|The Audacity of Hope
|October 17, 2006
|Dreams from My Father
Executive SummaryThe junior U.S. Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, was propelled to national prominence at the 2004 Democratic Convention when he delivered a rousing keynote address entitled “The Audacity of Hope.” In the less than 20 minutes it took to deliver the speech, Obama was catapulted to sudden fame, with many analysts predicting that he may be well-positioned to enter a future presidential race. In 2006, Obama released The Audacity of Hope, a book-length account that expands upon many of the same themes he originally addressed in the convention speech that bore the same title.
The Audacity of Hope is an unusual blend of autobiography and policy analysis that veers far from the boilerplate, often ghostwritten biographies that many politicians release in the years leading up to a major campaign. In it, Obama recounts his unique childhood and the insight that his racially mixed heritage and the experience of living in a number of exotic locales instilled in him. He also discusses in great detail virtually every major political issue facing the American electorate today, offering his opinion and possible strategies for reform.
On issues ranging from abortion to defense, Obama’s stance is one that attempts to find a middle ground between reactionary conservatism and myopic, overly idealistic liberalism. Hearkening back to a period when Congress was characterized by collegiality and mutual respect, Obama calls for more real compromise and cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. His overarching message is that America has the inherent potential to offer hope to anyone, regardless of their background or experiences; however, in order to ensure that opportunities exist for all in a secure, functional, and sustainable national environment, a number of key policy changes are necessary.
Obama begins the book with a brief overview of his political career, which has spanned a decade. After law school , Obama moved to Chicago to begin working as a community organizer in the city’s poor African American neighborhoods, while also teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Over the course of several years, Obama experienced both successes and failures in local and state politics. He reports that his motivation in entering politics was to cut through decades of polarizing partisanship and develop a moderate, effective approach. Obama notes that this same impulse prompted him to write The Audacity of Hope.
Chapter One: Republicans and Democrats
In this chapter, Obama alternates an account of the unusual campaign that ultimately resulted in his election as the junior Illinois senator with a discussion of the factors that have fostered an atmosphere of severe partisan division in Washington. He notes that according to his own observations, as well as the accounts offered by veteran lawmakers, Congress was not always as intractably divided as it is today. Obama contends that in the past, lawmakers were more willing to overlook their differences in the service of compromise and the public good, and that intra-party working relationships were more apt to be characterized by decorum, collegiality, and genuine fellow-feeling. As such, Obama disagrees with the conventional wisdom that Democrats need to develop a more coherent stance against their Republican opponents. Rather, he contends that the public has long grown weary of partisan rancor. In order to begin to win back the trust and admiration of the American people, Obama exhorts his Democratic colleagues to focus on a strategy of reconciliation and cooperation with their Republican counterparts, while remaining true to the core ideals of the party.
Chapter Two: Values
Obama acknowledges that many Americans feel that politicians have lost their moral compasses. However, while he makes no excuses for blatant acts of ill will, bribery, or corruption, he contends that the political system itself makes it very difficult for politicians to remain true to their values. In this age of constant scrutiny and 24-hour news cycles, even the smallest, most seemingly trivial action on the part of a politician can be posted to the Internet and held up for criticism. Obama calls for a return to a political sphere in which ideas, values, and action plans matter more than, for example, which type of mustard a candidate requests at a restaurant. He contends that the Democrats’ recent loss of power in Congress and other elected offices have left the party particularly vulnerable to these kinds of issues. Obama claims that many Democrats have morphed into caricatures of themselves, and that part of this charade has been the propagation of even more divisiveness with the Republicans. He concludes that a successful political system demands compromise and collaboration, and that those factions that decry political compromise are too consumed with strategy and minor victories to be truly interested in the overarching benefit of the nation.
Chapter Three: Our Constitution
As a scholar of constitutional law, Obama brings a unique perspective to the recent debate surrounding the correct approach to interpreting and applying the tenets of the Constitution. He frames his discussion of the Constitution with an account of his first weeks as a senator in Washington, during which time he became acquainted with many of the old-guard lawmakers who, he found, displayed a reverence for the Constitution that was often unmatched in their younger counterparts. One particularly troubling manifestation of this irreverence was the debate over the filibustering of President Bush’s judicial nominees, which Obama regarded as a low point in recent Congressional history. He positions himself as a lawmaker who recognizes the historical significance of the Constitution, but who feels it is a living document that must be applied flexibly in order to remain relevant in an ever-changing world.
Chapter Four: Politics
In this chapter, Obama continues his discussion of the ways in which the political process itself makes it difficult for politicians to remain true to their values. He recounts his awkward early encounters with potential donors, as well as the pitfalls associated with seeking out the endorsements of special interest groups. Both of these groups often regard their support as a guarantee that the candidate will unfailingly endorse their pet issues. However, in order to increase the efficacy of the political process, Obama asserts that political candidates should not vow their loyalty to any special interest group. While he regards it as acceptable and perhaps even inevitable that some general promises of support and ideological compatibility are necessary to attain the funding and endorsement necessary to mount a successful campaign, Obama contends that politicians must instead pledge to carefully consider each issue and proposed bill as it arises, on an individual, case-by-case basis. He also exhorts his colleagues to loosen their grip on the trappings of power in order to foster the kind of dynamic, discursive government that best serves the needs of the constituency.
Chapter Five: Opportunity
Obama devotes this chapter to a discussion of the U.S. economy and the way that its evolution over time has impacted the social, cultural, and political climate in the country. The senator’s upward trajectory placed him in a position to have access to some of the wealthiest individuals and most successful companies in the world. Ironically, Obama’s sense that the country’s economic and educational systems are failing the poor, oppressed, and marginalized are confirmed by his meetings with some of the most prominent, wealthy, and innovative individuals and teams. He sets forth a number of practical solutions for reforming the nation’s public schools, including merit-based pay for teachers and alternative schooling formats. Most significantly, Obama insists on school reform efforts that have been proven, either through prior implementation or through empirical research. He also recounts his decision to forego the convenience of traveling by corporate jet and being rewarded for this move by having the opportunity to reconnect firsthand with constituents.
Chapter Six: Faith
Delving back into the discussion about the polarity that has come to characterize the American political sphere in recent years, Obama tackles the issue of religious faith, focusing specifically on the origins and impact of the Democratic party’s increasing discomfort with displays of religious faith. According to Obama, as the GOP has become increasingly associated with evangelical Christianity, Democrats have somewhat automatically assumed the opposite position, and increasing numbers of progressives seem willing to attack all reference to religion in governmental contexts. Obama recounts his own journey from atheism to faith, contending that the structure of religion has fortified and deepened his moral convictions. Because of the high degree of religiosity reported in polls of Americans, he contends that regaining a sense of ease with religion is the only way that the Democrats will be able to connect with a majority of the public. At the same time, Obama asserts the continued importance of the separation of church and state, although he contends that some of the recent instances of persecution of this principle, such as the debate over the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, are somewhat ridiculous. He concludes that faith could serve as a common ground for future collaboration and cooperation between the two parties, and that tolerance and respect for religious diversity is of paramount importance.
Chapter Seven: Race
Obama’s unique racial heritage -- his mother was a white American, while his father was Kenyan -- and experience growing up in a number of far-flung locales including the American Midwest, Hawaii, and Indonesia have afforded him a unique vantage point in the continued discussion of race in the United States. He is convinced that although great progress has been made in the achievement of racial equality and the eradication of institutionalized discrimination, the daily experiences of people of color are still highly influenced by more subtle forms of prejudice. Some of this prejudice, he contends, is not fundamentally race-based, but rather, is the result of unfamiliarity and ignorance. In order to remove the vestiges of the shameful legacy of racism that persist, Obama exhorts Americans to respond to instances of racism with clear disapproval. At the same time, he calls on people of color to give up the mantle of victimhood and persecution that, he believes, limits their ability to reach their full potential.
Chapter Eight: The World Beyond our Borders
Obama frames his discussion of international diplomacy, defense strategy, and world affairs with an account of his own experience living abroad in Indonesia, where he resided with his mother and Indonesian stepfather for long stretches of his childhood. He contends that many Americans are unjustifiably cut off from international affairs, having been lulled into a sense of complacency and isolationism by decades in which only the slow-moving brinksmanship of the superpowers engaged in the Cold War was regarded as highly significant. Obama believes that the United States’ defense budget and military strategy has not fully adapted to the emerging state of world affairs. He proposes affording more responsibility in international policing efforts to our allies, and he strongly asserts the need for multilateralism and cooperation in future military efforts. Although Obama supported unilateral action in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, he argues that the prosecution of the Iraq war has been poorly handled.
Chapter Nine: Family
In this chapter, Obama offers an autobiographical account of his own family life, paired with a discussion of the unique challenges and obstacles that face American families today. Due to changes in the affordability of the accoutrements of middle-class life, many American families are forced to have both parents working full-time outside of the home. This state of affairs can be difficult for all family members, Obama notes, describing his own family’s struggles to maintain balance and assign responsibilities fairly as he and his wife juggle personal and professional commitments. Although he concedes that this situation is not ideal, Obama argues that the Republicans who seek to impose a more traditional family structure are not advancing a realistic solution. He abhors any attempt to legislate personal morality and intimate life choices, while at the same time recognizing that both supportive social policies and personal responsibility are needed to allow children the unshakable foundation of stability and structure that they need to thrive.
Obama concludes The Audacity of Hope with an account of the days and weeks leading up to his delivery of the keynote address bearing the same title as the book at the 2004 Democratic Convention. He expresses gratitude at the attention and accolades that his sudden fame has afforded him, but at the same time, he says that he remains somewhat puzzled at the processes and machinations by which all of this hype came to be focused upon him. Regardless of which way his political career heads in the future, he vows to retain perspective, humor, and humility, as well as an overarching commitment to the greater good that first propelled him into public service.