- The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
- Crown Publishers, 375 pp.
Barack Obama Shares His Political Vision
Senator Barack Obama, it seems, has far to go. As this is written, he is continuing to take steps toward running for President in 2008. Whether or not he becomes President, he has at the age of 45 quickly become a national figure. This, his second book, tells us more than we knew previously about his background and what he thinks on major issues–and why he deserves our attention.
Part of the attention that people are giving Obama is due to his unique background, as the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, who as a boy lived with an Indonesian stepfather in Jakarta and later with his white grandparents in Hawaii, and who went to college in California, graduated from Harvard Law School, and lives, when not in Washington, in Chicago.
As important as the man’s background is his eloquence. People across the country began to look at Obama in 2004 when, before he was elected to the U.S. Senate, he gave the keynote address at the Democratic national convention in Boston. Since then he has been heard and read more often. This new book is well-written and cogent and frank. It covers most if not all of the bases–the bases for Americans’ concerns about our national future.
Obama’s paternal ancestors were not slaves in America but free Luo farmers in Africa. This fact, one suspects, has helped him treat as only petty slights the insults that a dark-skinned man in America must endure–”white couples who toss me their car keys as I stand outside a restaurant waiting for the valet, police cars pulling me over for no apparent reason.” He does not, he tells us, brood over the racists he still encounters in America; he does not want to confer on bigotry a power it no longer possesses. This is a healthy new voice.
The key political question in America is now Iraq. Obama consistently opposed the American invasion of Iraq, which began in March 2003. The autumn before the invasion, when he was running for the Senate, he said plainly that he could not support “a dumb war, a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.” He admits candidly that after the American force swiftly toppled Saddam Hussein, he wondered if he had been wrong. Now, almost four years later, he knows that he was right. His vision, it seems, was clearer than that of several of his Democratic competitors for the Presidency including–though he does not say so–Hillary Clinton; but while he sees his past judgment as justified, the question that he focuses on in this book is what America should do now about “this mess.”
Above all, Obama warns us, we must not retreat into isolationism, even though there can be a strong impulse in both our major parties to try to withdraw from the world, and particularly when we suffer casualties abroad. This happened, as he notes, in the case of Somalia in 1993, after the bodies of American soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. What Obama does not say is that the President at the time, Bill Clinton, provided little explanation to the American public or Congress as to why the United States–and a number of other countries–had sent 38,000 soldiers to Somalia in the first place. We pulled out ingloriously, and violence and mass murder continue today in that country.
Now and in the future, Obama warns us, in Iraq and in future crises, “…it will almost always be in our strategic interest to act multilaterally rather than unilaterally when we use force around the world.” But this does not mean, Obama says, that the UN Security Council should have a veto over our actions; nor does it mean that “we round up the United Kingdom and Togo and then do what we please.”
Obama reminds us that for some time after World War II, one of America’s strengths was a good degree of national consensus on foreign policy. Vietnam broke that consensus and it has never been restored. Today, Obama says, he does not have in his hip pocket a fully elaborated strategy for Iraq, but he is convinced that we must begin withdrawing from Iraq (and his conviction has hardened in the face of President Bush’s recent decision to send more troops there). He is concerned at the same time that we not act precipitously and that we act together with others, to lessen the chance of ever-widening conflict both within Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
A main subject in Obama’s book is opportunity for the individual, which he couples with the question of how America can maintain its place in the global economy. He goes to basics, and perhaps the most important statement in this book is that “Parents have the primary responsibility for instilling an ethic of hard work and educational achievement in their children. But parents rightly expect their government, through the public schools, to serve as full partners in the educational process–just as it has for earlier generations of Americans.” Obama goes on to emphasize, with reference to old leaders like Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln, the old national tradition of governmental assistance, in numerous ways, to our free-market system. It is true, he says, that if our government does nothing in the face of globalization, there will be no imminent collapse of our economy; “But over the long term, doing nothing probably means….a nation even more stratified economically and socially….an America in which we continue to mortgage our assets to foreign lenders and expose ourselves to the whims of oil producers; an America in which we underinvest in the basic scientific research and workforce training that will determine our long-term economic prospects….”
There are, however, several points missing here. First, to turn around an economy that is increasingly less globally competitive is not a task that any President can accomplish in four or even eight years in office. Indeed, to a great extent it is not a task that a President can accomplish at all, even with the full cooperation of Congress. Government must act, both in education and in stimulating creativity, savings, and investment; but a main role for a wise President must be to use his or her bully pulpit to point the way up a path that the individual, the family, the school, the church, the company, and the Congress should take. Franklin Roosevelt used his fireside chats to great effect. Jimmy Carter tried one, and never tried again after people laughed at him for trying to look casual in a sweater. George W. Bush gives speeches but not fireside chats, and people begin to see that he gives speeches instead of managing the government. Finally, neither fireside chats nor formal talks suffice. Politicking is required, and this is something that, curiously, Presidents have not always been good at. If Obama becomes President will he know how to bring the Congress and the public along in what he wants to do? The Audacity of Hope does not answer that question, but the fact that the book now leads some bestseller lists may suggest an answer.
This reviewer would have liked to see still more subjects discussed in this work. Obama talks sensibly about government waste, but he does not talk about the ever-increasing bureaucratization of American government, both civilian and military. (The U.S. Army has one-third more generals per hundred thousand soldiers than it did a quarter-century ago.) Clinton and Gore reduced the overall size of the Federal work force for the first time in decades, but failed utterly to streamline government in the way that some American corporations have done in recent years. Some, not all; American business is as prone to bureaucratization as is government–and so is academia, with its proliferation of deans and provosts. Would the Senator agree that all this leaves us less efficient as a society?
A related question has to do with political appointees, the number of which has grown by several hundred during the Bush administration. No doubt a number are well qualified people–and a number are not. Every administration, Democratic and Republican, has continued for two centuries to send persons with absolutely no knowledge of the world to serve as American ambassadors abroad, often in critically important countries. True, a majority of our ambassadors are experienced career officers, but no other advanced country maintains a diplomatic spoils system like ours. What would a President Obama do about political appointments, diplomatic or domestic? He does not say.
The Senator does not, in fact, tell us how he would operate as our Chief Executive. Doubts have been expressed about his ability to run our huge government; he has no executive experience. But past executive experience is no guarantee of good future performance, as witness a number of our Presidents who were state governors yet have had serious failings as executives in the White House, e.g. Carter, Reagan, and George W. Bush.
Obama’s book was finished before newspapers brought out the fact that his longtime contributor Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a Chicago developer who is under Federal indictment for fraud, bribery and other alleged offenses, had bought the empty lot next to Obama’s Chicago house and then sold Obama a piece of the property. Obama has acknowledged that it was a mistake on his part to buy the land. As we edge slowly toward 2008, the media (and the opposition) will be looking into possibilities that candidates from either major party have been guilty of improprieties. People will take another look, for example, at Hillary Clinton’s brief but profitable spell of futures trading many years ago, and Rudolph Giuliani’s ties to former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik.
Meanwhile the public has here at hand a soundly argued book by the junior Senator from Illinois who is, as the dust jacket says, also a professor, a father, a Christian and a skeptic. Obama’s skepticism is however limited. He is no skeptic in his belief that we can achieve better government, under an old Constitution that remains fundamentally sound; but he scorns Republican attacks on judicial activism, saying that it is unrealistic to believe that a judge today can somehow, on any question, discern the original intent of the Founders. He thinks, finally, that it is wrong for Democrats to run away from a debate with Republicans about values: “The standards and principles that the majority of Americans deem important in their lives, and in the life of our country…should be the heart of our politics.” That seems to this reviewer a balanced and constructive statement.