In 2006, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama published The Audacity of Hope. I first encountered The Audacity of Hope as an audiobook read by Obama himself. I listened to it as I drove back and forth on errands, and, to be frank, I loved the experience. I also enjoyed many aspects of the book itself, which blends personal memoir with an account of Obama’s political development. It is at once a statement of who Obama is and how he became the political figure he is.
In retrospect, it is the personal details that stand out. Obama’s discussion of his courtship of his wife Michelle is rich with affection and respect. Even though they were second-hand and filtered through her husband, her will and independent judgment come through clearly. Should Obama be elected, this will be a First Lady to be reckoned with. The descriptions of his wife’s father (in Chapter 9, “Family”) are heartbreaking in their respectful precision. Michelle Obama’s father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was just 30 but fought the disease for decades. Obama’s discussion of his father-in-law show a great deal about both men’s character. His father-in-law embodies domestic duty; Obama clearly understands just how precious such duty is.
When Obama discusses politics, it is, again, the personal and interpersonal that sounds out. He manages to sound savvy, political and still genuine, whether he’s describing meeting George Bush or discussing his travels through Illinois as he campaigned. I can imagine the union workers or inhabitants of Cairo, Illinois, feeling like someone really listened to them after they’ve met with Obama, for there’s a definite sense of heightened attention to the book. Obama is listening to the people he meets. Likewise, whether you’re listening to the audio version or reading the book, a sense of broad compassion comes through. To be blunt, I found myself liking Obama the man as I listened to the book.
However, when I read the book, I found a curious thing happened. Policies that had been enhanced by his delivery in the audio format fell more than a little flat on the page. I found myself flipping from chapter to chapter, wondering if I had remembered the policy discussions as occurring different places in the text than they had. I had not. I had allowed myself to be lulled by my affection for Obama and by his skill as a speaker.
I like the man. I trust the man, at least his intentions. I recognize that the symbolic value he carries due to his race is immense and should not be discounted. However, his vision of America is…well, let me be kind. His character is superior to his vision.
To be specific, when he’s discussing economic history, his summation of the free market and the American economy are pretty standard. He positions himself smartly, indicating that neither the Republican version of the free market nor the Democratic defense of pre-Bush social programs is sufficient. However, when he calls for a pragmatic solution, saying, “We should be guided by what works” (159), it is not yet clear that he (or, to be fair, anyone else) knows what that is. Obama calls for fairly predictable solutions: for government and parents to improve education and for public money and personal responsibility to be used there. He calls for more basic scientific research, a lowered dependence on foreign oil and so on. All good, yes, but the visions come without much foundation.
When Obama moves on to addressing policies specific to the U.S. economy, he’s specific about the flaws with existing plans, like privatizing Social Security, and strong about the values and emotions that lead him to oppose it and accent the flaws in such a plan. However, simply labeling Social Security’s problems as “real but manageable” (182) does not make them so, and no concrete solutions to the funding crises that take America’s demographic bulge into account are provided. If I had to sum up the picture of the world that’s painted in this book, I’d say it is fairly realistic. Obama knows that globalization is sweeping through the economy, realigning every economy relationship. His discussions of American founding documents, the media and special interests show he knows that American politics are a mash of glorious ideals, distortion and positional obligations. However, his solutions are less practical than he (or I) might wish. They show a man whose heart and character are worthy but whose policies are comparatively mundane. There are worse things in a president, but it does take a certain audacity to hope for better results without providing a solid foundation for them.