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Book Review: The Audacity of Hope

Crown/Three Rivers Press:2008
By Barack Obama

Reviewed by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

(April 02, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) The theme of this book, as identified by the author, is “reclaiming the American dream.” As we understand it, the American dream is the liberty and freedom that allows all Americans, both citizens and residents to pursue their goals in life through hard work and free choice. It is entrenched in the United States Declaration of Independence as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Most migrants to the United States consider the American dream to be the opportunity to achieve greater material prosperity than was possible in their countries of origin. It is also the opportunity for their children to grow up and receive an education that would lead to career opportunities. In the ultimate analysis, it remains an enduring realization that Americans have the opportunity to make individual choices without the restrictions of class, religion, caste, race or ethnic group.

The book is largely about ushering in a different brand of politics in America, devoid of partisan bickering and stultifying division. It is about bringing on a democracy that would solve concrete problems. For the most part it remains an autobiography from which the reader can attenuate the sensibility of the author and his leadership.

It is one of the most performance based and values driven books of its time, which drives a wedge of conscience into the reader’s mind and jolts him to reality. It resonates the “yes we can” theme of his victorious Presidential bid by bringing to bear the necessity of working for purpose, direction, order and dignity in our professions. The author starts of with a down to earth Prologue where he recounts the various disadvantages he faced, and how he overcame denial, anger and despair through bargaining and perseverance. It recalls a story of the victory of courage and intelligence over a smug, detached and dogmatic system.

The first chapter is on the two main political parties of the United States – Republicans and Democrats. In his description of Capitol Hill the author is both restrained and reserved but skillfully manages to create a mental picture of the inner sanctums of the Senate and Congress. He takes us through what he calls “ the escalating ferocity of Washington’s political battles” with a simplicity that makes the complexities of political intrigue all so crystal clear, yet eloquently electrifying. In between the author’s life story and historical perspectives of American politics, tinges of his erudition emerge, only to be merged into the overall flavor of the narration which is essentially fluid and structured.

The second chapter is about values, and is perhaps the most significant, particularly for young readers. It starts with the author’s personal meeting with the President of the United States as a rookie Senator and gives the first insight into the young senator’s powers of eloquence which were at least partially responsible for his charismatic victory in the Presidential election. When the President tells Obama: “that wife of yours – that’s one impressive lady”, Obama responds: “we both got better than we deserve Mr. President”. The author’s sense of values springs from the aspirations of the ordinary American and their day to day problems and issues. This is perhaps why the American people placed so much hope and faith in him as a Presidential candidate.

The third chapter is on the American Constitution. It takes the reader on a sober but interesting ride through American legislative history through the incipient eyes of the author as a legislator, which he says, to quote a familiar phrase in the Senate: “is like drinking water off a fire hose”. One gets the feeling that the induction of an American politician is an intense baptism of fire that both exhilarates and enervates at the same time.

The chapter to follow is on politics, and begins with Obama’s defeat (which he calls a drubbing) in 2000 in the hands of Democratic Congressman Bobbie Rush. What is interesting is his attribution of his defeat to his mistakes and circumstances, and the message of hope that he brings to bear, that life does not always make a winner and that one has to work for his win, but circumstances could deprive even the most robust and diligent bid for success. Some interesting landmarks in this chapter are his unique approach to fund raising (which came in useful during his Presidential bid) and the political spins and perceptions that one has to be aware of and guard against when running for political office. A few examples are found in this chapter which are highly commendable as lessons for an aspiring politician.

Chapter Five is on opportunity, and the author’s continuing desire to serve the people of his constituency. It tells of his various visits and travels, from Google Headquarters to high schools and his various views from US dependency on oil to the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. He concludes by saying, inter alia, that investments to make America more competitive, and a new American social compact if pursued in concert, could point the way to a better future for our children.

The Sixth Chapter is on faith. Faith in his mother and in himself and above all, about one’s faith, whether Buddhist, Muslim, Jew or Christian. The overriding message is that when one abandons religious discourse and ignores the realization of what it means to be a good Buddhist, Christian or other and when one discusses religion only in a negative sense, we lose track of our obligations to one another.

Three Chapters follow: on race, international relations and family. The chapter on race makes the point that racial division is a thing of the past and, if one is to find oneself one has to endure abiding relationships. The author believes that politics will have to be constructed from the best of traditions and will have to account for the darker aspects of a political past, and that we would need to remind ourselves, despite all our differences, just how much we share: common hopes, common dreams and a bond that will not break. On international relations, the author addresses at length the demographics and politics of Indonesia, a country with which he is familiar and in which he spent part of his childhood. This is perhaps the only weak feature of the book where, in a chapter entitled “The World Beyond our Borders” only one country is featured prominently. In fairness to the author, he acknowledges the fact that a complete picture of the world cannot be gleaned from one country. He also says that, nonetheless, Indonesia is a good example, being the fourth most populous nation of the world which has had its own political pyrotechnics and upheavals.

The last chapter on family is replete with the author’s own experiences with his spouse and daughters and makes a light and spirited ending. The Epilogue once again brings in the theme of hope, echoed within myriads of voices of all the people the author met on the campaign trail. He states simply that it was not just the struggles of the men and women he met that moved him but their determination, self reliance and optimism in the face of hardship. It coheres the Preamble and the chapters to follow, while capturing the main message of the book – the importance of the audacity of hope, to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary, that we could restore a sense of community to a nation torn by conflict and that despite all personal tragedy, we have a sense of control over our own destiny.

This book is a must read for people of all walks of life, not just because it has been written by a senator and a lawyer, a professor and a father, and a President of the most powerful country in the world. It must be read for its immense relevance and value as a guide to our own destiny in a world in which our values and aspirations stand upended.
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