At the National Convention of the Democratic Party in July 2004, a “skinny kid with a funny name” made one of the most stirring speeches in American political history. Barack Obama, then a little-known senator from Illinois, took to the stage and, beginning with his life story and moving outwards to the state of the nation, delivered—with the presidential elections only four months away—an address remarkably free of partisanship, cheap point-scoring, and hokey rhetoric.
Invoking the motto, e pluribus unum (“Out of the many, one”), and declaring that there wasn’t a conservative America and a liberal America, but only “the United States of America”, Obama stood out before a nation weary of cynical and divisive politics. Almost overnight, the mixed-race child of a Kenyan father and American mother was anointed the most promising young politician, and began to be talked of as a future candidate for president.
The process set in motion that day in 2004, reached its logical conclusion in February this year, when Obama announced he would compete with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards to be the Democratic nominee for next year’s presidential elections.
The Audacity of Hope, Obama’s new book (released six months ago in the US, but has just been launched in India), draws upon one of the many memorable phrases in Obama’s speech in 2004 to articulate his vision of American society, politics and foreign policy. It is a book that Obama had to write for many reasons. It serves as an autobiography to those unfamiliar with him, and as a campaign manifesto for those wanting to test out his ideas. Also, as Obama has himself said, a book allows for more complex arguments than a quote or a sound bite. In the difficult arena of electoral politics, where opponents are waiting to seize upon your lapses and twist every word, it is an advantage to have a written record of your stances.
What does The Audacity of Hope reveal about Obama’s personality? The most distinctive feature of his book is the extent to which he speaks the language of inclusion, of conversation rather than confrontation. Success in politics often requires the carving out of a distinctive space for one’s own ideas, or the canny repositioning of the ideas of one’s adversaries. But Obama is seen on several occasions searching for “the common ground” between himself and his opponents, and insisting their similarities are more significant than their differences.
He is clearly, by nature, a moderate and a centrist, which helps explain his attraction for America after the fractious and polarizing years of the Bush regime. American presidential candidates have often defined themselves in opposition to their predecessor, but Obama’s air of quiet resolve contrasts naturally with Bush’s bellicosity.
If anything, Obama is too courteous. Early in his book, there is a revelatory moment in which he visits the White House, and spends a few minutes in the company of Bush. Although Obama has been an outspoken critic of Bush’s policies—in particular of the war on Iraq and Bush’s tax cuts for the rich—he insists “that I don’t consider George Bush a bad man, and that I assume he and members of his Administration are trying to do what they think is best for the country”.
This is a characteristic Obama gambit—he argues convincingly on several other instances for the need to abandon our tendency to impute bad faith to those with whom we disagree. But at some point, incompetence and partisanship do become issues of character and personality.
Partly Obama’s tone—and indeed the quality of his writing—is a reflection of his background as a civil-rights lawyer and community organizer. Partly it has to do with his family background, which is more diverse (and, therefore, representative of America, a nation of immigrants) than that of any presidential candidate in recent memory. But his insistence on respecting opponents and avoiding divisive rhetoric is also his most important asset in a field populated by vastly more experienced candidates.
If successful candidates are expected to have some kind of big idea that sets them apart from the rest, then Obama’s big idea is that he has no big idea. Although he offers nuanced and complex arguments on issues such as globalization and the economy, school and university education, health insurance and race relations (and a thrilling meditation on the Constitution), his attitude is more distinctive than his policy.
“[A]s a country, we seem to be suffering from an empathy deficit,” he argues. “[Empathy]…calls us all to task…We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision.” Not to practise empathy for others, he cajoles gently, is “to relinquish our best selves”. It remains to be seen how far this audacious message will take Obama, but he can certainly be read for profit and inspiration in our country, with its own deficit of good men in politics.
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