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Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope

Maria Neophytou

Dreams from my father – A story of race and inheritance
Barack Obama
Three Rivers Press, 1995

The audacity of hope: Thoughts on reclaiming the American dream
Barack Obama
Canongate Books


The story of the Obama phenomenon so far already has the makings of political legend. Barack Obama started to generate waves when he became the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. It was on the back of this achievement that he was approached to write his first book, Dreams from My Father, in 1995. After a spell in the Illinois state legislature, Obama staged an extraordinary primary win to become the Democrat candidate for the Illinois US Senate seat. In a seven-person field, he polled 53 per cent of the vote, including wins in the ‘collar counties’ around Chicago, which conventional wisdom held would never vote for a black candidate. He went on to take the seat from the Republicans, becoming the only African American in the Senate and only the third in US history.

On its re-release in 2004, the audio-book of Dreams from My Father earned him a Grammy Award for best spoken word album, and his second book, The Audacity of Hope, shot to the top of the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists. His talent for captivating, fluid prose is matched by a gift for rhetoric; his 2004 keynote electrified the Democrat National Convention, inspiring a devoted and ever growing following both nationally and around the world.

Earlier this year in Springfield Illinois, just like another tall, willowy, relatively inexperienced lawyer who 150 years ago took on and beat an array of heavyweight opponents to become President, Obama declared he was running for the White House. It was only natural that he did so on the same steps on which Abraham Lincoln had famously declared that ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand.’ Since then he has gone on to break all fundraising records, overtaking rival Hillary Clinton with a far higher number of individual donations. All this despite refusing to take money from special interests. His rallies and speeches across the US draw record crowds, and not just in the ‘blue’ states; 20,000 people braved a rainy day in Austin Texas to hear him speak, reportedly one of the largest turnouts for a political event in Texan history.

The question we are left with is, will he be able to add ‘first black president’ to this catalogue of achievements, and if so, what kind of president will he be?

If we are searching for clues about the man rather than the presidential candidate Dreams from My Father is the most rewarding read, a candid and moving account of Obama’s early struggles with notions of identity and race. Obama was born to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, who met as students in Hawaii. His father left when Obama was two to study at Harvard, eventually moving back to Kenya where he worked as a government economist. His mother remarried an Indonesian and Obama recalls his early childhood in Indonesia as: ‘a joyous time, full of adventure and mystery – days of chasing down chickens and running from water buffalo, nights of shadow puppets and ghost stories, and street vendors bringing delectable sweets to the door.’ Obama returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents while attending school, and then on to Occidental and Columbia Universities. After graduation, he moved to Chicago to work as a community organiser, co-ordinating housing and job creation projects in Chicago’s South Side. It is here, through this gruelling work in some of the poorest areas of America, where Obama’s political ideas begin to take shape. His religious convictions also deepened as he began to attend Trinity United Church of Christ.

In a particularly memorable scene, he recounts the story of the epiphanal sermon from which his second book takes its title and his political campaign takes its inspiration. The pastor speaks to the congregation of the hardships people have suffered through the ages; from slavery, apartheid, hunger and apathy, to their everyday struggles to pay the bills, cope with an abusive partner or absent parent. For Obama ‘these stories – of survival and freedom, and hope – become our story, my story … until this black church, in this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people unto future generations and into a larger world.’ We can only wonder whether, when he wrote these words in 1995, he knew how prophetic they would turn out to be.

We can also wonder whether he realised that his openness in the book would one day be manipulated by his political opponents, or indeed whether this would have made any difference. Dreams from My Father, with its admission that Obama took drugs as a young man; the stories of his Muslim grandfather with his many wives; the early attraction to elements of Black nationalism; have all provided plenty of fodder for the religious right and conservative media to portray Obama in alarmist and overtly prejudicial ways. Fox News has made much play of his middle name, Hussein and the (inaccurate) claim that he attended a madras in Indonesia; right-wing ‘shock jock’ Rush Limbaugh unrepentantly runs a song called ‘Barack the Magic Negro’ on his show. But it is these honest, thoughtful and sensitively told stories, of childhood days in Indonesia and adult journeys of discovery to Kenya, that make the book so compelling.

Obama’s early ideological and spiritual struggles, as he ponders his place as an African American in an American society still blighted by deep racial divisions, give a glimpse of a judicious and conscientious intellect which always seeks to weigh up all sides of a debate. In one passage, a young Obama wonders whether, given the enduring disparities in the life chances of blacks and whites, ‘a black politics that suppressed rage towards whites generally, or one that failed to elevate race loyalty above all else, was a politics adequate to the task’. It is edifying that he asks the question, even though his eventual conclusion is that only a politics which centres on opportunity for all rather than essentialising people on the basis of their race is the surest path to empowerment. By the time we get to The Audacity of Hope, Obama says he has ‘witnessed a profound shift in race relations in my lifetime. I have felt it as surely as one feels a change in the temperature'. The statistics are telling: in 1958, 53 per cent of white Americans said they would not vote for a black candidate for president, today the figure is closer to 6 per cent. It is not because of Barack Obama that America is ready to elect a black president; it is because America is ready that he is a serious contender. And it is because there is still so much progress to be made – in a country where about a third of black men born today can expect to end up in jail at some point in their lives – that his candidacy is so vital.

Whereas Dreams from My Father is both touching and challenging, and stays with you long after you’ve read it, The Audacity of Hope is more measured and cautious. It takes the reader through a series of broad thematic chapters, on politics, opportunity, faith, race, family, all interlaced with personal anecdotes, philosophical reflections, and an outline of what needs to change. The anecdotes are the most entertaining element by far: Obama’s bemusement at President Bush’s aide squirting sanitizer on to Bush’s hands as he shakes hands with the newly elected Senators; his meeting with former Klu Klax Klan member Senator Byrd and a beautifully understated moment of conciliation as Byrd bequeaths a bound volume of his books on the history of the Senate to Obama.

The book has been criticised for its broad-brush enunciations of values in the place of any concrete proposals for addressing America’s ills. Yet any politician who laid out a detailed, costed, manifesto for government two years before an election would be equally derided. The place of ‘values’ in the book is an interesting one. The values Obama espouses say a great deal about his character but actually end up revealing little about his politics. He maintains that it is values which should guide one’s politics, not any sort of ideological disposition; ‘values are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question'. It could be argued that such views are a function of American politics, which is less welded to ideology than European politics. But it is also a function of Democrat politics. Progressives may shudder at current Republican ideology, but neo-conservatives can at least be easily identified and their ideological orientations give their politics an element of coherence and predictability. In contrast, Democrat politics lacks consistency, and by extension, a definitive identity. Obama is well aware of this problem, himself stating that where the Republicans are ideological, the Democrats are simply reactionary. But the problem surely lies with the nature of Republican ideology rather than with the notion of ideology itself. Values can be shared by a broad spectrum of people, but political identity stems from an adherence to a set of ideological principles. We can all agree that everyone should have access to healthcare, but the means of achieving this for someone who believes in the primacy of the market and its ability to deliver all goods, and someone who believes in public goods whose universal accessibility is guaranteed and paid for by the state, substantively differ.

Obama speaks of the ‘magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics.’ In deriding the current pernicious bipartisan political climate, he favours a politics which at least attempts to bring the ‘broad majority of Americans – Democrats, Republicans and Independents of goodwill’ on board. A broad coalition would certainly be helpful in facing down challenges like overhauling the healthcare system and re-orientating foreign policy. But what if Obama can't bring the majority with him – will he be bold enough to go ahead anyway? On the current evidence, we can assume he will. In 2002 Obama was asked to make a speech in Chicago about the impending war in Iraq. Support for the war was riding at about 60 per cent in the US at this stage and he was warned that an anti-war speech would jeopardise his Senate bid. Nevertheless, this is what he said, in the autumn of 2002:

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at underdetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without clear rationale and without strong international support, will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather then the best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda.

These pronouncements seem so obvious now that one wonders how those who took us to war could not have known this too. This speech, indeed Obama’s consistent unerring analysis of the Iraq War, demonstrates two of the essential qualities of leadership: courage and judgement. No one could accuse Tony Blair or George Bush of not having the courage of their convictions, even when many of their traditional allies held a different view. But what they lacked on this occasion, and what Obama has demonstrated – especially with respect to foreign affairs – is the ability to judge the situation, not only from the position of his national government but from the perspective of the people affected. Obama may be relatively inexperienced, but his track record so far, in opposing the Iraq War; seeking to balance free trade with workers’ rights in opposing the Central American Free Trade Agreement; striving to protect civil liberties by introducing a bill to prohibit racial profiling; a progressive senatorial voting record significantly to the left of Hillary Clinton’s; making the formulation of a workable, universal, healthcare model the highest priority of his campaign; and promising to double aid to the developing world; to give just a few examples, give cause for hope.

In a crowded field of nineteen or so presidential candidates, Obama’s campaign has a magic and a momentum. The election of America’s first black president would hold a powerful symbolism, for progress in race relations in America and racial justice globally. But after eight years of George W. Bush, it is the election of a candidate with personal integrity and a clear sense of moral purpose, who speaks with understanding, compassion and the promise of transformation to the most vulnerable at home and abroad, which is the most tantalizing prospect. How then can we help but heed Obama’s call, and dare to hope? Barack Obama has raised the bar. It is up to him now, to show the audacity that will be needed to live up to these hopes.