November 18, 2008

Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope

Posted in Obama Barack at 8:00 am by John Self

How nice it was to know that, whichever candidate won the US presidential election this month, we would have a ready-made back catalogue of their books to read. OK, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to John McCain’s Hard Call: Courageous Decisions by Inspiring People: Heroes Who Made Tough Decisions (I mean, who does he think he is: Gordon Brown?), but I needn’t have worried. Barack Obama’s Historic Victory™ meant that I had the choice of a personal memoir of his upbringing and his father, or this 360-page job application.

His memoir, Dreams from My Father, might have given a better insight into the man – it was published in 1995, presumably before dreams of public office entered his mind. The Audacity of Hope, by contrast, came out in 2006, when Obama had been in the US Senate for two years, and less than a year before he announced his intention to run for President. So it’s no surprise that there was nothing between the covers that I could imagine anyone disagreeing with. (Then again, I thought the same about The God Delusion. Still, it’s a relief when the next president of the most powerful nation on earth says, “I believe in evolution, scientific inquiry, and global warming.”)

Indeed, so keen is Obama to avoid causing offence that he even mostly avoids having a go at George W. Bush, who, as the least popular US president since records began, would be a pretty safe target. Bush’s only personal appearance in the pages – a sly dig in itself – comes when he meets Obama at a breakfast meeting for new Senators, and offers him a squirt of antibacterial gel for his hands (“Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds”). Although he does condemn the administration in some terms, Obama’s main beef seems to be with, well, everyone on Capitol Hill and the resulting “industry of insult” which arises when “campaign culture metastasize[s] throughout the body politic”.

What’s troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics – the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem.

This ties in well enough with his acceptance speech in Grant Park on November 4, 2008, suggestive of an inclusive, big tent politics – but they all say that in the heady aftermath of victory. Nonetheless, in the book Obama is keen to emphasize what unites over what divides.

Spend time actually talking to Americans, and you discover that most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual. Most rich people want the poor to succeed, and most of the poor are both more self-critical and hold higher aspirations than the popular culture allows. Most Republican strongholds are 40 per cent Democrat, and vice versa. The political labels or liberal and conservative rarely track people’s personal attributes.

Fortunately Obama does eventually stop telling us what we already know, in a style which he himself describes as “rambling, hesitant and overly verbose,” and which betrays a weakness for ending chapters with one-sentence paragraphs in a portentous, sentimental style (“America is big enough to accommodate all their dreams.”  “I know that tucking in my daughters that night, I grasped a little bit of heaven.”   “My heart is filled with love for this country”).  In successive chapters, he displays a respectable and reassuring depth of knowledge on the Constitution, history and political system of the United States of America (and other countries too: I never expected to know so much about Indonesia), and finally begins to come up with some policy initiatives which we might recognise as left(ish) of centre.

What we can do is create renewable, cleaner energy sources for the twenty-first century. Instead of subsidizing the oil industry, we should end every single tax break the industry currently receives and demand that 1 per cent of the revenues from oil companies with over $1 billion in quarterly profits go toward financing alternative energy research and the necessary infrastructure.

Obama continues to try to reach across the divide, however, by reiterating his stance as a free marketeer (though he may now be kicking himself for not placing a little more emphasis on regulation), and drawing in mega-investor and world’s richest man Warren Buffett to query Bush’s tax cuts for the super-wealthy like himself. (Buffett would go on to endorse Obama’s campaign for President.)

The Audacity of Hope (Obama may now regret the title, not for its cringeworthiness, but because it comes from his erstwhile pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright) is at its best when giving a personal insight into this ultra-professional and seemingly unknowable politician. I came away with admiration for his mother and the way in which she, as an atheist, introduced Obama to religion:

On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese new year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites. But I was made to understand that these religious samplings required no sustained commitment on my part … Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its wellspring, just one of the many ways – and not necessarily the best way – that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives.

He also addresses, in a way he has studiously avoided doing in the last year or so, the issue of race, and his experience as a mixed-race child “with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac.”  He is interesting on the difficulties of, and friction caused by, balancing high office with family life.  When he hears his wife talk about her father and “the love he earned by being there … I ask myself whether my daughters will be able to speak of me in that same way.”

Like most of the people who have kept The Audacity of Hope on top of Amazon’s bestseller list since the election, I read the book because of its sudden connection with current affairs.  Yet it is this very timeliness which is likely to render the book inessential very quickly: in a few months’ time, we won’t need to read a book to work out what Obama thinks about the issues of the day, or what he intends to do in power.  It is his earlier family memoir which may then become the more revealing, and enduring, text.

In discussing the consequences of “chaotic and unforgiving capitalism,” now a more urgent topic than he anticipated when he penned the words, Obama wonders aloud what “a new economic consensus” might look like.  And later, reflecting on his first day as a Senator, he recalls the laughter when one reporter asked him in his first press conference, before he had made a single speech or policy initiative: “Senator Obama, what is your place in history?”  We are about to find out.

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14 Comments »

  1. Nick said,

    I haven’t read that one, but I’ve read Dreams From My Father which was a very interesting insight into his personality and background. He certainly comes across as a very warm and altruistic individual, if a little cerebral because of his Harvard and posh-school education. Right now I’m reading David Mendell’s book Obama From Promise to Power which is also very revealing about his ambitiousness and electoral skills and how for years he was aiming at high political office as the only effective way to improve the lives of those at the bottom of the heap.

  2. I would naturally highly recommend Dreams From My Father, I think it gives a real insight into how he became who he is.

  3. KevinfromCanada said,

    An interesting and worthy choice, John, if somewhat outside your normal reading. I do think this book was written very much as a campaign document and its bestseller ranking would indicate that succeeded. To put it into a context, check out two articles from the Nov. 17 New Yorker — Battle Plans and The Joshua Generation. I think these articles indicate just how much (or little) of Obama this book illustrates. A recent NYRB article (Oct. 23 issue) also had a fascinating piece that explored the similarities between the backgrounds and development of Obama and James Baldwin — again I think you would find it a useful link between your fiction and non-fiction interests.

  4. Nick — is it really that hard to come across as “warm and altruistic” in your own autobiography?

    John — The comments you quote highlight what is becoming increasingly obvious: Obama is America’s Blair. It’s amazing how far you can get by speaking in vague truisms.

    “I believe in evolution, scientific inquiry, and global warming.” This is an odd sentence. Why not say: “I know about evolution and global warming because of scientific inquiry, the value of which is not an article of faith”. I guess he doesn’t want to offend the Creationists either…

  5. Nick said,

    Jonathan – Oh I don’t know, some people can come across as pretty cynical and self-centred. Not to mention terminally dull. Like all those British political memoirs that sink like a stone.

  6. John Self said,

    Jonathan, I should make it clear (or perhaps I shouldn’t, but I’m going to anyway) that I was as delighted as anyone when Obama won, and am prepared to place cynicism on hold for the time being (though I did enjoy your blog post about him). I hope he restores America’s standing in the eyes of the world and the government’s standing in the eyes of Americans. Nonetheless, I wanted to write about his book as a book, and although I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, it did fade rather in the week or so between finishing it and writing the above.

    Nick and Kevin, thanks for the recommendations. Kevin, I have some James Baldwin on my shelves awaiting attention: an interesting figure to compare with Obama.

    Andrea: you would say that, wouldn’t you! ;-)

  7. I’ve avoided the political books until post-election, but it does sound like an interesting read. Perhaps I should jump to it before it’s outdated?

  8. Scott said,

    Very good review of the book. I read it before Obama threw his hat into the Presidential campaign ring. It was because of this book that I started looking more and more closely at each candidate. (It was also because of this book that I was very happy when Obama jumped into the running.) I consider myself neither a Republican or a Democrat. Just an American that is getting more and more frustrated with my country. Because of this, I was open to voting for anyone of any party that I thought would do the best job. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Obama was the best person for the job.

    I think you made a very good observation that this book may not hold up over time. And it also appears that I will have to read “Dreams From My Father”.

  9. Nick said,

    I like the possibly related post – Jim Ballard, High Rise. How does that work exactly?

  10. workingwords100 said,

    I didn’t vote for Mr. Obama (nor for Mr. McCain), so I am not too interested in their biographies.

    I am glad to have read your review, though.

    Let’s see what happens in the next few years!

  11. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone. Nick, the ‘possibly related posts’ thing is a bit silly at times, and I keep thinking of removing it. I suppose this is one of those examples which is more Possibly than Related!

  12. KevinfromCanada said,

    Mookse got a great related post when he wrote about Homecoming — a site from Alaska centred on interior decorating. My vote is to not remove the automatic link — some of us are quite amused by what it generates.

  13. Andrew said,

    Obama, the new Tony Blair, how exciting for us all. The words of Bill Hicks come to mind:
    “I’ll show you politics in America. Here it is, right here. ‘I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.’ ‘I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.’ ‘Hey, wait a minute, there’s one guy holding out both puppets!’ ”

  14. [...] a hat trick of books I’ve read inspired by topical events. After Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, I was reminded recently that today is World Aids [...]


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