Conquering adversity is the common theme in the autobiographical accounts of American politicians from Ben Franklin to Bill Clinton: As our hero struggles to overcome an unjust fate, public life presents itself as the solution to a set of personal difficulties.
As he makes clear in the pages of The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama is now ready to tell another story entirely. The charismatic junior Senator from Illinois has already given his testimony of self-realization in his remarkable memoir, Dreams from My Father (1995). The new book is more a study in self-conquest, or at least self-restraint: an assurance that meteoric success hasn’t fundamentally changed a man that many Americans are only just beginning to know. He’s fully aware that, at this point, he’s a “blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views”; The Audacity of Hope is his effort to do some reverse projection.
A self-consciously modest book by a leading politician is a genre-buster—and yet, for the most part, Mr. Obama’s account of his political odyssey succeeds admirably. Not that he’s setting the bar especially high: This is a “partial and incomplete” stab at defining a “new kind of politics,” he writes in the book’s prologue. Instead of programmatic platforms and position statements, Mr. Obama sets out to provide “something more modest: personal reflections on those values and ideals that have led me to public life … and my own best assessment—based on my experience as a senator and lawyer, husband and father, Christian and skeptic—of the ways we can ground our politics in the notion of a common good.”
The danger is that from this low-key welcome, we’ll slide straight into that gooey jumble of post-liberal anodynes known broadly as communitarianism. But The Audacity of Hope—its title and Oprah marketing push notwithstanding—is not particularly touchy-feely. Mr. Obama is a political success story—and, before that, a legal one—in large part because he relishes a good argument. His frequent complaints about the nation’s political scene as “a case of arrested development” and an “industry of insult” hit home because he’s honestly frustrated by our inability to pursue public arguments to rational (or even quasi-rational) conclusions. He assesses blame for this breakdown of deliberative democracy widely and, for the most part, fairly. He registers anger over Republican economic predations that “favor the wealthy and powerful” and deplores the attendant “absolutism of the free market, an ideology of no taxes, no regulation, no safety net.” At the same time, he confesses that he understands the appeal of Ronald Reagan’s war on the welfare state; he endorses the notion that “a lot of liberal rhetoric” has stressed “rights and entitlements over duties and responsibilities.”
Mr. Obama is a stern judge of what he views as the excesses of fellow liberals, rejecting early on “a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally.” He calls the Democratic Party a “party of reaction …. We lose elections and hope for the courts to foil Republican plans. We lose the courts and wait for a White House scandal.”
This tough love is long overdue—all the more so now that the Democrats can just about claim credible status as a national political force. In surveying domestic issues, Mr. Obama offers a series of sharp recommendations to recast longstanding liberal political grievances as matters of universalist justice. Addressing racial inequity, he argues, still requires a defense of affirmative action and the robust enforcement of antidiscrimination laws. But he insists that the long-term remedy for our racial ills lies beyond purely race-conscious measures, in the fight for class-blind access to social goods such as education and health care. That, he argues, “isn’t just good policy; it’s also good politics,” because “rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America”; most white political adults came of age well after the 60’s civil-rights revolution and feel as a result “that they haven’t engaged in discrimination themselves.”
He advises Democrats to acknowledge that free global trade is by now an incontrovertible fact of life—while also pressing for a “new American social compact” to secure stronger legal standing for American unions, a higher minimum wage, and a serious overhaul to expand Medicaid and Medicare coverage. His discussion of liberal approaches to faith and values is necessarily short on policy specifics, but it’s nevertheless a welcome start on the long road of making liberal ideology and rhetoric come across as less tinny and forced to newly receptive ranks of war-and-scandal-battered belief-minded voters.
But Mr. Obama’s incorrigibly pragmatist politics of difference-splitting shows signs of strain where one most fears it would: American foreign policy in the age of terror. He properly bemoans the stupendous folly of the Bush invasion of Iraq, a by-the-numbers fulfillment of Al Qaeda’s hope to incite greater anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and thereby set about “winning a war from a cave.” But Mr. Obama, while striving mightily to press beyond a passively liberal foreign policy predicated on AIDS care and anti-poverty crusades, offers little beyond vague calls to coordinate more closely with Western allies and the U.N. in the event of any future American interventions.
His prescriptions have an agreeably general ring—and also a sour Wilsonian echo. They presuppose a level of comity among our multilateral military partners that the Iraq war has rather decisively shredded. They also overlook the crucial question of ongoing U.S. support of the Israeli presence in the Occupied Territories (an increasingly embarrassing issue for American policymakers pleased to fancy themselves missionaries of global democracy).
Most troublingly, like many an over-exuberant liberal foreign-policy thinker before him, Mr. Obama seems mystically convinced of the world-transforming power of simple Yankee good will. After his first visit to Iraq, he writes, he was most impressed by American rebuilding efforts and how they exemplified “that unique quality of American optimism that everywhere was on display—the absence of cynicism despite the danger, sacrifice, and seemingly interminable setbacks, the insistence that at the end of the day our actions would result in a better life for a nation of people we barely knew.”
Ever the pragmatist, Mr. Obama shares another perspective on the Iraqi debacle: One of his staffers on the same junket spoke with a major who tersely offered a one-word plan for improving conditions on the ground: “Leave.” Mr. Obama concludes that, try as he might, “I cannot honestly say that I am optimistic about Iraq’s short-term prospects.”
But American optimism—or the temporary lack thereof—is woefully beside the point at this stage of the Iraq occupation. What we need is a concrete plan to stop the hemorrhaging. Sadly, Mr. Bush’s Iraq adventure is a tragedy ill-suited to Mr. Obama’s analytic scheme: all audacity, no hope. Though his book confidently recaptures many fields of moral argument for principled liberals—a stirring spectacle in itself, and well worth the price of admission—in the most urgent realm of debate, it leaves the main arguments scarcely begun.
Chris Lehmann is an editor at CQ Weekly and the author of Revolt of the Masscult (Prickly Paradigm).