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Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-06-16 08:00:27
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“Alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people.... It is that fundamental belief—I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper—that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: "E pluribus unum"; out of many, one....

There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and a white America and a Latino America and an Asian America; there's the United States of America. The pundits like to slice our country into red states and blue states.... But I've got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.” (Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention of 2004)

One of the most common complaints about Barack Obama, on both sides of the Atlantic, refers to the ambiguity and ambivalence of his rhetoric, also to how little is known about him previous to the 2004 Democratic National Convention from which the excerpt above is lifted. That speech was hailed as one the greatest political speeches ever given by a relatively unknown politician.

But despite that speech the complaint about his obscurity persists. One in seven Americans believes he is a secret Muslim hiding behind a Christian front. We have heard references to his obscurity in the very pages of this magazine which on the whole was highly supportive of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and seems to be already dreaming of her return. But I would suggest that such a complaint is unwarranted, because the answer to “who is Barack Obama?” can easily be discovered by an attentive reading of the two books that he has authored: Dreams of my Father: a Story of Race and Inheritance and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.

What is impressive in those two books is not only the elevated nature of the vision they put forth, the subtlety of a very intelligent mind, but also its consummate ability to see the two sides of an issue; that is to say, to see the flip side of a coin. That ability is often confused by less imaginative minds for ambiguity and lack of clarity but it is rather the sign of a subtle highly intelligent mind at work, uncomfortable with Manichean or superficial solutions to the terrific problems of our times. A mind such as Obama’s will never resolve the problem of the relationship between religion and politics, for example, by reducing either to a caricature. With this in mind, and at the risk of being too cursory, let us take a brief overview of those two books. Hopefully it will encourage those who persist in claiming ignorance about Obama, that he is an unknown quantity, to pick them up and draw their own conclusions.

What was at the heart of his speech’s appeal despite his personal obscurity in 2004? The main reason for its success has to do with the central theme of its rhetoric. In that speech, as in all his major speeches, Obama aims far higher than the usual uninspiring Democratic liberal laundry list of health care, good jobs, devotion to Roe v. Wade, and the rest. His subject is our shared civic culture, which he sees as under threat—mostly from the right but also from the left. He believes our red-versus-blue politics of today is pedestrian and positively toxic, and he thinks that our only hope is to rise above it and in fact transcend it.

To do that one needs to understand both conservative and liberal positions. The theme of The Audacity of Hope is not how the Democrats can win more elections, or how a certain liberal policy goal can be attained; it is, he writes in the book's early pages, "how we might begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life." He wants a political culture that is, to be sure, liberal in its outlook but does the difficult work of trying to speak to people who don't share liberalism's assumptions.

He has set, then, a large task for himself. And clearly, he thinks he's the man to bring about such changes. Much of his confidence grows out of his experience and upbringing, which give him a unique outlook on American society. The son of a Harvard-trained Kenyan economist and a white mother from Kansas, he was raised in Hawaii mostly by his white maternal grandparents. His father returned to Kenya when he was two years old, and his parents divorced; he lived for a time with his mother, moving to Indonesia with her for five formative years, from age six to ten, when she married an Indonesian man, he returned to Hawaii with his mother, and now a little sister, and they lived together for three years as his mother pursued her master's degree. But when she returned to Indonesia to do her fieldwork, young "Barry," as he was often called then, chose to stay behind with his grandparents. He attended a private Catholic high school and, though his grandparents were far from rich, he had a life of relative comfort.

Hawaii is not Mississippi, nevertheless he was a black person in America. His emotional wrestling match with his background is the subject of his first book, the 1995 Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Because Obama wrote that book before he entered politics, it is an unusually frank document for someone in his current position—a sometimes blunt account of his feelings during his earlier years. Surely few senators in American history have committed to the page words like these: “At best, these manifestations of blackness were a refuge; at worst, a trap. Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger.

The succeeding years would soften considerably his perspective. He went off to college (two years at Occidental, then two more at Columbia). In 1985, he moved from New York to Chicago, where he worked as a community organizer on the South Side. Much of Dreams from My Father is devoted to an affecting chronicle of these years of trying to improve the living conditions in housing projects and to start youth programs. ("The Audacity of Hope," it turns out, was the name of a sermon Obama heard Reverend Wright deliver on a Sunday morning shortly after the death of Harold Washington, the black mayor of Chicago, and after Obama had decided to leave his job to attend Harvard Law School.)

At Harvard, he was elected president of the Law Review. He returned to Chicago, opened a small law practice, and met his wife, Michelle, also a Harvard Law graduate and a down-to-earth South Sider who considers her husband "something of a dreamer." He was elected to the Illinois State Senate, representing the Hyde Park neighborhood in which he lived, in 1996. He passed numerous bills and won the trust of his Republican colleagues. Four years after an ill-advised congressional run in 2000, when he lost a primary to the incumbent, Bobby Rush, he sought the Senate seat once held by the moderate Republican Everett Dirksen.

He started out as an also-ran in a seven-person field, but his magnetism—and a lucky break in the form of allegations of spousal abuse against a rich opponent—led him to a smashing primary victory. Another lucky break in the general election—his heavily favored GOP opponent, Jack Ryan, withdrew after his scandalous divorce papers were leaked about a month before that famous keynote address—handed him Keyes as his opponent.

Both of his books suggest a man who has been engaged in an intellectual and spiritual quest. In a particularly telling chapter of Dreams from My Father he discusses his troubled reactions upon learning from a Kenyan half-sister that his father, once a high government functionary in Kenya, had been punished by Jomo Kenyatta for speaking too freely and ended in poverty. He decided early in life that he would not let race limit him. Having lived in the white man's world not only at his private high school and Columbia and Harvard but at home, Obama learned to look beyond race, not an easy thing to do for an African-American in the US.

This sensibility informs his politics, and he leaves no doubt of his debt to American civic culture—the great universities he attended, the political process that he encountered as an organizer, frustrating as it was; all the ways by which citizens can grow to become a part of something larger than themselves. He makes plain his belief that such a culture is something to cherish and foster so that it will be more inclusive. That is what he talks about in his best speeches. In a political climate in which very few Democrats have had anything genuinely interesting to say for a very long time, this is what makes him, deservedly, a star of sort.

The Audacity of Hope has a formula. Each of its nine chapters—on broad, thematic subjects like politics, opportunity, faith, race, and family—begins with an anecdote that suggests the point he wants to make about the subject, then moves on to his ruminations about it, and ends with another anecdote meant to drive the point home. These can tend toward the homiletic (the chapter on faith ends with the sentence "I know that tucking in my daughters that night, I grasped a little bit of heaven").

Most unusually for an American politician, though, he has a sense of historical irony—and is willing to articulate it. After being sworn in to the Senate he listens to a stirring speech of welcome by Senator Robert Byrd, who warns of the "dangerous encroachment, year after year, of the Executive Branch on the Senate's precious independence. Listening to Senator Byrd," he reflects, “I felt with full force all the essential contradictions of me in this new place, with its marble busts, its arcane traditions, its memories and its ghosts. I pondered the fact that, according to his own autobiography, Senator Byrd had received his first taste of leadership in his early twenties, as a member of the Raleigh County Ku Klux Klan, an association that he had long disavowed, an error he attributed—no doubt correctly—to the time and place in which he'd been raised, but which continued to surface as an issue throughout his career.

I thought about how he had joined other giants of the Senate, like J. William Fulbright of Arkansas and Richard Russell of Georgia, in Southern resistance to civil rights legislation. I wondered if this would matter to the liberals who now lionized Senator Byrd for his principled opposition to the Iraq War resolution—the MoveOn.org crowd, the heirs of the political counterculture the senator had spent much of his career disdaining. I wondered if it should matter. Senator Byrd's life—like most of ours—has been the struggle of warring impulses, a twining of darkness and light. And in that sense I realized that he really was a proper emblem for the Senate, whose rules and design reflect the grand compromise of America's founding: the bargain between Northern states and Southern states, the Senate's role as a guardian against the passions of the moment, a defender of minority rights and state sovereignty, but also a tool to protect the wealthy from the rabble, and assure slaveholders of noninterference with their peculiar institution.

Stamped into the very fiber of the Senate, within its genetic code, was the same contest between power and principle that characterized America as a whole, a lasting expression of that great debate among a few brilliant, flawed men that had concluded with the creation of a form of government unique in its genius—yet blind to the whip and the chain.”

Try as one may, the reader will not find in The Audacity of Hope boldly innovative ideological policy prescriptions or ideological schemes that will lead the Democrats out of their wilderness. At some points Obama sounds indignant, as when he writes, "At a time when average workers are experiencing little or no income growth, many of America's CEOs have lost any sense of shame about grabbing whatever their pliant, handpicked corporate boards will allow." But the book's most interesting aspect is the author's deep ambivalence about contemporary American politics.

The chapters boil down to a pattern: here's what the right believes about subject X, and here's what the left believes; and while I basically side with the left, I think the right has a point or two that we should consider, and the left can sometimes get a little carried away. In the chapter on Republicans and Democrats, for example, Obama confesses his "curious relationship" to the 1960s, and acknowledges that "as disturbed as I might have been by Ronald Reagan's election in 1980...I understood his appeal. It was the same appeal that the military bases back in Hawaii had always held for me as a young boy, with their tidy streets and well-oiled machinery, the crisp uniforms and crisper salutes.”

He admits that "there are those within the Democratic Party who tend toward “zealotry" similar to that of the Republicans, and he observes of both sides: "It is such doctrinaire thinking and stark partisanship that have turned Americans off politics. It's easy to get most liberals riled up about government encroachments on freedom of the press or a woman's reproductive freedoms. But if you have a conversation with these same liberals about the potential costs of regulation to a small-business owner, you will often draw a blank stare.”

In the chapter titled "The World Beyond Our Borders," we have this, combining caution about threats to the US and vagueness about what they are: “The objectives favored by liberals have merit. But they hardly constitute a coherent national security policy. It's useful to remind ourselves, then, that Osama bin Laden is not Ho Chi Minh, and that the threats facing the United States today are real, multiple, and potentially devastating.

Our recent policies have made matters worse, but if we pulled out of Iraq tomorrow, the United States would still be a target, given its dominant position in the existing international order. Of course, conservatives are just as misguided if they think we can simply eliminate ‘the evildoers’ and then let the world fend for itself.” A few pages earlier he writes: “I believe it is in the interest of both Americans and Iraqis to begin a phased withdrawal of US troops by the end of 2006, although how quickly a complete withdrawal can be accomplished is a matter of imperfect judgment, based on a series of best guesses.”

And in the chapter called "Our Constitution” he writes that “As the judicial confirmation process began heating up, I had a conversation with a friend in which I admitted concern with some of the strategies we were using to discredit and block nominees. I had no doubt of the damage that some of Bush's judicial nominees might do; I would support the filibuster of some of these judges, if only to signal to the White House the need to moderate its next selections. But elections ultimately meant something, I told my friend. Instead of relying on Senate procedures, there was one way to ensure that judges on the bench reflected our values, and that was to win at the polls.”

In his "Politics" chapter, Obama writes with a considerable amount of candor about his Senate campaign and the things one has to endure to become, and be, a senator. He can poke fun at himself and see his own shortcomings. But these passages, too, are chiefly about his deep frustration with how politics works today. He didn't like raising money, and he seems to dislike powerful interest groups—particularly the single-issue advocacy organizations that vet candidates, dangling their endorsements in front of them—even more:

"I've never been entirely comfortable with the term 'special interest' which lumps together the pharmaceutical lobby and the parents of special-ed kids. I must have filled out at least fifty questionnaires in 2004, none of them were subtle. Time dictated that I fill out only those questionnaires sent by organizations that might actually endorse me...so I could usually answer ‘yes’ to most questions without any major discomfort. But every so often I would come across a question that gave me pause. I might agree with a union on the need to enforce labor and environmental standards in our trade laws, but did I believe that NAFTA should be repealed? I might agree that universal health care should be one of the nation's top priorities, but did it follow that a constitutional amendment was the best way to achieve that goal? I found myself hedging on such questions, writing in the margins, explaining the difficult policy choices involved. My staff would shake their heads. Get one answer wrong, they explained, and the endorsement, the workers, and the mailing list would all go to the other guy. Get them all right, I thought, and you have just locked yourself into the pattern of reflexive, partisan jousting that you have promised to help end.”

There are two ways to look at this sort of temporizing. The first is to be disdainful. We are in an age, many passionate liberals argue, that calls for political warfare. These are not the times to be acknowledging that conservatives may have a point or to pick quarrels with interest groups that, whatever their faults, are fighting the good fight.

In his young Senate career, Obama has disappointed some who thought they saw in him, in July 2004 in Boston, a political warrior. His voting record is generally quite liberal, almost conventionally so: his composite liberal score, according to the National Journal, is 83, meaning that his votes were more liberal on economic, social, and foreign policy issues than those of 83 percent of his colleagues. But for the most part, he has not been a bold advocate. Aware that his celebrity was a likely source of resentment for more senior colleagues, he has moved slowly, seeking the spotlight rarely. He stepped into it in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he made his first appearance on a Sunday morning talk show—after turning down such invitations for months. His remarks to ABC's George Stephanopoulos were mostly quite measured ("there seemed to be a sense that this other America was somehow not on people's radar screen"). Around the same time, he offered his first major bill, which would give federal assistance to auto companies with retiree health care costs in exchange for greater fuel efficiency.

Later he sought to call attention to the Darfur genocide. He visited a camp for the region's refugees in Chad; his interest surely owed something to Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning study of the Rwandan genocide A Problem from Hell, who took a year's leave from her post at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government to work for Obama. He assembled a staff with strong Washington and Capitol Hill connections. He visited nuclear stockpiles in the former Soviet Union with the moderate and agreeable Indiana Republican Richard Lugar; and, with the ultraconservative Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, he coauthored legislation—which in late September became the first law he's passed—requiring the publication on the Internet of the cost of all federal contracts, grants, and congressional "earmarks," the pork barrel appropriations that have drawn much criticism in the past year.

Though he had been an outspoken critic of the Iraq war before it started and during his Senate campaign, it wasn't until November 2005 that he gave his first major Iraq policy address as a senator, to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. He called then, as now, for a phased withdrawal beginning in 2006, a middle-ground position among Democratic senators. Obama's one brief trip to Iraq, in January 2006, during which he met with Ahmed Chalabi and other ministers, did not push him toward any firm conclusions.

Indeed Obama is not, as the word is commonly understood, a liberal. He is in many respects a civic republican—a believer in civic virtues, and in the possibility of good outcomes negotiated in good faith. These concepts are consonant with liberalism in many respects, but since the rise in the 1960s of a more aggressive rights-based liberalism, which sometimes places particular claims for social justice ahead of a larger universal good, the two versions have existed in some tension.

Here is another passage from The Audacity of Hope on that decade: “The victories that the sixties generation brought about—the admission of minorities and women into full citizenship, the strengthening of individual liberties and the healthy willingness to question authority—have made America a far better place for all its citizens. But what has been lost in the process, and has yet to be replaced, are those shared assumptions—that quality of trust and fellow feeling—that bring us together as Americans.”

The Audacity of Hope confirms what many have suspected about Obama since he made his impressive entrance on the political scene in 2004. He feels himself a man in a bubble—trapped inside political and ideological systems that are at once too small for him in their poverty of spirit and too large for him in their power to make everyone succumb to their rules. He wants to smash the bubble and assemble from the shards something dynamic and new. He believes that he is the one who can replace those "shared assumptions."

The ambivalence that pervades The Audacity of Hope has the potential to push Obama in one of two directions. The less inspiring is that he accepts the enclosed political world he complains about in his book and becomes a run of the mill senator and a run of the mill president. But the other direction is the one he seems to be currently embarked upon and goes a long way in explaining his victory over Hillary Clinton. For he alone among contemporary politicians has shown a great potential to break the current red–blue stalemate and construct a new politics that is progressive but grounded in civic traditions and speaking to a wider range of Americans than the existing amalgam of Democratic constituencies.

He now needs to attach his civic beliefs to tangible proposals—on what to do in Iraq, on how to reformulate energy policy, on how to balance liberty and security—that is to say, to show us in concrete ways what his imagined America will look like in a future buttressed by hope. If he can accomplish that, show us how his visionary theory can work in practice, he may not only win the presidency but become one of the greatest American presidents ever elected by a conspiracy of hope.

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Thanos2008-06-16 11:46:06
'A civic republican' a very good way to describe Obama. Very good and very enlighten article Emanuel. I’m one of those who believed in Hillary but reading your article I had the feeling that in my judgment I was more akin to the person who could handle the situation than the person who can change it all for the best. Let’s all hope that Obama will be proved true to his words and make the difference because is not only USA and the American people who need it but we Europeans also.

Thanos2008-06-16 11:49:03
And quite embarrassed I have to admit that I never read either book so … I’m on my way to the bookshops!!!

Emanuel Paparella2008-06-16 14:47:15
Better to have dreamt and lost, than not to have dreamt at all. Welcome to the conspiracy of hope Thanos.

Thanos2008-06-16 19:26:57
Conspiracy of hope!!! I like that, is so odd how 'globalization' has worked, never fulfilling the aims of its founders but becoming a globalization of the hungry, of the wronged, of …hope!

Melanie2008-06-30 06:41:24
Dr. Paparella what a great article about Senator Obama. I believe that he is the voice that America needs to hear. This voice will be heard if he is given a change to become the next president of the United States. No other canditate has ever mentioned such great fundamental beliefs as Obama has. We need to unify and remember that this is not a white America or black America but it's the United States of America. Therefore, lets unify and vote for Borack .

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-02 07:35:39
Thanks Melanie and welcome too to the conspiracy of hope.

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