Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope

Obama Was Right About the War in Iraq. And His Book Isn't Dreadful.
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 1 2006 6:12 AM

Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope

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Dear Stanley:

Well, what is one to make of Sen. Obama's The Audacity of Hope? Books by politicians are dreadful affairs: I cannot remember ever reading one that was edifying. (Can you?) This is, after all, the age of YouTube, in which anything you say at any time can be spread around the world in an instant. If you are a politician, by nature a cautious being, technologies like this guarantee that the one unrehearsed moment in a thousand will now become one in a million.

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Good for Obama, then, that instead of hiding himself behind sound bites, he has actually published a book that, whatever its weaknesses, should not be counted among the dreadful. The senator has two main objectives. One is to let readers know something of himself. The other is to give them a sense of where he stands on domestic and foreign policy. He fulfills both objectives in ways that, I have to admit, I found interesting.

Ever since Jimmy Carter spoke of the lust in his heart, for which he was endlessly mocked, it has become common for politicians to write about their private lives as if they had only public ones. It may be that Obama, sensitive to next year's trends, understood that readers will be more attracted to self-confession than self-justification. Still, it is unusual for politicians to talk honestly about the conflict between the needs of their immediate family and the demands of public office. At one point in the book, Obama writes of how he thought he was sharing family chores equally with this wife, only to realize how she, in fact, was keeping the family intact during his many absences. Given that we have a president who admits to no doubts, I found Obama's acknowledgment of his own moving.

The bulk of the book is more boilerplate in nature, with the senator running down his views on just about every policy matter under the sun. Here, the weaknesses of even good books by politicians are all too evident. I did not find that Obama had much of interest to say about race and poverty; he agrees that welfare needed reform and that some of the problems of poverty found in innercity communities are due to "a casualness toward sex and child rearing among black men that renders black children more vulnerable—and for which there is simply no excuse." These are not Rainbow Coalition thoughts, and that is a good thing. But they do not move our discussion of these issues much in any direction, given that Obama, whenever he approaches saying anything controversial, backtracks by saying everything conventional. On-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand makes good political sense, but it kills narrative interest.

The one policy discussion in which the senator engages that I found most persuasive involved our relations with other countries, perhaps reflecting the fact that Obama's extended family extends from Illinois to Kenya to Indonesia. Obama's opposition to the war in Iraq is genuine and is accompanied by remarkably little grandstanding, considering that he was right. But it is more than that. We like to say that the world has become so complicated in this age of globalization. Obama suggests that our foreign policy need not be so complicated at all, and on this point, I think he is correct. As he notes, our failure in Iraq is not due to "bad execution" but instead represents a conceptual problem. This country did not figure out that the collapse of communism led the whole world to turn to us for leadership. Is it really so difficult to recognize that, as the world's great superpower, we were in a position to win respect and not just to instill fear? Perhaps it was inevitable that 9/11 would push the fear button. But now that we know the limits of military action as a way of protecting ourselves, surely it does not take a genius to understand that the next president will have to repudiate various versions of the Bush/Cheney doctrine and begin once again to fashion multilateral approaches to global leadership. Perhaps the real strength of Obama's discussion of foreign policy is that, by avoiding anything dramatic, he reminds us that the best foreign policies lack drama.

Not a bad book at all, this one, at least for the genre it represents. I don't want to leap on the "Obama for President" bandwagon. But as a writer, I am always delighted when other writers put thoughts down on paper in ways that move public discussion, if even a little bit. Obama is a writer. That he happens to be a politician—and a potential presidential candidate—is nice. I would certainly be inclined to vote for him. But for now, I am glad he told us something about who he is and what he believes.

Alan

Alan Wolfe, professor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, is the author most recently of Does American Democracy Still Work?

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