Book Reviews: The Audacity of Hope and Dreams From My Father

On November 4, I decided that it’d be worthwhile to read the two books written by our new president Barack Obama, to get a better sense of where he intends to take the country in the next four (hopefully eight!) years. I finished the second one just before the inauguration, and here follows a brief review of both of them.

The Audacity of Hope

Summary: A cautious, middle-of-the-road book, more enlightening about the political process itself than about Obama’s views on it.

One of the major attack themes that the Republicans used against Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign was “we don’t know who he really is” – that he was an unknown quantity, a risky choice. That’s ironic, because in this book, published two years before his presidential run, he sets out his political views clearly – he’s a moderate, leaning slightly toward the progressive end – and his actions in office so far are just what you’d expect given that background.

Each chapter of the book concerns a different idea – cynicism and partisanship in politics, the culture wars, the media, economic opportunity, religion, race and foreign policy. As I said, most of Obama’s positions are moderate to progressive, and should be uncontroversial to everyone except the far right wing that dominated our politics during the Bush era. More interesting, I found, were Obama’s musings on the process – the sausage-making that dominates politics – such as how senators rarely, if ever, actually stand on the floor of Congress (most deals are worked out in private before a bill ever comes up for a vote), or the exhausting, demeaning work of campaigning and fund-raising, and its selective pressure favoring candidates who simply fall in line with the desires of all their disparate interest groups.

One of the major themes of this book was its cautiousness. Rarely does Obama admit to any personal flaw without couching it in qualifications (“In me, one of those flaws had proven to be a chronic restlessness… It’s a flaw that is endemic to modern life, I think – endemic, too, to the American character” [p.5]). And while he does state his support for progressive positions, these statements are often followed by saying that his party also has flaws, or that he thinks the Republicans can be good people too. (“I am angry about policies that consistently favor the wealthy and powerful over average Americans… I believe in evolution, scientific inquiry, and global warming… [but] I also think my party can be smug, detached, and dogmatic at times” [p.14]).

I don’t find this surprising. The career of politician doesn’t often reward people who speak their mind freely, and most successful candidates take pains to be as inoffensive as possible. The image that emerges from the book is of a cautious, deliberative man, one who holds progressive views but doesn’t have the fiery passion of other politicians, and who values building consensus over bashing his opponents for short-term political gain. So far, his campaign has largely followed that ethic. We will see if his presidency does the same.

Dreams From My Father

Summary: A memoir of the author’s search for belonging in a racially divided world. Less political, but far more personal and genuine.

Dreams from My Father is Barack Obama’s autobiographical memoir, written before he ever came to hold political office, and is about his search for personal identity and his quest to follow the footsteps of a father he met only briefly and never truly knew. The child of a mixed-race marriage, with roots as diverse and far-flung as Kansas, Hawaii, Indonesia and Kenya, he grew up with an understandable uncertainty of his place in the world. This book chronicles his struggle to figure out which society was truly his, and how he could fit into it when he found it.

Retracing the course of Obama’s life, the book begins with his childhood – in Hawaii, where he met his father for the first and only time, and Indonesia, where his mother remarried but ultimately decided that life there was not for her. He discusses his work as a community organizer in impoverished communities in Chicago, and later his odyssey to Kenya, where he meets his extended family and learns more about the life’s journey of his father, a larger-than-life figure whose memory still looms large in the eyes of all his sons and daughters. (I especially liked Obama’s sister Auma, an educated and independent free spirit who shares many of his frustrations with the endemic corruption and tribalism in Kenya.)

This memoir was written before Barack Obama was seeking political office, and it shows. He speaks about things like his own drug use, or his encounters with black nationalism and anger, far more candidly and openly than in The Audacity of Hope. While this is not a political book, I think it gives a much more complete and revealing picture of his character.

The most inspiring thing about this book, one which I don’t think Obama intended, is that it demonstrates the extraordinary mobility and potential for transformation possible in American society. From a childhood in rural Indonesia, from an agricultural family in the backwaters of Africa, he’s risen in a single generation to become the de facto leader of the free world. His journey, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s, shows what is possible – that race and class are not insurmountable barriers, even in a world riven by anxiety and division over both.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Christopher

    Looks like some one is infatuated with this overrated man – seriously, what has he actually *done* before he started running for office? I swear, the fact that he’s got charisma and a politically-correct ethnicity are the only reasons he got elected (not like the alternative would have been any different, but still…).

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/ C. L. Hanson

    I agree with your reviews.

    The Audacity of Hope is absolutely cautious and screams “I don’t want to offend anyone.” Yet he slips in some difficult ideas under that cover, especially the idea that we can overcome some of the “us vs. them” of the culture war in the U.S. My natural bias is to see the whole “family values” slogan of the Religious Right as some sort of cynical lie to cover up their “bash anyone who’s not like us” philosophy. I think Obama did a very good job of explaining how the feelings of ordinary conservative citizens really are rooted in concern for families, and how we can take this root concern in constructive directions (rather than the divisive directions it has gone over the past few decades). At the same time, I think he did a good job of explaining to Christians why they shouldn’t see non-Christians as some sort of aliens or enemies.

    The thing that most impressed me about the book, however, is how straight-forward it is. I think he shows a lot of respect for the American people through willingness to talk to them about important issues and values — and his willingness to engage them in what is clearly a two-way dialog (as he explains his own learning process and how he came to think the way he does).

    Dreams from My Father is an excellent memoir overall. Even if it hadn’t been written by the president, it’s interesting to read as a story. And I absolutely agree that it gives a much more complete and revealing picture of his character.

  • MissCherryPi

    Looks like some one is infatuated with this overrated man – seriously, what has he actually *done* before he started running for office? I swear, the fact that he’s got charisma and a politically-correct ethnicity are the only reasons he got elected (not like the alternative would have been any different, but still…).

    To me, his two biggest accomplishments before running for president were:

    Negotiating with state police to get them to video tape interrogations in Illinois

    Co-authoring the Lugar-Obama measure which deals with nuclear non-proliferation and securing loose nuclear weapons, something the Bush Administration paid very little attention to when compared with the Clinton or George H W Bush.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    My natural bias is to see the whole “family values” slogan of the Religious Right as some sort of cynical lie to cover up their “bash anyone who’s not like us” philosophy.

    I like how PZ Myers, whenever discussing right-wing groups, replaces the word “Family” in their names with “Patriarchy”. It much more accurately captures what most of these organizations are about.

    At the same time, I think he did a good job of explaining to Christians why they shouldn’t see non-Christians as some sort of aliens or enemies.

    I agree that he did a good job of that. At the same time, I thought the chapter on religion was somewhat of a disappointment. A large part of this chapter was about Obama’s Senate race in Illinois, where the Republicans ultimately chose Alan Keyes as their candidate to run against him. Although Keyes was a clownish, last-resort candidate, Obama writes that he often felt off-guard or uncomfortable debating him, because of the way Keyes would quote Bible verses against him or accuse him of being a bad Christian, and he felt he didn’t have a good answer to those tactics:

    “And while I found it simple enough to dispose of his constitutional and policy arguments, his readings of Scripture put me on the defensive.

    …What could I say? That a literal reading of the Bible was folly? That Mr. Keyes, a Roman Catholic, should disregard the Pope’s teachings?” [p.251]

    In this area, Obama suffers from the same problem that afflicts many religious liberals: their inability to convincingly counter the religious right’s invocation of scripture (which does, after all, endorse many of the prejudices that conservatives promote), and their unwillingness to confront the bellicose certainty of fundamentalists. Appeals to the liberal, pluralistic nature of our society sound weak and evasive. What we need is to stand toe-to-toe to these people and hit them back just as hard, and where religious authorities or texts endorse such evils, we need to include those authorities in our condemnation. Most liberal politicians haven’t learned how to do this yet, or are afraid to.

  • Alex Weaver

    Looks like some one is infatuated with this overrated man – seriously, what has he actually *done* before he started running for office? I swear, the fact that he’s got charisma and a politically-correct ethnicity are the only reasons he got elected (not like the alternative would have been any different, but still…).

    I’m almost afraid to ask, but I’ll bite: So, other than perhaps Heath Ledger’s version of The Joker, who could we elect whom you would regard as both “different” and positive?

  • lpetrich

    I’ve noticed such cowardice also. I recall someone who defended evolution but who refused to criticize fundies’ theology, despite being able to claim Xian credentials for doing so. It seemed to me that it was like trying to get rid of dandelions by plucking the dandelion flowers without doing anything to the rest of the dandelion plants, because fundie theology (the dandelion plants) is where creationism (the dandelion flowers) comes from.

    It almost seems like liberal Xians (and Muslims) are running interference for their fundie coreligionists.

  • Javaman

    Did any of you catch in Obama’s acceptance speech the fact that he acknowledged non-believers with equal status to Christians, Hindus and Muslims? Is this the first time a president of the United States has acknowledged non-believers as having parity with believers? I was surprised that this was not picked up by the news channels/talking heads.

  • Chet

    seriously, what has he actually *done* before he started running for office?

    I wonder – are you ignorant or just lazy? Just cribbing from his Wikipedia page, which you could easily have looked up yourself, you would have seen that, prior to his election to the Illinois state senate in 1997 he’d worked for two of Chicago’s most prominent philanthropic organizations, directed a third, traveled Europe and Africa, and then entered Harvard Law School, where he edited the Harvard Law Review and graduated at the top of his class.

    After that he taught Constitutional law for a number of years, as well as practiced the law as an associate at Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland; also, he served on the boards of directors of organizations such as the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and the Woods Fund.

    He wasn’t born into the Senate, you know. Come on, the guy ran a Presidential campaign for a year and is the author of two autobiographies. If you really don’t know what he was doing before his career in politics, is that because he didn’t do anything – or are you just being purposefully pig-ignorant because it’s easier to call Obama “overrated” that way?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    If you really don’t know what he was doing before his career in politics, is that because he didn’t do anything – or are you just being purposefully pig-ignorant because it’s easier to call Obama “overrated” that way?

    I think the real answer is that Christopher has a low opinion of anyone who’s not himself.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Regarding Obama’s frustration at Alan Keyes throwing Bible verses at him, one way of countering that would be to say, “Voters, if a dogmatic theocracy is what you want for this country, then by all means vote for Mr. Keyes.”

  • Adele

    Mmm. But then they’d get him on the “look-at-him-disrespecting-my-religious-freedom” card.

  • Leum

    The solution to Bible-quoting is to Bible-quote back. A few verses from the Sermon on the Mount should stop ‘em dead.

  • Christopher

    Negotiating with state police to get them to video tape interrogations in Illinois

    Which means what exactly – now we can watch police offers question people on charges they have no business bringing up in the first place?

    Co-authoring the Lugar-Obama measure which deals with nuclear non-proliferation and securing loose nuclear weapons, something the Bush Administration paid very little attention to when compared with the Clinton or George H W Bush.

    Of course, all that talk of non-proliferation is just lip service – parties that have the bomb will give it to other parties that don’t if it serves their intersts to do so, and they won’t let little things like non-proliferation measures get in the way (if any nation does try to enforce it, they will simply find a way to side-step it).

    My question remains unchanged…

  • Christopher

    I think the real answer is that Christopher has a low opinion of anyone who’s not himself.

    No, its that I have low opinions of politicians that have done nothing but talk – while I’ll admit that I have low opinions of politicians in general, those that do little more than serve on a few boards for philathropic organizations (I could go on about how absurd those are, but I’ll digress…) and campaign for office really earn my ire.

    If Obama was more like Jackson or Jefferson I could at least respect his accomplishments, alas he’s no Jackson…

  • MissCherryPi

    Which means what exactly – now we can watch police offers question people on charges they have no business bringing up in the first place?

    It means that people can’t be unlawfully coerced into confessing crimes they did not commit.

    Of course, all that talk of non-proliferation is just lip service – parties that have the bomb will give it to other parties that don’t if it serves their intersts to do so, and they won’t let little things like non-proliferation measures get in the way (if any nation does try to enforce it, they will simply find a way to side-step it).

    Securing loose nukes is the more successful aspect, and something that we are good at if we have the funding for.

  • http://goddesscassandra.blogspot.com Antigone

    Jackson? You mean the racist jackass nearly solely responsible for the trail of tears, ignored the Constitution and the Supreme Court, and abolished the Federal Bank, hastening (if not out right causing) a recession? That’s a great president to you?

    *pfft*

  • exmachina

    My question remains unchanged…

    . . . and only proves you’ve not paid attention. Obama’s record, as with all public officials, is painfully transparent to anybody not waiting for it to be handed to them through the television. Whatever faults we may find with him, I do not consider ignorance of his record a a valid criticism of his record.

  • Chet

    My question remains unchanged…

    How, when my post answered it?

    Oh, well, you’ve certainly answered my question – you’ve chosen to remain ignorant of Obama’s extensive record in a disingenuous effort to pretend like it doesn’t exist.

  • Christopher

    Jackson? You mean the racist jackass nearly solely responsible for the trail of tears, ignored the Constitution and the Supreme Court, and abolished the Federal Bank, hastening (if not out right causing) a recession? That’s a great president to you?

    Say what you will about his methods, but the guy knew how to get results in tough situations – sure, he did some deeds people like you would find “morally” questionable but they ultimately resulted in strengthening his nation (ex. displacement of Native Americans cleared the path for Westward expansion).

    As for the Federal Bank, I never much liked the idea to begin with – while dispanding it may have resulted in a recession then, keeping one (like the “Federal Reserve” you have now) would have just given his government a greater capacity to drown itself in debt (like your $10.6 trillion national debt today). Jackson understood that government needed to be kept on a tight budget in order to prevent runaway spending that would result in economic meltdown (like the one your country is experiencing now).

    How, when my post answered it?

    My question remains the same because I was already aware of his “accomplishments” that people keep pointing to – yet nowhere does he do anything that requires him to really take innitiative and stick his neck out by doing that which is unpopular for the sake of achieving a goal! He tends to rely on his charisma and flowery words to get peoplpe to swallow his agenda, but I see nothing in his record that would indicate the ability to do anything else – if an action is unpopular but effective in achieving the best interests of his nation, I have little doubt that he will resort to a more popular, but less effective, method that has less chance of success.

    A guy like Jackson could make those unpopular decisions, while Obama (and most of todays political class, for that matter) can’t. That’s why I find Obama to be overrated and say “what has he done?” – because I see nothing he did to really establish himself as being any different from your garden variety politician.

  • Chet

    You don’t find his opposition to the Iraq war to be an example of a principled yet unpopular position? Why on Earth not?

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Events are moving very fast in the Whitehouse on Guantanamo, CO2 emmissions, Stem cell research, Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama strikes me as a man who does what he says he will do- not your common or “garden” politician

  • Chet

    He tends to rely on his charisma and flowery words to get peoplpe to swallow his agenda, but I see nothing in his record that would indicate the ability to do anything else

    WTF? If he can make whatever agenda popular enough to garner majority support, what else does he need to be able to do?

    if an action is unpopular but effective in achieving the best interests of his nation, I have little doubt that he will resort to a more popular, but less effective, method that has less chance of success.

    Less chance of success than a method too unpopular to be implemented? How does that work, in your mind?

    A specific case – it’s likely that Obama will pursue a carbon cap-and-trade system on emissions rather than the more effective carbon tax policy. On the other hand, a cap-and-trade system that is actually implemented is infinitely more effective than a carbon tax that never is. You seem to argue that pragamatic success is worse than idealistic failure. All I can say is – I actually live in this country, and I need to have a government that works, that does things, not one that allows ideological inflexibility to turn into gridlock.

    All I can say is, I’m glad you didn’t vote in my election.

  • http://goddesscassandra.blogspot.com Antigone

    Say what you will about his methods,

    His “methods” were IGNORING THE CONSTITUTION. This isn’t really even a debatable position; he straight out told the Supreme Court to go fuck themselves. “Justice Marshall has made his decision, let’s see him enforce it”. That doesn’t make a good president; that makes a good dictator.

    but the guy knew how to get results in tough situations – sure, he did some deeds people like you would find “morally” questionable but they ultimately resulted in strengthening his nation (ex. displacement of Native Americans cleared the path for Westward expansion).

    Ends justifies the means? Even if that wasn’t completely immoral proposition, a libertarian such as yourself should be horribly opposed to the government overriding an individuals desire for the supposed benefit of all. And it wasn’t “his” nation.

  • Christopher

    You don’t find his opposition to the Iraq war to be an example of a principled yet unpopular position? Why on Earth not?

    I don’t really see the denunciation of war to an audience predisposed towards being agains it as something particularly risky: within the Democratic party there has always been a strong anti-war movement since the ’60s – when he first started his Senate bid in 2004 there was a significant segment of the population opposed to the war (particularly in his party). This segment grew as the war dragged on these past few years even outside the boundries of his party, giving him political capital with anti-war undecided voters (and even with some Republicans dissatisfied with Bush’s handling of the war).

    Note: I’m not questioning the legitimacy of his position nor whether it was “right” or “wrong” (I’ll let you be the judge of that) – I’m just saying that there was always a significant audience within his party’s base to appeal to, making it politically worth-while to court them.

    Less chance of success than a method too unpopular to be implemented? How does that work, in your mind?

    It works by using his position to do what must be done instead of achieving a compromise that is more costly to his nation in the long run. Since the example of Iraq was brought up, let me illustrate the idea using the present situation there.

    Given the turmoil that the nation is in right now (infighting between fractured tribes and religious extremists and no real consensus on a constitution for a new government), any attempt to establish a democratic nation will require U.S. military pressence to provide security for the forseable future – but the American public has spent enough blood and treasure for this war (as it has become a quagmire): without popular support, it’s impractical to keep U.S. troops engaged in a foreign war.

    The most expedient solution (and thus the one I would recommend if I was leading your country) to the probelm would be this: set up a new military strongman to replace Sadaam – it would end the infighting, allow for a U.S. pullout (while the politicians claim victory) and it would leave a government friendly to U.S. interests in the region. The problem is that it’s such an unpopular move that to do it would be political suicide for anyone to go through with it – yet the alternatives call for more blood and treasure to be spent in a war that would take decades to win (no one wants that) or else admit defeat and withdraw; letting nature take its course in the upcoming power struggle (causing the U.S.-backed government to quickly fall – but this would be received as a more popular decision than setting up an autocracy.

    I don’t think that Obama is prepared to make decisions like these when none of the options are particularly appealing – as this would tarnish his image and perhaps end his political career. The kind of leader I respect is the one that can make those choices without regard to who they might affect his own political standing.

    All I can say is, I’m glad you didn’t vote in my election.

    I cast a protest ballot for Frank Castle/Alucard – I had more faith in fictional characters than in either of the two major canadates…

    His “methods” were IGNORING THE CONSTITUTION.

    In that case I put him ahead of the curve – as the modern political class ignores your nation’s Constitution as well (see Patriot Act), but only without any endgame in mind (Bush’s new branches of government created without any expiration date, as opposed to simply annexing some land like Jackson).

    Ends justifies the means? Even if that wasn’t completely immoral proposition, a libertarian such as yourself should be horribly opposed to the government overriding an individuals desire for the supposed benefit of all.

    When did I claim to be a Libertarian? Why do people like you keep calling me that? I’m a Nihilist, not a Libertarian!

    Anyway, I have no “moral” judgements on the matter: all I see were two nations (the United States and a confederacy of five “civilized tribes” [as they were called - "civilized" is a relative term anyway]), one being strong and intent on expanding, the other too weak to oppose them. What I see here is not a conflict between the individual and government (in which case I would favor the individual – as a strong individual can fight against his government should it turn against him), but rather a conflict between two competing governments (in which case I let them fight it out) for the same land. One government (yours) won, the other (the Native American tribes) lost.

    Say what you will about the brutallity of his methods (which I don’t deny), but it paved the way for your nation to become the superpower that it is today by igniting the idea of “Manifest Destiny” – incentivizing your nation to span its borders from coast-to-coast. That’s why I think of Jackson as being an example to follow: he did what needed to be done (cost to his personal reputation be damned) and the nation he led was rewarded for his actions in the long run.

    Like I said before, I don’t see Obama making tough decisions like those – as he tends to count on popular support for his actions.

  • Chet

    I don’t really see the denunciation of war to an audience predisposed towards being agains it as something particularly risky: within the Democratic party there has always been a strong anti-war movement since the ’60s – when he first started his Senate bid in 2004 there was a significant segment of the population opposed to the war (particularly in his party).

    That’s just revisionist history, Chris. The war in Iraq began with ample, resounding bipartisan support, ranging from the vocal support of Congressional Democrats like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, the entire membership of the DLC, and, of course, the so-called “liberal media.” Anti-war sentiment was basically limited to a grassroots fringe movement which had zero credibility in any political arena.

    I’m just saying that there was always a significant audience within his party’s base to appeal to, making it politically worth-while to court them.

    The dirty hippies? There was no advantage in courting them, at least, none at the time that could have been forseen. Of course it turned out that nearly everybody was wrong, that the Iraq war would turn into a disaster, and as a result Obama emerged as the only credible Democratic candidate for 2008.

    It works by using his position to do what must be done instead of achieving a compromise that is more costly to his nation in the long run.

    Oh, I see. Not only are you ignorant of our history, you’re under the impression that the President is the King, empowered with unilateral authority to act in whatever way he sees fit.

    Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way, and the only way an American president can do anything at all is by assembling a consensus. So, again, I ask you: how is it better to stand firm on a solution with no chance of actually being implemented than to compromise slightly to get something done?

    I cast a protest ballot for Frank Castle/Alucard

    On what? A Post-It note?

  • duck

    I find the concept of “Hope and Dreams” ludicrous.. The base concept of politics other than getting re-elected is control. Through politics, one does not live their own hopes and dreams, they live someone else’s. The whole principle of politics is to force one group’s ideas or agenda onto another group of people which legislates and chips away at everyone’s freedom.

    Next door neighbors or relatives can’t even agree on how each other lives, how can one expect complete strangers or even nations to keep their hands off other people’s lives ??


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