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The Audacity of Hope

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama. Cannongate, 2007.

Is America ‘ready’ for a black president?  For the first time, there is a significant probability that the next President of the United States will be either a woman or a black man.  But does Barack Obama have what it takes to be his country’s President?  This book is essentially his attempt to persuade Americans that he does indeed.

Political books are certainly not guaranteed to be entertaining reads.  Biographies offer much potential, as do some autobiographies.  But books that push a particular political viewpoint while being simultaneously readable by normal, well-adjusted, people are rare.  Obama does well here.  His style is conversational, warm, and fresh in tone.  He readily admits his own mistakes and troubled past.  Indeed, given he does not come from traditional African American roots he is keen to let readers know where his roots are and just how they relate to his politics.  The result is similar in places to Bill Clinton’s My Life: an incident or lesson learned in childhood has resonance for adult life and political career; he ascribes to his mother worldly-wise values that he has carried with him.

Nevertheless, this book does have some short-comings which are mainly associated with its purpose and timing.  The author is running for President.  He seems eager not to offend but to embrace many points of view.  While he is expansive on diagnosing the faults in American politics, he has less to say about the solutions beyond broad sentiments.

Some accuse Obama of being ‘policy-lite’.  The test will come apparently when he has to move from slogan to practical proposals.  While there may be some truth in this, the critics probably miss the main point, which is that Obama resonates with voters because he is good at defining his progressive politics and values.  Much recent work among Democrats has demonstrated that starting with a shopping list of ‘progressive policies’ doesn’t work.  A clear narrative is required that speaks to the progressive motivations within most people, reaching not into some ‘centre-ground’ but from a centre-left political base right across the spectrum.  This is something Obama seems to have learned in contrast to our own Labour Party in the UK.

This review previously appeared in Tribune magazine.
Stephen Beer

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