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Part memoir, part manifesto, the political creed of an optimist
on 14 September 2008
This is the first book by an aspirant politician, indeed the first political manifesto, (for that is what it is) that I have read cover to cover. (Perhaps, it occurs to me, I should read some of the works by serving British politicians, too, and not just rely on commentaries by journalists?) I bought the book the day after Barack Obama slipped up re-using the "lipstick on a pig" cliché, when, for the first time, McCain and Palin seemed to have achieved a significant lead in the polls.
Obama wrote this book to update his life story, including how he came to be elected senator for Illinois (he completed his first book "Dreams of my father" some ten years earlier), to offer an analysis of how modern American political life has become so polarised, but above all to state his personal and political principles. It would be easy to be cynical: his principles turn out to offer something to everyone, but this is the prerogative and the stategy of the political centrist. Economically, his liberalism demonstrates why Milton Friedman and others were forced to rebrand themselves as libertarians. He seems well versed in the pros and cons of state intervention, and clearly believes in the value of Keynsian-style state intervention, lamenting the breakdown of the New Deal consensus in the 1970s and 1980s. He does, however, go on record as recognising some of the limits of government. While he offers few concrete proposals as to what should be done, the reader does get the impression that this is a man who is aware of major issues and has thought them through in depth. Sadly but unsurprisingly he has not come up with any new solution to the problem that globalisation presents to American manufacturing and the American working class.
I was left with the impression that Barack Obama is a man of principle, but not one whose principles lead him to try to impose them on others. He recognises, for example, the abortion debate as being one of the most polarising in the US, and lays out his own pro-choice view very carefully, doing his best to respect the "social conservatives" who oppose his view. In one recollection he refers to how a pro-life doctor (but potential Democrat voter) who objected to Obama's implicit inclusion of him within the category of "right wing ideologues who wish to take away a woman's right to choose", and how, having thought the matter through, he changed this statement on his web site to a less confrontational one. Obama sketches out (but no more than sketches) a personal journey that led to his being baptised as an adult (his mother was not an adherent of institutionalised religion, but rather of spiritualist, new age inclinations). Cynically, perhaps, I was reminded of an oft-repeated statement that it would be impossible for an atheist to be elected to high office in the US. Obama believes in the separation of church and state, in accordance with the US Constitution; I do too, and perhaps therefore the privacy of his beliefs, whatever they actually are, should be respected.
Obama devotes a whole chapter to Race, although it is inevitably a backdrop to the whole book. He is of course aware that it is the colour of his skin that has given him the early prominence he has achieved. He tells us of his Kenyan cousins, the mainstream African American family of his wife Michelle, his Indonesian step-father and his white mother's family and mentions ethnic Chinese in-laws. He quietly implies that his background makes him both the epitome of the American dream and someone uniquely placed to deal with the domestic and international problems that confront the US, and to represent and to lead a multi-ethnic America. Not everyone is going to be convinced by that argument: he is certainly not guaranteed to succeed and, to be fair, he does not suggest that others with a less heterogeneous background could not succeed. His analysis of the condition of black America seems balanced - much progress made, but much more still to be made. My only concern for the US is that the programmes that he seems inclined to follow would involve a great deal more state expenditure. It is a shame that he has not put more effort into learning Spanish, acknowledging as he does the burgeoning Latino population of the US.
This is an excellent book. As a commentary on politics in the US over the past 30 years it is easy to read precisely because it is not done to any real depth. As a memoir by someone who is, at the very least, a remarkable man from a very unusual background it is uplifting. Whichever way we might prefer to see the Americans vote, I would hope that all would think it a loss to his country and the world if 2008 turns out to have been the high point in Obama's career. I was convinced that Obama is more than just an excellent public speaker or a politician riding high because of the novelty of his background. He is less beholden to interest groups than most contenders for the presidency. The USA could do a lot worse than bet on Barack Obama for the next 4 years - and I say that as someone who sees a good man in John McCain, too, (although I cannot but feel that he would have made a better president 8 years ago). As we enter the last 8 weeks of the US elections, this is the time to read "Audacity of Hope" if you have not yet done so.