Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Audacity of Hope (2006)

     I wonder how many people have read The Audacity of Hope (2006).  Certainly fewer than the number of people who cast a ballot in favor of Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential election.  I would also suspect that there are quite a few who purchased the book and didn't read it, at least not in its entirety.  That may or may not be counterbalanced by those who have borrowed a copy from a friend, family, or the local public library – I borrowed the book from my mother, a longtime voracious reader who has seemingly abandoned the written word as the twin strains of advancing age and economic uncertainty have fallen upon her in the last few years.  I imagine that people who have not read Obama's Dreams from My Father (1995) – I did not read the book, but listened to Obama's narration (I now know that he does not necessarily stick to his own script when he narrates his work) on a trip to New Jersey and back.  There is something rewarding about hearing the President of the United States (he wasn't when he wrote the book or recorded the narration) relate the story of how he called one of his basketball coaches a 'racist motherfucker', in part because the listener is bound to trust Obama's judgment in the matter (racist motherfuckers should be called out for what they are) and in part because it does more to humanize Obama – to make him into a modern everyman – than any scripted and polished turn of phrase could ever do.
     I checked out the book on CD from the Forest Park Public Library, in large part because I wanted to get back into the cadence and personality of Obama the author (and not President Obama, or – as the Right labels him now, Candidate Obama).  This is how I found out that Obama does not feel that the text is something that must be faithfully followed; he cuts sentences, quotes, or entire paragraphs (to little effect in changing the presentation) and inserts new asides or comments that did not make the book.  I am not going to lie, had Obama been faithful in his reading of the book, I would likely have read half and listened to half (a great way to multitask and still feel like a reader).  There is a little twinge of self-congratulations that goes along with listening to a book as one walks to and from the train or while exercising.  (I should note that it is very important to not listen to comedy while working with weights, because that gets dangerous.)
     So what is The Audacity of Hope about?  Largely, and somewhat disappointingly, it serves to offer further insight into the personal life of Barack Obama.  He has a gift for telling a good story, even making the commonplace events seem worthwhile in their relation.  There are many instances of what he learned while campaigning across Illinois – this doesn't have much emotional weight and feels calculated, even when Obama has some insight to offer.  For example, he notes that it is not so much that modern politics are not so much beholden to special interests but rather there are several factors that limit most elected officials to having interactions with the people and groups who can contribute to the election/re-election efforts and supporting party.  Where Obama strikes a better tone is where he writes about how the events of his life have influenced his outlook, both as a man and a Senator.
     Perhaps wishing to not offend the fictional middle – the swing voters – Obama couches most of his arguments for more progressive politics.  He profusely acknowledges the basis of the rhetoric the Republican party has used since Reagan is founded on real concerns and failures of government, which may satisfy the more intellectual reader (I'm fine with it) but would no doubt frustrate those who saw Obama as the perfect spokesman – based from one keynote speech and not being tarnished by his very human limitations – for the platform of the Left.  Obama tries to show that he is interested in the intellectual debate, the challenge of ideas and ideals that should result in policy that best serves the citizenry (often frustrating the ideologues in both parties). 
     Unfortunately, it seems that he is evincing a misunderstanding of what politics has become, even as he details how it has reached that point.  There is the television media that has no interest in presenting more than bullet-points – and does that with no context or attempt to evaluate the veracity of competing claims – and repeating messages to the point where they seem true simply because of aggregate airtime.  There isn't as much attention given to how the political parties came to be as polarized as they are; there is some commentary of how Nixon's "silent majority" and the Religious Right have driven the Republican party away from the center, but the Democratic party's failings are enumerated as being on the defensive and not living up to espoused values.  President Obama is frustrated by a rival party that has announced as a goal, repeatedly, that is desires nothing more than getting anyone other than Obama elected President in 2012.  His intellectual musings of how compromise should work comes off as Pollyanna-esque, and that seems beyond ridiculous given the willingness Obama (as an author) has for real introspection.
     There aren't many answers in the book.  The rhetoric isn't soaring, but it is effective.  Obama does his best to ensure that he isn't preaching solutions or showing off his intellect; he is the guy who needs to get ant traps on his way home from the Senate.  It is a smooth read, and some sections are more revealing than others.  A few, like Race, feel under-served (and for obvious political reasons).  I feel that the two books have helped me better understand the man who is currently President of the United States – kind of nice to be able to do that before the memoirs come out after the fact and legacy becomes a prime concern – and how some of the specific failures of leadership thus far may be the result of too high an opinion of the civic honor his opponents have. 
     Clearly, those who were interested would have read this book before Obama assumed the Presidency.  Those who are against him could not be motivated to read him as an author – though trust that there is no problem with them watching quotes taken out of context from his books on various YouTube posts and railing about Obama the author as a bad man, a racist, or a fraud.  I don't agree with those conclusions or accepting information devoid of context (see Nietzsche on the subject).  I would encourage those who have not read The Audacity of Hope to give it a chance.  It explains the basic assumptions of Obama as a man, husband, father, and elected official.  In doing that, it is perhaps the best introduction one could have to understanding whether or not the President has lived up to his own presumptions and methodology.  It will likely leave every reader feeling better about the man, if not the politician.

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