Obama’s Foursquare Politics, With a Dab of Dijon
Published: October 17, 2006
Courtesy: New York Times Book Reviews
His 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” written before Mr. Obama entered politics, provided a revealing, introspective account of his efforts to trace his family’s tangled roots and his attempts to come to terms with his absent father, who left home when he was still a toddler. That book did an evocative job of conjuring the author’s multicultural childhood: his father was from Kenya, his mother was from Kansas, and the young Mr. Obama grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia.
And it was equally candid about his youthful struggles: pot, booze and “maybe a little blow,” he wrote, could “push questions of who I was out of my mind,” flatten “out the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my memory.” Most memorably, the book gave the reader a heartfelt sense of what it was like to grow up in the 1960’s and 70’s, straddling America’s color lines: the sense of knowing two worlds and belonging to neither, the sense of having to forge an identity of his own.
Mr. Obama’s new book, “The Audacity of Hope” — the phrase comes from his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address, which made him the party’s rising young hope — is much more of a political document. Portions of the volume read like outtakes from a stump speech, and the bulk of it is devoted to laying out Mr. Obama’s policy positions on a host of issues, from education to health care to the war in Iraq.
But while Mr. Obama occasionally slips into the flabby platitudes favored by politicians, enough of the narrative voice in this volume is recognizably similar to the one in “Dreams From My Father,” an elastic, personable voice that is capable of accommodating everything from dense discussions of foreign policy to streetwise reminiscences, incisive comments on constitutional law to New-Agey personal asides. The reader comes away with a feeling that Mr. Obama has not reinvented himself as he has moved from job to job (community organizer in Chicago, editor of The Harvard Law Review, professor of constitutional law, civil rights lawyer, state senator) but has instead internalized all those roles, embracing rather than shrugging off whatever contradictions they might have produced.
Reporters and politicians continually use the word authenticity to describe Mr. Obama, pointing to his ability to come across to voters as a regular person, not a prepackaged pol. And in these pages he often speaks to the reader as if he were an old friend from back in the day, salting policy recommendations with colorful asides about the absurdities of political life.
He recalls a meet-and-greet encounter at the White House with George W. Bush, who warmly shook his hand, then “turned to an aide nearby, who squirted a big dollop of hand sanitizer in the president’s hand.” (“Good stuff,” he quotes the president as saying, as he offered his guest some. “Keeps you from getting colds.”) And he recounts a trip he took through Illinois with an aide, who scolded him for asking for Dijon mustard at a T.G.I. Friday’s, worried the senator would come across as an elitist; the confused waitress, he adds, simply said: “We got Dijon if you want it.”
In his 2004 keynote address Mr. Obama spoke of the common ground Americans share: “There is not a Black America and White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.” And the same message — rooted in his own youthful efforts to grapple with racial stereotypes, racial loyalty and class resentments — threads its way through the pages of this book. Despite the red state-blue state divide, despite racial, religious and economic divisions, Mr. Obama writes, “we are becoming more, not less, alike” beneath the surface: “Most Republican strongholds are 40 percent Democrat, and vice versa. The political labels of liberal and conservative rarely track people’s personal attributes.”
Mr. Obama eschews the Manichean language that has come to inform political discourse, and he rejects what he sees as the either-or formulations of his elders who came of age in the 60’s: “In the back-and-forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004,” he writes, “I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage. The victories that the 60’s generation brought about — the admission of minorities and women into full citizenship, the strengthening of individual liberties and the healthy willingness to question authority — have made America a far better place for all its citizens. But what has been lost in the process, and has yet to be replaced, are those shared assumptions — that quality of trust and fellow feeling — that bring us together as Americans.”
His thoughts on domestic and foreign policy try to hew to this consensus-building line. Some of his recommendations devolve into little more than fuzzy statements of the obvious: i.e., that America’s “addiction to oil” is affecting the economy and undermining national security, or that the education system needs to be revamped and improved. Others echo Bill Clinton’s “third way,” methodically triangulating between traditionally conservative and traditionally liberal ideas.
Mr. Obama writes that “conservatives — and Bill Clinton — were right about welfare as it was previously structured: By detaching income from work and by making no demands on welfare recipients other than a tolerance for intrusive bureaucracy and an assurance that no man lived in the same house as the mother of his children, the old A.F.D.C. program sapped people of their initiative and eroded their self respect.”
He uses the Bush administration’s tough language to talk about national security in the age of terrorism (“if we have to go it alone, the American people stand ready to pay any price and bear any burden to protect our country”) but adds, crucially, that “once we get beyond matters of self-defense,” he is “convinced that it will almost always be in our strategic interest to act multilaterally rather than unilaterally when we use force around the world.”
He assails President Bush for waging an unnecessary and misguided war in Iraq and for promoting an “Ownership Society” that “magnifies the uneven risks and rewards of today’s winner-take-all economy.” Yet he also takes the Democrats to task for becoming “the party of reaction”: “In reaction to a war that is ill-conceived, we appear suspicious of all military action. In reaction to those who proclaim the market can cure all ills, we resist efforts to use market principles to tackle pressing problems. In reaction to religious overreach, we equate tolerance with secularism and forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with a larger meaning. We lose elections and hope for the courts to foil Republican plans. We lose the courts and wait for a White House scandal.”
This volume does not possess the searching candor of the author’s first book. But Mr. Obama strives in these pages to ground his policy thinking in simple common sense — be it “growing the size of our armed forces to maintain reasonable rotation schedules” or reining in spending and rethinking tax policy to bring down the nation’s huge deficit — while articulating these ideas in level-headed, nonpartisan prose. That, in itself, is something unusual, not only in these venomous pre-election days, but also in these increasingly polarized and polarizing times.