on November 3, 2008
"The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream" is Barack Obama's second book, and it is his personal view of the direction that the United States needs to move in terms of the type of politics we practice. It is not a look at whether one should be liberal or conservative--though he certainly does speak to the liberal positions better than the conservative ones; but rather about moving away from the divisive politics which have become the norm in recent years. The book is only nine chapters long, as Senator Obama goes into some depth of his thinking in a variety of areas.
The first chapter, titled "Republicans and Democrats", covers the recent political history which he feels has led to the divisive nature of politics today. He discusses the difference between the last generation of politicians who could disagree with those in the other party, and yet still respect those people, as well as the institutions and the history of those institutions and offices. He links some of this to the common shared experience of World War II which united many of the members in armed services, and nearly all of them in terms of shared experience.
I agree with this, but I think he leaves out several other key factors. The length of the election cycle now has political attacks happening nearly all the time. The fear which has often served to unite the country (civil war, World War I, depression, World War II, Cold War, and terrorism) has been tapped as a device to be used against the other political party (by both parties). The newer generation of politicians still has the common shared experiences of their lives, but they are much more aware of how to use fear (among other devices) to gain money and power.
The advantage of reading this book during Obama's presidential run is that one can compare his words with his action. Most would agree that both McCain and Obama turn to the "fear" tactic less than most politicians. Both pledged to run different types of campaigns, and both have compromised on their principles in this area. The clip of McCain being booed by his own supporters for trying to quiet some of the critical comments which he and Governor Palin helped promote is one which will stay with me for a lifetime. Obama too has been much too negative on McCain, and attempting to use the fear of Bush to taint McCain.
The second chapter "Values", covers what he feels are common values to all Americans, and which might help bridge the divide between the parties. This is an interesting chapter and it speaks to Obama's general tendency to try to unite rather than divide. The world often views Republicans and Democrats as largely the same, though certainly we see them as very different. This chapter helps provide the reader with the perspective that others view us, that of as being largely the same, with many shared values and hopes and dreams. The people who make up both parties love this country, the "truths" which were the foundation of our independence from England, and the Constitution and its amendments which form the framework of what our country is.
Chapter three, "Our Constitution", is a closer look at the United States Constitution and how it can be used as common ground for moving forward. Also included in this chapter is a discussion of the senate and the filibuster, which became something of a controversy when the Republicans discussed eliminating it to achieve their goals during President George W. Bush's administration. Barack Obama also does an excellent job of discussing the issue of the Supreme Court and the differing positions on "original intent". Key to his argument is the fallacy that the original intent of the founding fathers can ever be determined, and key to that argument is the fact that the founders themselves disagreed about the intent before the ink was dry.
Chapter four, "Politics" is about the institutional forces, such as the media and interest groups that seem to be pulling the sides even further apart. Issues become increasingly politicized, making rational debate and discussion difficult if not impossible. Perhaps one of the most interesting points he makes is that he benefited from mostly positive press coverage in his election to the Senate. While is opponents suffered from scandals hurting their image, he indicates that many people feel that he never faced real scrutiny. This perception has also followed him into the Presidential race, where several reports have shown that McCain has faced far more negative stories as a percentage than Obama has.
These first four chapters are the core of the book and the foundation on which the last five chapters address from different perspectives. In each of these first four chapters Obama gives us some insight into his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate, as well as his other elections and how he navigated the rapids, sometimes more successfully than others. He also deals with what he feels are the dangers of continuing down the same path of divisiveness which the parties have been headed down since the end of the Cold War, though most of his focus is on the way the current administration has handled things since he came to the Senate in 2004.
Chapter five, "Opportunity", is a look at his own opportunities as well as those of others. For himself, he looks at how the decisions he has made have either moved him away from his constituency, or closer to them. He looks at the use of private jets in both a positive and negative light. He talks about his meetings with groups as diverse as the founders of Google and the union-leaders who were about to see the jobs leave for overseas. The opportunities of others are focused on jobs, and he presents a short history of the private sector and discusses it in relation to the current climate. He does not pretend that globalization can (or should) be stopped, but he does push for a new "economic consensus" and the need for education. His views here have stayed consistent; though have become more defined, during his run for the Presidency.
Chapter six, "Faith", looks at faith and its role in politics. Depending on your viewpoint, you may feel that he is giving the standard Democratic responses, or you may feel that he providing something new, at least in part. For myself, it is the latter view. He opens the chapter with a story about a doctor who is pro-life and who expresses his disappointment about the abortion view stated on Obama's web site, not because Obama is pro-choice, but because the statement portrayed all those who were pro-life as ideologues. The story is powerful, and Obama's response to it sets him apart from those who give the knee-jerk pro-choice response. Fundamentally, Obama recognizes that virtually everyone would like to see fewer abortions; i.e. that we all would like to see the conditions which result in a woman being forced to make such a choice reduced. There are many of us who are not ideologues for either the pro-choice or pro-life positions who would like to build on this common ground. That particular story has become somewhat famous, but this chapter has another story along the same lines, where Obama talks about how he had stated that his faith led him to the conclusion that marriage was between a man and woman, and those same-sex couples could have equal rights, but that it shouldn't be called marriage. He discusses how a young woman was offended by this, because by saying that it came from his faith, implied that he felt that same-sex couples were "bad people". Of course, Obama has not changed his view on whether same-sex marriage should be allowed, but one does wonder how that community views his position there, and if they still feel he is looking at them as "bad people".
Chapter seven, "Race", is the one which I found the most interesting. One of the most important insights in this area, is his understanding that "white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America" and the implications that has for society and race relations. Also very interesting was his discussion of Mac Alexander, a black business man who was doing his best to restore his neighborhood, and his observations and experiences with regards to having jobs for young men from these areas. There is a perception in some areas that drug dealing is the occupation of choice, rather than necessity. His experiences in this area would seem to disprove that. He has no shortage of applicants for jobs starting at $8.00 per hour. This chapter also looks at the changing dynamics between Blacks and Latinos in the Chicago area. His discussion of the move from the war on poverty, to the anger over welfare is also very insightful and worth reading.
Chapter eight, "The World beyond Our Borders", starts with a look at Indonesia, a country in which he spent some of his youth. He discusses the changes there, political, economic, and cultural and the change in attitude towards the U.S. and the west as well as the change in our perception of Indonesia. He uses this as an example to launch a more general discussion of the change in attitudes of the U.S. towards the rest of the world and vice-versa. This then moves into a discussion of the post-9/11 world, and what Obama feels the needs are for the United States to pursue globally. He talks about the need and the benefits to the United States to follow international law, and not act as if such laws are for everyone other than the United States.
Chapter nine, "Family", focuses on family issues, and features stories both from Obama's childhood as well as the issues facing his family with Michelle and their two girls Malia and Sasha. He relates his issues with those facing most families, i.e. education, budget, time, and once again looks for areas of common ground on which to build. Many of these issues were touched upon in other areas of the book, as there is a tremendous amount of overlap between family, faith, and the other areas.
Barack Obama does a very good job of using personal examples from his life and the lives of those he is close to and using them to highlight key issues which face many Americans. I like his approach of looking for common ground, and one can only hope that he should use that approach to governing should he be elected President. There is little doubt that conservatives will take issue with many of his approaches to dealing with the issues that American's face, but they may find that they have at least some agreement on the overall goals and respect for his approach. I preferred this book to his first one, as I feel his writing improved. It also contains a discussion of issues which face all of us.