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.