The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Book Review: The Audacity of Hope

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 22, 2009 @ 06:30

Now he really is a little too cheerful on this cover page...

Now he really is a little too cheerful on this cover page...

I’ve been meaning to share some of my thoughts on my completion of Barack Obama’s second treatise for a while now but never seem to find the time to do it. However, a trip to Bangor to do some Lib Dem canvassing tomorrow means this post was prepared a little earlier for publication today. Oh, how I love WordPress!

The Audacity of Hope is an impressive read. Obama’s mastery of the spoken word is legendary, but that doesn’t necessarily translate so easily into print. The delivery of Obama’s speeches is as much responsible for his talent as the content of them.

In written form, you have no chance of using pauses for effect and dramatic intonation. You’ve gotta deliver the goods in a completely different way: with cogent, well-structured argument that builds up to its thesis.

Obama seems to be pretty decent at this too. The book is a measured approach to what Obama plans to do during his term(s?) of office. To say it is pragmatic would be an understatement. This book has convinced me that Obama is no visionary, like FDR. He has his dreams, but he doesn’t appear to be able to follow them through because of his (paraphrased) continual refrain of “I see your point”. It gets somewhat exhausting the deeper you go into the tome.

Many times in the book Obama insists that both sides have got the solution to a problem wrong. This is no more so than when he talks about race – an area in which his writing is particularly compelling. He argues that the left making excuses for black people means that they don’t take personal responsibility seriously. Meanwhile, the right’s arguments that they deserve no special treatment doesn’t appreciate the pain brought about by decades of repression.

Yet Obama manages to square the circle in his response, something I’ve discussed in a previous post. His solution to most things appears to be to tell both left and right that they’re wrong reminds me of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Our old friend, The Third Way.

It works to a limited extent. It gets you elected. It keeps people happy for a while. But in the end, when it comes to conviction, it can be a huge drawback. Perhaps this is why he is missing the huge opportunity to push forward with healthcare reform. He tried to make out that he would be a “healing” President, contrary to the way George W. Bush drove everything and anything through Congress.

Consequently, he is terribly afraid of doing the same.

But in the case of healthcare, he’s missing a trick. The public are behind him. He has to be brave enough to take upon the mantle of the destroyer of special interests. He claims he is prepared to take them on in this book; indeed he insists that they are one of the reasons why America is in trouble. But I’ve yet to see him really do it.

I think this natural caution is stopping him from becoming a seriously great President.

While the book is sensible and middle of the road, tackling defence, terrorism, partisan bickering, religion and family in rational, logical ways, his approaches and solutions are lacking. By that I mean that he underestimates his own power of persuasion.

Instead of trying to be centrist and “bi-partisan” by pandering to his opposition for no reason other than keeping them sweet, I believe he could very easily forge a consensus around his true beliefs by ratcheting up the rhetoric. It is equally “bi-partisan” if you stick firmly to your guns and win people to your side. On healthcare, if he could only do that, rather than trade away bits of the necessary reform to buy off corporate lobbyists and corrupt Senators, he would achieve his vision; rather than only get bits of it.

Better still, he would actually deliver something that works. Taking ideas from left and right, just because that’s the nice and friendly thing to do, and adding them up into one package doesn’t make a neat centrist plan that will succeed. It makes a hotch-potch of contradictions that will be exploited and ignored.

This is the dangerous ground he is wading into. He almost did it with the stimulus – which is working – to buy votes in the Senate that he didn’t need. Throughout the book though he is hyper-obsessed with delivering things without the usual partisan battle. Like he has a fetish for seeing the Senate vote count read 70+ instead of the 50 + Joe Biden that will do equally well.

Face up to it, Barack. Politics is about the battle. That’s partly why we play it. That’s why the Republicans want to fight with you at every turn. That is democracy, and the way it has always been done. Even in consensual countries; they still have elections after all! You’re right to say we can work together if our opinions are similarly aligned. But you will get no extra credit for working with crazy, right-wing nutters who think you weren’t even born in the country. Doing so will only water down what you really want, and deliver none of that so-called “change” that you desperately want to bring.

In the book, he seems to believe that he will be able to overcome these decades of partisan hackery. It’s not going to happen. Instead, he needs to show more courage in his beliefs. More faith that he, himself, does have the right answers.

Because that’s the real message that comes across. People shouldn’t go into politics unless they think they have a solution. That they have ideas and a strategy to deploy it. Instead, Obama comes across as not believing he has a way forward – but that he will find it by working with everyone.

It’s a noble attitude, admitting that you don’t have the solution to all of life’s problems. And none of us do. But, for those of us in politics, our fundamental beliefs should give us a steer on almost every issue, no matter what.

Obama doesn’t seem to have that conviction. At least, it doesn’t come across in his writing. His only faith is that the spirit of the American people is strong enough to find a way out of the hole they’re in. As if he can delegate enough power to let everyone else do the reforming for him. A misguided belief, too, that when people work together they can all find the answers that the country desperately needs.

In other words, it’s all the usual optimism and hope that “yes, we can”. But not enough meat.

Then again, if it was full of turgid policy details, I imagine it wouldn’t have been all that exciting a read.

Instead, it flowed well, was enjoyable, and it was uplifting. I really did believe that his brand of change is worth buying into. As a slick marketing document for his presidential candidacy, it is superb. And, as we’ve seen, it did the job.

But, as soon as I put my politico hat back on, I realised I still wasn’t quite sure exactly what it is he wants to sell me. What the implications of his agenda will be.

Fortunately, we have been able to see him get elected, so we can match him up against his word.

So far, it’s not all too good.

Perhaps, like Tony Blair though, he will learn to back his conviction more and more as the years go by.

Just as long as they don’t lead us into Iraq again…

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