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He spends a lot of time telling the stories of the people he met: his extended family, the residents of Altgeld, his buddies and acquaintances at Columbia. Obama doesn’t use these people to talk much about policy or conventional political maneuvering, eschewing even obvious opportunities to do so. The daily grind of politics doesn’t seem to drive him; actual human beings do. Along with the literary sensibility, it’s probably the most appealing thing about his first book.
On those occasions when Obama does talk about politics, it’s mostly to register unease or reduced expectations, and the focus is almost always local and personal. In his early days at Altgeld, he recognizes that he and the people he represented didn’t “yet have the power to change state welfare policy, or create local jobs, or bring substantially more money into the schools.” But they could “begin to improve basic services in Altgeld—get the toilets fixed, the heaters working, the windows repaired.” It wasn’t about changing the world; it was about fixing the toilets. “I don’t like politics so much,” he recalls his sister saying, perhaps portentously. “People always end up disappointed.”
The Audacity of Hope
Much of Obama’s famous, career-vaulting speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 was cobbled together from elements in Dreams from My Father. Again, Obama put himself at the center of the story, explicitly weaving himself into the larger national narrative. “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story,” he declared. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.” He wasn’t just writing his own story any more, he was writing one for the whole country, with himself as the protagonist.
But as Obama’s ambitions grew, so did the size and scope of his political expectations. And the stories he began to tell no longer served the individuals they were about, but the conventional political and policy goals he espoused. Early reservations about politics began to disappear, replaced by grander, self-centered narratives and promises to match.
Unlike its predecessor, Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, is a fairly conventional politician’s tome. Released in the autumn of 2006 as the senator was gearing up for a long-planned presidential run, Audacity splits time between explaining Obama’s basic outlook on life and politics, and talking about political issue areas that motivate him. Unlike his first book, it’s designed more for mass appeal than literary kudos. There’s nothing punk rock about it.
With its early invocations of touchstones that would define Obama’s first presidential term—health care, corporate jets, Warren Buffett’s taxes—the book often reads like a demo tape for the Obama presidency, laying out what have since become familiar riffs. It also predicts some of his failures.
One of Obama’s most oft-repeated fears is becoming a conventional politician, a compromised careerist who lives only for power, prestige, and reelection. Versions of this anxiety appear throughout Audacity. When Obama gets to Washington as a United States senator in 2004, he finds himself sympathizing with legislators he might have previously viewed as sellouts, and wonders if he’ll follow the same path, “transforming into the stock politician of bad TV movies.”
As he closes out the book’s introduction, he recalls a journalist asking him if he could be as interesting with his second book as he was with his first, which he takes to mean as a question of whether he could be as honest. He admits to wondering the same. Tellingly, he implies that we’ll know if he has changed not by his actions, but by his words. “How long,” he asks himself, “before you started sounding like a politician?” The transformation had already begun.
The lyricism of Dreams is mostly gone by Audacity, replaced with banal lists of binary pairs. He imagines, for example, people “waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point. They don’t always understand the arguments between right and left, conservative and liberal, but they recognize the difference between dogma and common sense, responsibility and irresponsibility, between those things that last and those that are fleeting.” He goes on like this, back and forth, on the first hand and on the second, seeing one perspective and then its opposite, viewpoint A and viewpoint B, until you are ready to thwack him, on the left side of his head and then on the right, with a perfectly balanced Styrofoam scale of justice.
Obama insists in Audacity that he will take a “pragmatic” approach to policymaking, navigating a course between the “false or cramped choices” (later shorted to the simpler “false choices” that would pock his presidential speechifying) that create “political polarization.” Yet his very word choices suggest that his preferences are anchored near the pole of modern Democratic thought. In the Obama lexicon, there’s no such thing as “funding” for science and infrastructure, there are only “investments,” usually in our future. Debates over education policy, he writes, are “stuck between those who want to dismantle the public school system and those who would defend an indefensible status quo, between those who say money makes no difference in education and those who want more”—a convenient but false choice of his own creation.
But Audacity does retain some of Dreams from My Father’s façade of humility and superficial wariness about asking too much from the political system. Obama still writes as if he is keenly aware that most people don’t really like politics and don’t have any desire to make it the focal point of their lives. He starts the book by declining to offer either a “unifying theory of American government” or “a manifesto for action.” Instead, he writes, “What I offer is something more modest: personal reflections on those values and ideals that have led me to public life, some thoughts on the ways that our current political discourse unnecessarily divides us, and my own best assessment…of the ways we can ground our politics in the notion of a common good.” When he actually starts to make demands of government, they turn out to be a little bigger than his aw-shucks introduction suggests. But he still starts from an assumption there’s only so much politics can, or should, do.
Obama was already well into his political career when he wrote Audacity, with multiple terms in the Illinois legislature and a partial term in the U.S. Senate under his belt. So it’s understandable that there’s far more discussion of policy this time around. But he still evinces concern with others’ stories, and he often stops to offer succinct character portraits and recollections of conversations with constituents. He suggests that their experiences are the guideposts by which he makes policy decisions. Empathy, he writes, “is at the heart of my moral code,” serving as “a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.”
It’s prose, not poetry, a politician’s calling card rather than an evocative literary memoir. But it still retains a vague sense of self-awareness and self-questioning, some interest in lives and perspectives outside of his own. Even that, however, was rapidly slipping away.
Probably the most frequent rhetorical tic Obama displays is an obsession with creating the appearance of even-handedness. Early in The Audacity of Hope, he offers a half-apology for his lack of partisan balance, admitting up front that he is in fact a Democrat, just in case anyone failed to notice. But even this apology has to be draped in a veneer of partisan balance: Right after, he proceeds to list all the ways in which Republicans are kinda-sorta-theoretically right about lots of things, even though they’re obviously also deeply wrong and need to be stopped before they continue driving the bus of state into the ditch.