Book Review: The Audacity Of Hope (Barack Obama, 2006)

Categories: Book Reviews, Politics
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Published on: 2013.11.13

Title: The Audacity Of Hope: Thoughts On Reclaiming The American Dream
Author: Barack Obama
Year: 2006
Publisher: Crown Publishers
ISBN 978-0-307-23769-9
View it on Amazon
View it on Google Books
Wikipedia article

Before this, I think I’ve only read two other books by Presidents of the United States, one by John F. Kennedy (Profiles in Courage) and one by Lyndon B. Johnson (The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969). One huge difference this time is that Obama was the current president while I read the book. Another difference is that the book is really well written.

The Audacity Of Hope (2006)
Audacity’s cover
(Copyright © 2013 by Wil C. Fry.)

Neither Kennedy’s nor Johnson’s books were enjoyable to read, despite what worthwhile content they may have contained. I wouldn’t recommend either to the average reader. Obama’s book on the other hand, I’d recommend to just about anyone. It’s easy enough to read, and has a lot to say.

I got this book in hardcover for $1.94 (plus $3.99 for shipping charges) from Clean Earth Books via Amazon Marketplace, after reading most of it from a public library edition and deciding I wanted to spend more time with it. The low price probably doesn’t say anything about its popularity; these days the book market is unsurprisingly unreliable, with half the population not reading at all and the other half switching to electronic reading material.

According to Wikipedia, this book has been translated into 30-something languages. It was on the New York Times Bestseller list for 30-something weeks. And the audiobook version (voiced by Obama himself, apparently) won a Grammy.

Despite various claims passed around in sick and hateful emails prior to Obama’s elections, there’s nothing in this book indicating that Obama’s a Muslim or that he hates the United States or that he hates white people. The book is actually about what its extended title says: “Thoughts On Reclaiming The American Dream”.

It was written while he was still a junior U.S. senator from Illinois, some time between his famous “Audacity of Hope” speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and his 2006 announcement that he would be a candidate for the the Presidency. I suppose it was worth reading back then because he was a viable candidate for president. I think it’s worth reading now because of what it contains.

Not only does much of it stand in stark contrast to Obama’s actual presidency — because what someone hopes will happen isn’t the same was what he can get Congress to do in real life — but much of it is still valid food for thought — since so little of it has yet been accomplished.

According to Obama’s prologue, “This book grows directly out of those [aforementioned] conversations on the campaign trail.”

“No blinding insights emerged from these months of conversation. If anything, what struck me was just how modest people’s hopes were, and how much of what they believed seemed to hold constant across race, region, religion, and class.”

And he spends much of the book emphasizing this constancy, noting that voters across party lines are equally put out with the nation’s politics and that the answer won’t be found on the far left or the far right. But I suspect that — rather than mirroring my own belief that the two-party system is the biggest problem with the U.S. — he’s actually just offering a sop to the right.

“I am a Democrat, after all; my views on most topics correspond more closely to the editorial pages of the New York Times than those of the Wall Street Journal.”

However, on many issues mentioned in the book, he does seem to look for the common sense answer, the solution that isn’t partisan but helpful and realistic. It was this common sense approach that drew my attention as I began reading and kept me till the end. As for the issues themselves, they are as varied as our nation’s citizens, ranging from commerce, crime, and capitalism to religion, race, and poverty.

The “spectacle” of politics in Washington D.C. is rightly blamed for much of the nation’s failure to act in key areas.

“…Most people who serve in Washington have been trained either as lawyers or as political operatives — professions that tend to place a premium on winning arguments rather than solving problems.”

In many cases, for example with poverty and eduction, Obama’s suggestions for betterment come from a good place — common sense — and thus shouldn’t polarize readers too much. In other cases, I felt like he simply couldn’t understand the other side’s viewpoint. For example, while attempting to point out that both sides have legitimate values, he came up with this:

“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 conservatives recognized that most women feel as protective of their right to reproductive freedom as evangelicals do of their right to worship.” (page 57)

All the way up to the colon, I was agreeing, but then I ran into a brick wall. Is he honestly comparing guns to library books? And abortion to religion? Were these the best examples he could come up with? In this single sentence, it became clear that he doesn’t at all understand the feelings or beliefs of the gun owner, nor those of evangelicals. It’s possible to be so far removed from a viewpoint that you can only pretend to understand.

(Ironically, a couple of pages later: “Sometimes our ideological predispositions are just so fixed that we have trouble seeing the obvious.”)

In the end, I felt like the book was a sincere attempt to say: There IS a solution. We CAN work together. Because we all want the same things. At least 80 percent of the suggestions — if implemented someday — would likely make the country a better place for most of us.

One thing that doesn’t come across well is “How do we pay for it?” (page 187).

“On paper, at least, we know what to do. We can cut and consolidate nonessential programs. We can rein in spending on health-care costs. We can eliminate tax credits that have outlived their usefulness and close loopholes that let corporations get away without paying taxes. And we can restore a law that … prohibits money from leaving the federal treasury, either in the form of new spending or tax cuts, without some way of compensating for the lost revenue.”

He goes on to list the usual suspects: rich people. “Once your drapes cost more than the average American’s yearly salary, then you can afford to pay a bit more in taxes.” And it’s difficult to disagree, when the Mitt Romneys of the world pay less in taxes (percentage-wise) than the rest of us.

He also opened up a bit about his family — his parents and grandparents as well as his wife and children — giving a welcome glimpse into Obama the man, rather than Obama the senator or president.

The most surprising thing about the book, however, was how different it seemed from his presidency. Not that he failed to try, but that he failed to foresee how adamantly his congressional opponents would resist everything he did. I’d be curious to hear his thoughts upon re-reading this book after he’s been replaced in 2017.

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