The Audacity of Hope

In yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, I had a review of Barack Obama’s new book, The Audacity of Hope. They cut it down a bit, so the full version is over the fold.

Shorter AL: Obama for Prez.

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
Crown Publishers: New York, 2006
384pp, $55
Reviewed by Andrew Leigh
Sydney Morning Herald, 14 January 2007

Political betting markets have a surprisingly good track record of predicting election results. Four months ago, Barack Obama was rated a 1 in 50 chance of winning the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination. Only elected to the United States Senate in 2004, many talked about Obama as a potential presidential candidate in 2012 or 2016.

But with an October appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show and the cover of Time Magazine, Obama is rising at a positively meteoric rate. At the time of writing, the betting markets put his odds of winning the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination at 1 in 5: ahead of heavyweights John Edwards and Al Gore, and second only to Hilary Clinton.

The chief reason for Obama’s recent rise is almost as surprising as the rise itself. He has written a very good book. In a world where most politicians produce books the way recalcitrant university students write essays (with copious clichés, and help from invisible friends), a feisty political manuscript is a rare find.

What marks Obama’s book is not only that the voice is so clearly his own. It is his lightness of touch with America’s weightiest issues. He is at his best on race, pointing out his own diverse racial origins: “the child of a black man and a white woman … with a sister who’s half Indonesian… and a brother-in-law and niece of Chinese descent, with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher”, as the basis for his view that “There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America”.

With a less deft touch, this appeal to inclusiveness could sound insipid. In a nation where blacks are three times as likely as whites to be living in poverty, politicians cannot simply deal with diversity by suggesting that we all ignore skin colour. As the only African-American in the 100-member US Senate, Obama reminds the reader of the “petty slights” that the average black American man endures: “security guards tailing me as I shop in department stores, white couples who toss me their car keys as I stand outside a restaurant waiting for the valet, police cars pulling me over for no apparent reason”. Describing a visit to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, he notes in passing that none of the new employees appeared to be black or Latino. Yet he recognises too that “white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America”, and advocates replacing programs that help only minorities with a combination of universal social policies and better enforcement of civil rights laws.

Ultimately, what sets apart Obama’s position on racial issues is his appeal to hope. Reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln’s hope-filled appeal to “the better angels of our nature”, Obama insists that: “What is remarkable is not the number of minorities who have failed to climb into the middle class but the number who succeeded against the odds; not the anger and bitterness that parents of colour have transmitted to their children but the degree to which such emotions have ebbed.”

With optimism comes a strong streak of decency. Obama argues his political positions with passion, but also with a sense that his side has no monopoly on truth. Democratic audiences, he writes “are often surprised when I tell them that I don’t consider George Bush a bad man, and that I assume he and members of his Administration are trying to do what they think is best for the country”. He is sceptical of shills for the right (such as polemicist Ann Coulter) and the left (such as the Daily Kos blog). An opponent of intervention in Iraq from the beginning, Obama is honest about his own internal struggles about troop withdrawal, and troubled by the growing undercurrent of international isolationism building within the Democratic Party.

The section of the book that says most about Obama’s perspective on partisanship is his account of an email he received from a doctor who opposed abortion. The doctor was troubled by a statement on Obama’s campaign website which promised (in standard Democratic boilerplate) that he would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose”. The doctor congratulated Obama on winning the Democratic Party nomination for the Senate, and went on:

I also sense that you are a fair-minded person with a high regard for reason… Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering upon women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded. … I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.

“The next day”, Obama writes, “I circulated the email to my staff and had the language on my website changed to state in clear but simple terms my prochoice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own – that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.”

As a former constitutional law lecturer at the University of Chicago, it is little wonder that Obama is at his best when discussing legal topics. On affirmative action, democratic deliberation, and the role of the Founding Fathers in perpetuating slavery, the prose skips effortlessly along. Elsewhere, dusty policy proposals are leavened with an anecdote – a visit to Dodge Elementary School accompanies his call for teacher merit pay; stories about working families end with a call to boost the Earned Income Tax Credit; a heart-rending account of a steelworker whose son needed a liver transplant leads into proposals for universal health insurance.

Obama also has an ability to discuss inequality in terms that sound neither dry nor confrontational. Inequality, he writes, “will mean a nation even more stratified economically and socially than it currently is: one in which an increasingly prosperous knowledge class, living in exclusive enclaves, will be able to purchase whatever they want on the marketplace – private schools, private health care, private security, and private jets – while a growing number of their fellow citizens are consigned to low-paying service jobs, vulnerable to dislocation, pressed to work longer hours, dependent on an underfunded, overburdened, and underperforming public sector for their health care, their retirement, and their children’s educations.”

Like the mostly absent father who was the subject of his 1995 book (Dreams from My Father), Obama is a splendid storyteller. Even so, the book’s attempt to meld the personal and the political sometimes falls short. For example, an account of how he and his wife Michelle have taken occasional days off work to be with their children segues abruptly: “Fifty-seven percent of American workers don’t have that luxury.”

At times, electoral necessities elbow good arguments off the page. Any Democrat who wants to become President will find him or herself seeking the endorsement of protectionist trade unions. After several sensible pages discussing the problems of trade barriers, Obama admits he voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, though he acknowledges that the agreement would have helped poor nations export their way out of poverty. An impassioned section on the need to make America less dependent on foreign oil ends not with the simple, effective and politically suicidal proposal to raise the tax rate on gasoline, but with piecemeal suggestions on encouraging alternative energy production. But for an ambitious sitting politician, the book is remarkably candid.

If Obama hopes to be a serious contender for the Presidency, he will face a few challenges. One is his name. If it wasn’t enough that his surname is only a consonant away from the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, there is the fact that Obama’s middle name is Hussein. Will middle-America really vote for a man called Barack Hussein Obama to be the commander-in-chief of their armed forces?

Another challenge will be Obama’s candour about his past life. In Dreams from My Father, he wrote that in his youth, “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it” (“blow” is street slang for cocaine). How will US voters react to a man whose father was a Kenyan big man, and whose step-father is an Indonesian Muslim? What will they make of the suggestion that his grandparents left Texas in part because of their discomfort with small-town racism?

The rational part of me thinks that these kinks will probably derail the Obama train. When the barrage of attack ads begins (as it surely will), Obama is going to need more than appeals to decency and unity. But after you turn the last page of his book, it’s hard not to hope that Obama’s audacity will somehow inspire the best of America.

Dr Andrew Leigh is an economist at the Australian National University, and co-author of Imagining Australia: Ideas for Our Future.

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6 Responses to The Audacity of Hope

  1. Don Arthur says:

    Andrew – Obama’s a fascinating politician.

    I have a similar reaction to you. The rational part of me wonders whether it’s possible for him to succeed and whether it would really be a good thing if he did.

    But when I hear him speak I can’t help hoping he’ll win. He’s a fantastic communicator.

    How Obama works with issues of religious faith is interesting.

  2. Patrick says:

    How he deals with the Dragoness will be interesting.

    How about Obama for 2016?

  3. hugo says:

    The government of The United States of America, can solve its current problem, yea it is a fact in Iraq there was no w.m.d., but every one I tell this change his/her view about this long war, at least somehow so please I ask you again please read it, look it as it is your life be emperical about this, imagine someone comes to your house crushes it, and abuses sexually your loved one whoever it may be, sorry about the explicitness, but it is necessary.
    Just imagine the person who did this is the person you hate the most, in your life, your own life. And in the case this is The Excellency the President; yes Mr. Bush did it he took Saddam out of power and found him in a humiliated situation. No sanitation, just a humiliated person, just think this way he was completely humiliated.
    Also I know that they did find, there was no weapons of mass destruction.
    But that is not the fact in matter at all, you destroy someone’s house at another point of view someone you hated destroyed your house, abused your loved one, yours.
    You will ask him every one of the destroyer’s property or the destroyer has to incapacitate you completely of doing something back.
    Got it?
    Basically to add on to that there was a Democratic, and Republican committee (by the way forget politics, de facto facts are facts and that is what I am discoursing about, “nothing more to it”, and I mean nothing) who analyzed and verified that the President of this great country, (by the way the greatest, and I am not even an American) did not manipulate the intelligence (C.I.A.), who gave the information that there was weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so it is simple I know maybe not a good idea realistically, to have started the war.
    Nevertheless it is simple, purely simple you start something like that you are to defend yourself to the full extent or give every single property to the receiver of such act.
    Or you are going to be “bombed”.
    To solve ditto, which the following apart from what was said before it is only a partial study, not an in-depth study backed, proposal but surely extremely viable. Albeit one very good suggestion would be to find out who among the sectarian fighter would be the good guys, and have them back the U.S. army or the Iraqi government. And employing the Iraqi people anyone would go crazy without a job, not to say of such a situation, including that your leader was jailed and died whoever this leader was. Basically from the knowledge I gathered from magazines as Time and Newsweek is that the president of that country who is against someone as Saddam who they caught cursing the international community while at ruminating and devising to exterminate the Kurds with weapons of mass weapons destructions. The president Nuri al-Maliki who might as well be a legitimate intentioned guy, which does not seem rogue but I would like to discuss about who he surely almost appreciates, almost as if he has a paternal air coming from such which is Moqtada al-Sadr, the guy leads people without the help of Iran or the American death wishers, al Qaeda. And also he lives and mostly is based with the people that are indigent, people who need the basic things in life as food, heating and the sort, also the president of the country completely supports him every time they arrest one his joint group member the president himself orders such to be freed, besides that he is powerful, Moqtada al-Sadr was the only of the commandants who was able: that myself heard about, being able to stop the American army, which the army laid swath onto theirs surroundings.
    One of Mutadaq al Sadr speech was alleviating to this boggling sectarian fighting where he said that the Sunni and Shiite are to be united, please I as if implore go through this major finding in this magazine Newsweek I will have it here for everyone: As word spread that Moqtada would lead prayers, people crowded into the mosque, most of them clad in the black as a sign of mourning. Sadr asked worshipers to pray for his dead relatives, and also for those who had been killed in Sadr City. He again called for the United States to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. He urged a top Sunni sheik to issue three fatwas: one against the killing of Shiites, another against joining Al Qaeda and the third to rebuild the shrine in Samarra. He compared his father’s followers to those of the Prophet Muhammad. “After the prophet died,” he intoned, “some of his followers deviated from his teachings, and the same has happened with followers of my father.” The “cursed trio”-Americans, British and Israelis-were trying to divide Iraq. “We Iraqis-Sunnis and Shia-will always be brothers.” Some after reading might say look he said we are part of the cursed trio or we have to withdraw, but what I see is legitimate religious, not being my religion though, but someone who seeks for what is right.
    Please get it someone who might want to make it right, and by the way even Mr. George W. Bush, the president of this wonderful nation would say that, most probably it would not be a good idea to attack them if they knew they did not have weapons of mass destruction, they found that Iraq and Saddam had no relation with the al-Qaeda.
    Besides it all because this country has not had the senate issue a draft, and because the president promised so, the soldiers are not winning and the manpower of the Iraqi government does not seem to hold out against al-Qaeda the countries aiding al-Qaeda, and also heavy help of Iran financially, towards some of all this insurgeonts.
    So maybe just maybe out of those sectarian battlers, some are the “good guys”, I know a in-depth search has to be done to make sure of that.
    In my opinion but it is also tacit, that this is not a war of The United States of America against Iraq, but a war of al-Qaeda and Iran against the U.S; I know Moqtada al Sadr would most probably never listen to the U.S; but he would most probably listen to the president who has been endorsing him all alone despite Bush’s disapproval.
    And by the way apart from everything else in my humblest view this nation is as if an eagle, it idealistically should not take such a place; but because of it actions it did. It is and always will be the most important country, the most righteous, the most powerful, the most good, the most pleasure givers, the most nice, the most complete, and above all, if out of the much the huge much I have researched in life surely americans are were and always will be “heroes”. And I do say that with my word and as if a swear or promise or vowing that I do believe so.
    And by the way just to cut the mushiness, once I did talk to an Iraqi here in America, in a gas station and he said, that all of this insurgeonts are paid mercenaries for al-Qaeda (and he was a Sunni or Shiite who had a Kurd girlfriend, in Iraq), and maybe not sure of this country when he said; also Iran would be paying for this (maybe he was not right to the letter, but the big minds in this country could sure figure it out if they noticed, that being heroes and saving this country is not playing the left, but being purple or to say think together to aid the troops think this out or use diplomacy to solve this obvious quagmire.

  4. Matt Cowgill says:

    well that was a comprehensive comment

  5. wilful says:

    So, english wouldn’t be your first language, would it?

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