Barack Obama for Prez:
The Audacity of Hope
Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
By Barack Obama
Crown, 365 pages, $25
One point to keep in mind is that Barack Obama never asked for all of this. He did not ask the media to liken him to the aurora borealis and the rising sun, never volunteered to carry on his shoulders all the political hopes of Democrats in general and African-Americans in particular. Just two years ago, Obama was merely an Illinois state senator running for a U.S. Senate seat.
So let's review his new book the way I believe Obama would want it reviewed--on its own merits, not as the latest artifact of his superstardom. This month the guy is on the cover of Men's Vogue. It's probably just a matter of time until he makes the cover of Popular Mechanics.
Is the book any good, then? Let's put it this way: as books by politicians go, it's better than most.
If you are a high elected official there is no trick to publishing a book, or at least what you and the publisher will call a book. Just have your staff stitch together some speeches, press releases and interview transcripts and give the result a high-minded title. This maneuver often is used by people planning to run for president--see, for example, A Charge to Keep, "written" by then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas in 1999.
Obama, though, already had written a memoir, Dreams from My Father, in 1995. A publisher suggested that he write it after Obama, the son of a white Kansan mother and a black Kenyan father, was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. In 2004, after Obama gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, his book rocketed up the best seller lists.
In an interview last winter, Obama told me he was busy writing a then-untitled book about national issues. "One of the things about having written this first one is, the threshold is a little higher. People know what my voice sounds like. I can't fake it with a ghostwriter," he said.
Sure enough, The Audacity of Hope echoes the voice from Dreams from My Father. Obama has a self-deprecating, novelist's touch for telling anecdotes (many politicians totally lack this particular skill, which is why they pay big bucks to communications consultants). Here is Obama at his first meeting in the White House with President Bush:
"We both got better [wives] than we deserve, Mr. President," I said, shaking the First Lady's hand and hoping that I'd wiped any crumbs off my face. The President turned to an aide nearby, who squirted a big dollop of hand sanitizer in the President's hand.
" 'Want some?' the President asked. 'Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds.' "
"Not wanting to seem unhygienic, I took a squirt."
Next, Bush offers the young senator some advice: "You've got a bright future ... When you get a lot of attention like you've been getting, people start gunnin' for ya. And it won't necessarily just be coming from my side, you understand. From yours, too. Everybody'll be waiting for you to slip, know what I mean? So watch yourself."
"Thanks for the advice, Mr. President."
But what, exactly, si The Audacity of Hope about? It is a mixture of personal memoir and lengthy analyses of public policy options. The policy sections sometimes drag. The final chapters, especially, have a slapdash quality betraying a writer on deadline.
Obama states that "the topic of the book" is "how we might begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life." Some candid, original thoughts are dropped among the bromides. "I'd suggest a few things that the American people should be able to agree on, starting points for a new consensus," he writes. That happens to introduce a discussion of foreign policy, but the same come-let-us-reason-together technique applies to a discursive swing through the nastiness of modern politics, some constitutional issues, the role of values and faith in public life, the economy, race and affirmative action.
"A second, more intimate theme to this book," Obama writes, is "how I, or anybody in public office, can avoid the pitfalls of fame, the hunger to please, the fear of loss, and thereby retain that kernel of truth." Obama does not say so, but President Bush's advice to him was unnecesssary. He is cool-headed enough to appreciate that he might fall as spectacularly as he ascended.
There is a third, tacit theme: the failure of the national Democratic Party. Obama can be scathing: "I also think my party can be smug, detached, and dogmatic at times. . . . We Democrats are just, well, confused. . . . The Democratic Party has become the party of reaction. . . . We lose elections and hope for the courts to foil Republican plans. We lose the courts and hope for a White House scandal."
Who might rescue the party from this terrible plight in the presidential election of 2008? Again, Obama does not say so, but his book no doubt will add evidence for the many people who think they already know the answer.