On the heels of Obama’s first book I jumped right into his second, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. I received both books as Christmas gifts, but they were quickly packed up in preparation for the move to the Dominican Republic a few weeks afterward. The 2012 presidential campaign is at a fever pitch, so it seemed a good time to delve into this one. I was curious if the book provided any insights into Obama’s political worldview beyond what I’ve seen in his nearly-four years in the White House, and how any such insights would change my view of him.
At this stage, the book does not provide much new insight. In fact, if I had been given a pre-read quiz on the book’s content, I would have likely passed. There is little daylight between the worldview expressed in the book and the presidency currently playing out. This book, like many of its kind, typically comes from someone looking to continue, or elevate, their high public office. Indeed, the book dropped on October 17, 2006 and Obama announced his candidacy only four months later. Having just a read a book whose success, I believe, was largely due to its vivid descriptions, deep meaning, and, at times, poetic prose, I was disappointed to find more of the standard election cycle fare. This book feels as if Obama established an outline, noted where he planned to insert personal stories written with his penchant for rich language and description, and filled in the gaps with think tank white papers of the major planks of the Democratic party’s platform.
That does not make it a bad book. Quite the opposite. Nor do I believe Obama’s analysis, worldview, or approach to how to address the country’s problems are entirely wrong. And his personal stories, shared so as to emphasize his larger policy point, do enrich the book. I enjoyed the stories of the not-so-polished early days of his campaign. His honest account of the very real struggles and strains his political career introduced to his family life diminishes the distance between reader and author that I felt in his first book. It also reveals a shared reality. One need not be a public figure to know the challenges of dividing tasks with your spouse when planning a child’s birthday party, or the fatigue at the end of a long day that makes washing dishes such a chore, or the importance of attending a soccer game or music recital.
Those personal touches, enjoyable as they are, are not the point of the book. This is about making the case for policy and to that end, it checks all the right boxes for representing a party platform: education, energy, foreign policy, regulation, infrastructure, taxes, etc. What Obama does well, as any good lawyer would, is cite myriad statistics, studies, and data points to bring his audience around to his argument. But really, isn’t that what any presidential candidate – declared or not – does with their book? His jury is the American public and their verdict is delivered at the ballot box.
To his credit, Obama point out the ways in which both major political parties have been at the root of some of the worst policy implementation over the last 50 years. He is up front about the “asleep at the wheel” nature of large government programs that tried to carry on the legacy of FDR’s New Deal. And he does his party no favors pointing out its cowardice in avoiding debates about societal values for fear of alienating its increasingly secular base. He can be equally unforgiving to the GOP. Although he admits to the impressive longevity of the roots of the Reagan Revolution, Obama sees it for the lasting damage it did to working class America, and how it spawned what would become the extremist flank driving the modern Republican party. Make no mistake, were one keeping score throughout the book, the Democrats win. The good intentions of their policies outweigh any measure of poor implementation or negative externalities. Meanwhile, the GOP always gets a backhanded compliment. The party seems to have meant well, but there is always a laundry list of how it screwed everything up.
But it can all be fixed. Obama is, after all, an admitted optimist. He sees a way forward and offers ideas on how to address what ails the country. Some of those ideas are short on details. No matter. This book was a part of a larger narrative about hope. In fact, the book’s title is based on a sermon of the same name once given by Obama’s pastor, in which he referenced a painting of a woman, Hope, sitting atop a nearly destroyed world. Her clothes are in tatters and she holds a harp with only one string. The pastor believed that only an audacious spirit would pluck that frayed string and unleash a beautiful song while surrounded by so much despair.
Similar to Dreams from My Father, read this book (if you haven’t already) regardless of your personal feelings about Obama. It is analytical and pragmatic in its approach, which gives the reader a fair chance to craft a counterargument, so long as it is equally analytical and structured. This is not for the knee-jerk reactionary crowd that substitutes hyperbole and logical fallacy for critical thought and intellectual honesty. It’s an honest take on the state of the country, and what Obama believes needs to be done to fix it. It’s a blueprint for his approach to the presidency, one that he has followed. He hoped it would help him reach the White House and it did. Very soon we will see if voters believe that blueprint worthy of a second term.