Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

Tonight I finished The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama; a book I have been reading for at least a year, if not nearly two. The reason for this is not that it is incredibly dull or anything the like; it is simply because I have put it down every time my course work has been demanding too much time, and that has been often. Nevertheless, I have now finished it and I thought I should share my thoughts on it. Unfortunately I did not think to take notes on the first few chapters and as it was a very long time ago I read them I will not be referring specifically to them.

Obama is clearly trying to portray himself as a politician with experience, probably because of his young age and his actual relative inexperience for a presidential candidate. In the first part of the book talks about the intricacies of the power plays on Capitol Hill. A particular area of interest is where he discusses the role of lobbying in the American society, both clearly condemning the development of the practice where the people with the money have the most access to politicians, but also its value in that interest groups can truly represent minority interests of value.

When it comes to the economy, Obama is an outspoken supporter of FDR and Keynes, and so also an efficient welfare system (even though he may not use exactly those words), especially health care and education. The bleak picture Obama paints of America and the poorer part of the population reminds me of a pre-welfare Europe where status and blood (in the US - money) mattered more than you being a human being. He quite clearly believes a solid system of education will enable USA to become a more efficient and developed country, and key to this is better access to higher education.

It is interesting, because the chapter entitled 'Opportunity' (Chapter 5) is the chapter where it becomes very noticeable that Obama is trying to appease people not normally within his voter base. He glosses over uncomfortable questions and tries almost a bit too hard to meet halfway instead of perhaps trying the slightly more radical approach (not radical by European standards by far, however). Nevertheless, it seems Obama has a sensible approach to economy and worries about the large national debt, something that doesn't receive too much attention in political writings. Joseph Stiglitz, former Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank, deals with the topic in his book Making Globalization Work: The Next Steps to Global Justice, a book I would recommend.

Obama deals with religion in a very diplomatic way. He argues that it is dangerous not to admit what a great place it has in the US society, but he does not seem to think that it should be muddled with politics. It is a private matter, very important, but private. A big disappointment is when he starts talking about his mother and comes to the conclusion that she was incurably alone because she did not belong to any faith. While this will sit right with a lot of religious groups in America, it is still a very offensive generalisation, and one that may not be entirely correct. On morals, he states that he believes that it is these that bridge the American society, and while that may be a very nice notion, it becomes worrying when he writes "I believe that American society can choose to carve out a special place for the union of a man and a woman as the unit of child rearing most common to every culture" (p. 222). This is a statement on which, in his chapter on family (chapter 9) seems to contradict himself when he talks about the changing forms of family. This is precisely the type of balancing acts that can be found throughout the book where he attempts to appease both red and blue, but not always managing. Perhaps he thought that placing the two statements a couple of chapters apart would make most people not notice?

I have always been attracted by Obama's foreign policy and he did not disappoint me much in his chapter on the wider world, although I was a bit surprised to find out that he had, already in this book published 2006, stated that he believed an early withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan was dangerous. The way media had portrayed him when he decided to deplore more troops to one place and slowly withdraw troops from the other was as a peace-loving, war-hating pacifist who voted against the war and would stop it at almost any cost.
A particular highlight was when he discussed IMF and World Bank policies and argued that they had been unsuccessful, implying that he does not himself believe in the neo-liberal approach with trickle-down policies and all that comes with it.
Further, the section where he explained why the US needs to co operate diplomatically and not charge violently through the world was simply beautiful. He argues that it is the duty of the US, as a world leader, to lead by example, that they cannot make demands of other nations without first adhering to principles themselves. It is a brilliant piece where he plays to people's patriotism and compassion and shows what makes him such a brilliant rhetoric.

Obviously I wish there would be an entire chapter on women, but I have to say that Obama does not skirt over the issue. He openly acknowledges that he has fallen into the gender role trap and expected his wife to bear the brunt of responsibility over the rearing of their children while he pursued his career. I am sure this appealed to a lot of women, but (there's always a but) there are several issues he neglects to address. As with many other articles and chapters on marriage, he argues that children need both a mother and a father. Himself being raised by a strong, single mother, knows how damaging it can be to a child not to have a father figure. Not once does he address the assumption of a heterosexual norm for the family. The two mommies or two daddies scenario is completely left out on the picture and not even fleetingly brushed upon. Neither does he address the socio-economic differences that usually lead children in a single parent family into hardship. The assumption is that if fathers start taking their responsibility, the world will automatically be a better place. If I am not mistaken I think he addresses the wage gap at one point, but it is nowhere satisfactory and there is no correlation made between this and the poverty of families headed by single mothers or a solution besides keeping the heteronormative nuclear family.
Besides, even after admitting to wanting his wife to sacrificing her career in favour for his, he does not reveal what conclusion they reached. There is not even a mention if they came to an agreement in the end or if he just kept to the same pattern and expected her to follow. Describing her as smart, beautiful and funny does not make up for that. That barely reaches the grade Satisfactory, president Obama!

The book is an interesting read, especially after Obama has actually been elected president. Although he is trying to appeal to both sides of the electorate simultaneously and sometimes seems to compromise on his own views because of it, he still comes across as more determined and steadfast than he has as president. Trying to achieve bipartisan co operation is all very well and a noble and important point to strive for, but if he does not end up achieving it before his term is up, he may just be remembered for being indecisive on issues splitting the party - compromising on health care, the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy etc.

Still, read it! This is arguably the most powerful person in the world, or at least one of them, and we need to be familiar with him.

Also, on a side note: can I recommend this article from the Edmonton Journal that reports on an anti-rape campaign that tries to place the focus and responsibility where it should lie - on the perpetrators. It is nice for once to see preventative methods that does not tell women not to dress in a certain way or not to walk in certain areas, implying that if they still do and end up being sexually assaulted, they are the ones to blame.
A fantastic book dealing with this issue, since we're on books tonight, is Joyce Carol Oates' novel Rape: A Love Story, a tragic but educative story. It is fiction, but very important.

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