiscent of the influential works of James Baldwin. The novel takes readers on a journey through the intertwined lives of its characters, set against the backdrop of a vibrant neighborhood grocery store, which becomes a microcosm of the larger societal fabric.

McBride's storytelling is infused with humor and empathy as he explores the struggles and joys that define the essence of community life. This book, with its rich character development and insightful social commentary, fits seamlessly into the themes Obama values, making it a compelling addition to his list of favorite reads.

King: A Life by Jonathan Eig

king a life

Jonathan Eig’s "King: A Life" offers an intricate exploration into the life and enduring influence of Martin Luther King Jr., a figure deeply admired by Barack Obama for his leadership and moral vision. This biography is the former president’s favorite for its meticulous research and the light it sheds on the civil rights movement. Eig's narrative provides a layered understanding of King’s personal struggles, political battles, and the societal impact of his work, all of which resonate with Obama's own experiences and values.

All the Sinners Bleed by S.A. Cosby

all the sinners bleed cover

Shedding all the light on issues surrounding criminal justice and societal dilemmas, "All the Sinners Bleed" by S.A. Cosby aligns with former President Obama’s push for reform in these areas. This compelling narrative is so engaging that it would not only resonate broadly, but has also caught the eye of prominent individuals such as Bill Gates, who would consider adding this book to his noteworthy reading list.

Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond

poverty by America cover

In "Poverty, by America," Matthew Desmond explores the causes and effects of poverty in the U.S., which is a topic Barack Obama cares a lot about. The book shows how deep-rooted issues and societal attitudes keep poverty going. Desmond points out that poverty isn't just about not having enough money but is also due to bad policies and a lack of concern from the public. This book ties in with Obama's hope for a fairer society where everyone has equal chances. It looks into big issues like the housing crisis, the debate over minimum wage, and the complex welfare system, which Obama also focused on during his time in office and afterward.

The Best Minds by Jonathan Rosen

the best minds cover

Jonathan Rosen's "The Best Minds" takes an engaging look at the burst of new ideas in the mid-20th century through the stories of key thinkers. It mirrors Obama's belief in the power of thought and challenging the status quo for societal improvement. The book blends life stories, history, and thought to show how these brilliant minds dealt with big changes in science, politics, and culture. It emphasizes creativity, ethical bravery, and the thirst for knowledge, which are in line with Obama's own path of thinking. "The Best Minds" highlights how critical thinking and debate have helped shape a brighter future, a concept Obama strongly supports.

The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory by Tim Alberta

the kingdom the power and the glory

Tim Alberta’s "The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory" is a comprehensive examination of the political landscape in America, offering an in-depth look at the interplay between faith and governance. This book is a testament to Obama’s interest in the complex relationship between religion and politics and how these forces shape society.

Read Obama’s Favorite Books List With Headway

To Barack Obama, personal relationships should come first in life, and career comes after. However, the famed political leader has managed to make quite an impact in his long-standing career while still prioritizing his family. As is evident in the books he reads — real-life stories about hardship and raising families in America — Obama clearly has a talent for separating the two aspects of life he cherishes so deeply alongside one another.

Whether you are looking to start a career in politics or you would simply like to further your education with valuable insights into the lives of American people, using an external resource may be necessary to help you learn faster and more efficiently.

Interested in learning about how you can read these books and improve your well-being without sacrificing time away from your career and family life? Download the Headway app to gain access to 15-minute summaries of the best books on self-development.

Perfect for a busy schedule, the Headway app can be a solution for time-strapped people looking to fit in more self-improvement and meet their career goals. With this app, you can track your progress and gain valuable knowledge from over 1500 leading self-help and career books.

Read Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of All Time with Headway

Frequently Asked Questions

Did Barack Obama recommend all these books?

No, Obama himself did not personally create this list of his top 10 favorites. However, many of these books were recommended, mentioned, or suggested by him in interviews and book lists. This Barack Obama favorite book list was, therefore, created with his preferences and recommendations in mind.

Why does Obama read so many books?

Throughout his presidency, Obama continuously prided himself on his love of reading. Even before his White House days, Obama was fond of reading as a way to exercise his mind and learn new concepts and ideas from others’ perspectives. Memoirs and fiction served as a way for Obama to recognize the truths behind many voices in America. As such, Obama likely reads so much to continue this practice of continuous self-development and discovery.

What are Obama’s favorite books in terms of genre?

Most of the former POTUS’s book recommendations fall under non-fiction – especially biographies, memoirs, and testimonials. Based on his past reading lists, Obama seems to take more of a liking to books that feature real-life stories of people. However, many of his favorite fiction novels are based on historical events and realistic situations. In the former FLOTUS’s reading endeavors, it’s easy to see a common theme in the genres he chooses, such as politicism, American history, and self-development. We recommend adding books loved and endorsed by the former President to your summer reading list to explore these valuable subjects on your own.

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