Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope

UNITED STATES SENATOR BARACK OBAMA

I. INTRODUCTION

Barack Obama’s highly anticipated book was officially released on Tuesday. He made his first public appearance celebrating the book’s publication yesterday morning at a small bookstore near the campus of the venerable University of Chicago (in his own Hyde Park neighborhood). Obama debuted his new book at the same 57th Street shop where he launched his first book, Dreams of My Father, in 1995. At that time, there were no television cameras outside the quaint, subterranean bookstore and no lines of people waiting hours to get in, as there were on Tuesday.

He said that Dreams of My Father had sold only 14,000 copies in its first nine years. However, after delivering a Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, the book immediately rocketed up the best-sellers charts. “My suspicion is that some people buy them because they know my name,” Obama said. “Hopefully, after people read it and they think it’s worth reading, they’ll pass it on.” When he arrived at the small bookstore at 8:30 a.m., the first of his three book signings in Chicago on Tuesday, hundreds were standing in line cheering for him and a woman shouted “Obama for President!” Some people had begun lining up outside the bookstore as early as 5:30 in the morning to have the chance to meet him and buy his book.

Over the years, I’ve probably crossed paths with him several times in Hyde Park, since I’ve lived and worked there for decades. I so deeply wish that I could have had the pleasure of visiting with him at the book signing on Tuesday (it was scheduled for 8:30 a.m.), but I see an older adolescent in contemporary psychoanalytic psychotherapy at that time. I never cancel an appointment with a young person except for events related to clinical, health or mental health issues. However, it should be noted that, coinciding with the book’s release, The New York Times has published an especially lauditory review of his book, The Audacity of Hope.

Excerpts from that review follow:

Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois and the Democratic Party’s new rock star, is that rare politician who can actually write, and write movingly and genuinely about himself. Mr. Obama’s new book, “The Audacity of Hope,” the phrase comes from his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address, which made him the party’s rising young hope is devoted to laying out Mr. Obama’s policy positions on a host of issues, from education to health care to the war in Iraq.

In his 2004 keynote address Mr. Obama spoke of the common ground Americans share: “There is not a Black America and White America and Latino America and Asian America, there’s the United States of America.” And the same message, rooted in his own youthful efforts to grapple with racial stereotypes, racial loyalty and class resentments, threads its way through the pages of this book.”

Mr. Obama eschews the Manichean language that has come to inform political discourse, and he rejects what he sees as the either-or formulations of his elders who came of age in the 60’s. “In the back-and-forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004,” he writes, “I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation, a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago, played out on the national stage. The victories that the 60’s 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.”

He assails President Bush for waging an unnecessary and misguided war in Iraq and for promoting an “Ownership Society” that “magnifies the uneven risks and rewards of today’s winner-take-all economy.” Yet he also takes the Democrats to task for becoming “the party of reaction.” “In reaction to a war that is ill-conceived, we appear suspicious of all military action. In reaction to those who proclaim the market can cure all ills, we resist efforts to use market principles to tackle pressing problems. In reaction to religious overreach, we equate tolerance with secularism and forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with a larger meaning. We lose elections and hope for the courts to foil Republican plans. We lose the courts and wait for a White House scandal.”

Mr. Obama strives in these pages to ground his policy thinking in simple common sense, be it “growing the size of our armed forces to maintain reasonable rotation schedules” or reining in spending and rethinking tax policy to bring down the nation’s huge deficit, while articulating these ideas in level-headed, nonpartisan prose. That, in itself, is something unusual, not only in these venomous pre-election days, but also in these increasingly polarized and polarizing times.”

II. PERSONAL REFLCTIONS ON SENATOR OBAMA’S VISION OF HOPE

Barack Obama’s concise description of the overarching interpenetration of government and values is as simple and broad as I’ve heard or read in a long time. To me, Obama’s description conveys a strong, but warm, emotional, and stalwart sense of conviction that resonates as a contemporary recollection of the late, former President John F. Kennedy. I don’t say this as an Aristotelean rhetorical syllogism to boost his reputation, nor do I mean that their ideas and beliefs are equivalent. For Obama, hope for the future requires all of us to attempt to eliminate politically polarized positions. He is calling for us to pay attention to the real foundation of a decent democracy, to actually recognize the reality of other people’s perspectives, to consider that theirs might be just as good as our own or even better. As practical examples, Obama is not afraid to propose that this renewed way of thinking should be applied to what are now four ongoing, extremely controversial areas.

The first area relates to the question of to what extent, under what conditions and in what situations can citizens retain the right to bear arms. The second involves the process of education, especially as it relates to the freedom to know without the constraints of governmental censorship reaching into almost every aspect of our daily lives. While Orwell details this issue in his book 1984, he wrote a separate, little known paper more directly and deeply examining this threat to our sense of personal autonomy. It appears that out of respect for the highly complicated myriad of questions related to education and the acquisition of knowledge, Obama takes great care to highlight them within the context of a discrete metaphoric reference to how people “feel about their library books.”

The third issue is framed by a strong statement of support for the right of women to make decisions about their own bodies, which reflects a broader commitment to gender equality. It is a striking example of Obama’s political discretion that he does not set limits upon the kinds of issues that might be contained within his dedication to and sense of promise regarding gender equality. Considering that his guiding mission is driven by a deep capacity for empathic relationships with others, it is not implausible to speculate that his sensitivy to gender equality might extend to a sensitivity to equality for groups in addition to those specifically defined by gender. This conjecture appears to be supported by his firm opposition to any form of political ideology (for example, see the writings of Hanna Arendt) that is based solely “on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally.”

Finally, Senator Obama emphasizes the need for us to be able to sustain a mutually reciprocal respect for each others’ sense of faith, however defined. This refers to the right for each to worship, unfettered by a claim to privileged access to “the truth” by any particular religious sect. Further, even when one form of religion does lay claim to special access to “the divine truth,” he urges us to support and respect even “their right to worship.”

He is especially strident in his concerns about how highly authoritarian and aggressive our government’s actions have become, based upon current domestic and foreign policies that seem to be irrational, undefined and fraught with a general sense of confusion. This state of affairs can only engender ever increasing feelings of interpersonal isolation, lack of connection and “chronic loneliness” among our citizenry. Opposed to this dysfunctional state, Obama speaks with a clear voice for “America’s Yearning for…Connection.” Obama is powerfully resolved that what we desperately need in our lives are the means and tools to develop the capacitities, or internal resources, to reconstruct a sense of continuity, personal meaning, mutual trust and sturdy attachment to others important in our lives.

III. NOTES ON OBAMA’S VISION OF WHAT AMERICA SHOULD AND COULD BE

Senator Obama’s Vision of Hope and The Political World:

In his second memoir in 11 years, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Sen. Obama paints a picture of America as it is and as he believes it should be. Obama, discusses faith, politics, values, race, opportunity and the United States’ place on the global stage in his book that hit bookstore shelves on Tuesday.

The title of Obama’s new book comes from the Keynote Address that he delivered at the Democratic National Convention in July 2004, in which he said the “audacity of hope” is “God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.” The phrase, “audacity of hope,” Obama explains in his book, is one he first heard in a sermon by his pastor at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ.

On Democracy and Values

In a country as diverse as ours, there will always be passionate arguments about how our democracy works. But our democracy might work a bit better if we recognized that all of us possess values that are worthy of respect: if liberals at least acknowledged that the recreational hunter feels the same way about his gun as they feel about their library books, and if the conservatives recognized that most women feel as protective of their right to reproductive freedom as evangelicals do of their right to worship.

A Guiding Mission:

I find myself returning again and again to my mother’s simple principle — ‘How would that make you feel?’ — as a guidepost for my politics. It’s not a question we ask ourselves enough, I think; as a country, we seem to be suffering from an empathy deficit.”

We wouldn’t tolerate schools that don’t teach, that are chronically underfunded and understaffed and underinspired, if we thought that the children in them were like our children. . . . And it’s safe to assume that those in power would think longer and harder about launching a war if they envisioned their own sons and daughters in harm’s way.”

Political Ideology:

I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally. I think much of what ails the inner city involves a breakdown in culture that will not be cured by money alone, and that our values and spiritual life matter at least as much as our GDP.”

On Political Facades:

Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith — such as the politician who shows up at a black church around election time and claps (off rhythm) to the gospel choir or sprinkles in a few biblical citations to spice up a thoroughly dry policy speech.”

Our Current Foreign Policy:

Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur? Are our goals in Iran regime change, the dismantling of all Iranian nuclear capability, the prevention of nuclear proliferation, or all three? . . . Perhaps someone in the White House has clear answers to these questions. But our allies — and for that matter our enemies — certainly don’t know what those answers are. More important, neither do the American people.

America’s Yearning for Spiritual Connection:

They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives, something that will relieve a chronic loneliness or lift them above the exhausting, relentless toll of daily life. They need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them — that they are not just destined to travel down a long highway toward nothingness.”

If I have any insight into this movement toward a deepening of religious commitment, perhaps it’s because it’s a road I have traveled.”

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