Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

To Be Continued
This book follows on where Dreams from My Father left off and is concerned with why Barack Obama got into politics, how he got into the Illinois legislature and what makes him a Democrat.

Different Strokes
While this book still has an autobiographical flavor, The Audacity of Hope offers pointers for ‘a new kind of politics’ and how a process might commence for change. It does not claim to be a detailed manifesto but rather an outline of the broad strokes on pressing policies.

For anyone wondering how Obama operates and the style of politics to which he aims, this book provides the parameters, the principles, the values and his passions. It expresses his concern to leave behind the ‘either/or’ thinking, the partisan bickering, the politics of confrontation and to press towards the politics of bridge-building, the balance between idealism and realism and the clear identification of what government can do and what should be left to others.

One discovers in these pages many of the Obama lines like “spreading the wealth around” that were beamed around the world on the air waves during the Presidential campaign. What is illuminating is to read these statements in context and to realize that they are neither shibboleths nor mere sound bytes but ideas that stem from a well thought out philosophy of beliefs and affirmations about politics.

The chief areas upon which Obama reflects are captured by the chapter headings:

1. Republicans and Democrats
2. Values
3. Constitution
4. Politics
5. Opportunity
6. Faith
7. Race
8. The World Beyond our Borders
9. Family

What is revealed in The Audacity of Hope is a sense of what is important to the author, how he weighs up competing interests and what he considers to be priorities for investment in areas such as education, science and technology, energy and health.

Literary Skill
Legendary novelist, Toni Morrison, has affirmed Barack Obama’s writing skill and praised his ‘creative imagination’. Reflecting on Dreams from My Father Morrison says (7 November 2008), “I was astonished by his ability to write, to think, to reflect, to learn and turn a good phrase. I was very impressed. This was not a normal political biography.” These qualities are also evident in The Audacity of Hope. Look at Obama’s poetic style and imagery in these lines:

“We need a new kind of politics, one that can excavate and build upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans.” (p9)

“The country’s tectonic plates have shifted.” (p28)

“Democracy is not a house to be built but a conversation to be had.” (p92)

“My time with them [people attending his town hall meetings] is like a dip in a cold stream. I feel cleansed afterwards, glad for the work I have chosen.” (p102)

In describing his wife, he writes about her “lived-in beauty of the mother and busy professional.” (p327)

The picture that emerges of the author is of a person who listens to his people, an empathetic leader, one who recognizes how his biography shapes his convictions, a thinker whose politics are informed by the rich perspectives of history and are broadened by his international experience and an innovator who seeks to discover new ways to rally people at the grassroots and keep engaging them in conversation.

The tone of this book is characterized by appreciation to people who have influenced and encouraged him, notably “the women who raised me”—his maternal grandmother and his mother, to whom this book is dedicated. The chapter on ‘Family’ is the most personal of all the chapters as Barack Obama reveals many glimpses into the personality of Michelle, how they met, what they argue about and how they weather the challenge of being a ‘juggler family’. (p336) We also get windows into the ways that Barack is learning from his daughters, Malia and Sasha, the way they put their Daddy into place and their early calls for a puppy!

The book is marked by humility as the author is quick to identify his flaws, admit his mistakes, speak about his envy and voice his doubts. He understands the nature of ambition, the fears of the politician and the lure of status and power.

Obama’s words are measured and while confessing that he is angry about the “politics that favors the wealthy and powerful over average Americans” he never rants but one wonders whether he is too restrained. Sometimes one longs for more righteous indignation to burn and for the pages to catch fire.

As the title indicates, The Audacity of Hope is realistic about the challenges of change but overwhelmingly this book strike the notes of courage and hope.

For any American thinking of a career in politics The Audacity of Hope gives a wonderful orientation. It spells out many cardinal rules of politics, it is an eye opener to the challenges and costs of politics to the politician and the politician’s family and it outlines the chief skills that are required for effective public service.

For anyone intrigued with the American political process and matters to do with electoral campaigns, constitutions, political parties, the Congress, Senate and filibusters, this book is a political primer.

It is remarkable how the author (and former law professor) can write so interestingly and so respectfully about dry and technical matters such as a constitution, about which one person said they are ‘rules by which the dead control the living’.

Who is Barack Obama?
Admirers and opponents who ask the question, ‘Who is Barack Obama?’ will find their question well answered by reading Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope.

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Edinburgh, London, New York, Melbourne: Canongate, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 45.00.

Barack Obama’s first book, Dreams of My Father, is reviewed at this link.

A note on the popularity of Obama’s books.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Audacity of Hope.