Saturday, January 13, 2007

Book Review: "The Audacity of Hope"

My general opinion of Barack Obama is quite favorable, and since I fully enjoyed his first book, Dreams from My Father, I expected I would also like his second and newest work, The Audacity of Hope (Crown, 2006). It had been sitting on my shelf waiting for me since November and I finally pulled it off this week and had a read. It was not a disappointment. Once again Obama's elegant writing style is on full display, as is his knack for turning a good phrase. While he does not turn the book into a policy handbook full of detailed proposals or concrete plans for change, he offers something that I would argue may be even more important: a different way of approaching politics and shaping political debate.

If I picked out every excerpt from this book which spoke to me (and which I have jotted down in my reading notes) I'd be typing all day (and would entirely ruin the book for you). But I think this two-paragraph selection sums Obama's message up fairly well (p. 22):

"It's not simply that a gap exists between our professed ideals as a nation and the reality we witness every day. In one form or another, that gap has existed since America's birth. Wars have been fought, laws passed, systems reformed, unions organized, and protests staged to bring promise and practice into alignment.

No, what's troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics - the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem."

Obama's desire to refocus American priorities is one of the most refreshing things about the man. While it may come across as overly idealistic to call for increased funding for eduction, sci/tech research and energy independence, all these things are areas in which we must do better as a nation. As he notes after commenting on the recent pork-filled highway bill, "what's missing is not money, but a national sense of urgency." Difficult to argue with that, somehow. His analysis of various policy areas (from immigration to foreign policy to health care) is instructive without being boring; hopeful without seeming laughable.

The Audacity of Hope goes far beyond Obama's policy chapters, as lucid and useful as they are. He also discusses, in a very personal way, the adjustment process to becoming a senator of some celebrity. The difficulties it created for his family life - this is a man with two young children - come through loud and clear, and as in his first memoir, it's apparent that this man still carefully thinks about his actions and the impact they will have on those around him.

Barack Obama's hopeful optimism, and his certainty that we can do better as a nation if we're able to rise above petty grievances and slights to achieve meaningful results is a message I think Americans are yearning for in these times of turmoil and partisan bickering. His exposition of those beliefs in The Audacity of Hope is a good one, and I recommend it without reservation.