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

Book Reviews: The Audacity of Hope and Dreams From My Father January 24, 2009

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.

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