I have been reading The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama. (It was given to me by my mother. I think she is trying to make me less of a right wing nutcase.)
Despite the nauseating title, I must say the book is much more interesting than I expected.
Mr Obama’s anecdotes, about the Capitol, about meeting President Bush, about the daily business of government are not the central purpose of the book – but they are the most interesting part of it. They are told with simplicity and a straightforward style that brings the reader right into those encounters.
But before I could turn around to go, the President himself appeared in the doorway and waved me in.
“Obama,” the President said, shaking my hand. “Come here and meet Laura. Laura, you remember Obama. We saw him on TV during election night. Beautiful family. And that wife of yours – that’s one impressive lady.”
“We both got better than we deserve, Mr President,” I said, shaking the First Lady’s hand and hoping that I’d wiped any crumbs off my face. The President turned to an aide nearby, who squirted a big dollop of hand sanitizer in the President’s hand.
“Want some?” the President asked. “Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds.”
Not wanting to seem unhygenic, I took a squirt.
Of course, since Mr Obama is a Democrat, there is quite a bit of left wing sentiment in his book – and yet it is trotted out with a strange lack of conviction, as though out of habit or perhaps out of a belief that those things have to be said to win those all-important votes. Mr Obama talks of the poor with a distinct detachment, with a cool aloofness that makes one wonder whether he really feels much kinship with them:
I am a Democrat after all…I am angry about policies that consistently favour the wealthy and powerful over average Americans, and insist that Government has an important role in opening up opportunity to all.
Wow – doesn’t that anger just come through loud and clear in that carefully political sentence? (“Average Americans” rather than “the poor“, “insisting” on that clinically “important role“.)
The real passion only comes through, just a little, when he talks of the issue of race:
I am a prisoner of my own biography: I can’t help but view the American experience through the lens of a black man of mixed heritage, forever mindful of how generations of people who looked like me were subjugated and stigmatized, and the subtle and not so subtle ways that race and class continue to shape our lives.
As he says, “My wife will tell you that by nature I’m not somebody who gets real worked up about things.”
This aloofness strays more than once into a certain smugness, a certain arrogance about his own superiority, not only to Republicans, but even to members of his own party. Others are petty enough to argue with each other; but Obama is above all that, sailing serenely across the political landscape that he graces with his presence:
Democratic audiences are often surprised when I tell them that I don’t consider George Bush a bad man, and that I assume he and members of his Administration are trying to do what they think is best for the country.
Aren’t we lucky to have such a pragmatic and generous man as President – not at all like all those miserably partisan run-of-the-mill Democrats?
There is also plenty of partisan pleading. Although that is to be expected, it is not done particularly intelligently. In a ridiculous passage in the first chapter, for example, he defends Bill Clinton and claims that:
[Newt Gingrich and other members of the Republican Right] understood the threat Clinton posed to their vision of a long term conservative majority, which helps explain the vehemence with which they went after him. It also explains why they spent so much time attacking Clinton’s morality, for if Clinton’s policies were hardly radical, his biography (the draft letter saga, the marijuana puffing, the Ivy League intellectualism, the professional wife who didn’t bake cookies, and most of all the sex) proved perfect grist for the conservative base.
Mr Clinton’s well documented lapses brought the office of President into disrepute. Obama spends much of his book urging Americans to come together and be less partisan. He should be more willing to credit the attackers of Clinton’s lapses with some genuine love and passion for the America that Mr Clinton was besmirching by those acts.
Indeed, a few pages later, Obama decries a modern politics that:
not only allows but often rewards behaviour that we would normally think of as scandalous…[such as] distorting the obvious meaning of what other people say, insulting or generally questioning their motives.
He falls into the same misrepresentation of his opponents when he talks about the abortion debate:
Most anti-abortion activists, for example, have openly discouraged legislative allies from even pursuing those compromise measures that would have significantly reduced the incidence of the procedure popularly known as partial-birth abortion, because the image the procedure invokes in the mind of the public has helped them win converts to their position.
Are those anti-abortion campaigners really so cynical and manipulative that they would be willing to condemn (as they would see it) infants to death to “win converts to their position”? Can Mr Obama really not understand that those activists have genuine conviction about their position, and not a mean-spirited political calculation?
What comes across more powerfully than anything in the book, is Mr Obama’s belief that somehow the disagreements don’t matter. That the arguments only happen because the politicians involved are too mean spirited to recognise each other’s humanity. That if we only talk together, we can work everything out.
And that in turn sheds enormous light on his current difficulties. Did he really believe before he started that there weren’t any genuine disagreements on the major issues of the day? That if he, Barack Obama, were there to help everybody hug each other, everything would be all right?
The truly great American Presidents – of both parties – have not been those who lacked conviction or passion. One thinks of Abraham Lincoln, or Roosevelt, or John F Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan. Those men each had powerful conviction. They were certainly not afraid to argue, to fight for the vision they believed in, and to attack their opponents. And yet, those Presidents at the same time managed to speak for the whole nation, in a sense to embody the nation in their own person; they had the charisma to be true leaders of the whole of America.
History has not been kind to Presidents who have been narrowly partisan and not carried the nation with them, like George W Bush. But neither has it been kind to Presidents who lack conviction and belittle the genuine disagreements that flourish in a democracy.
On the evidence of The Audacity of Hope, as well as on his record so far, Mr Obama is not destined to be a great President. He may achieve some small improvements, and he may suffer some small failures. His lack of conviction and passion will ensure that he does not either wreak any historic transformations, or suffer any ignominious disasters. But America has critical problems that need historic solutions. And Obama isn’t equipped to provide them.