Saturday, May 22, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, May 22, 2010
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Barack Obama

When Senator Obama — he was a senator at the time — penned his views on the American dream, his own state played a useful role in setting the tone. He was still two years away from the finish line but was well inside the perimeter of history-making events.

The book, he says, was born of conversations on the campaign trail to the US Senate. The vision is powered by his passion to bring American policies in sync with the new world order. As commander-in-chief, he gets to field test this optimised vision and attempts to close the rift, but as senator he could play around with ideas that best represented the new politics that he believed to be the need of the day. While he impresses upon the readers the importance of propping up this world order with some good old-fashioned values, he stops to grade the policies in place at the time. Rewiring a system that estranged the US from the world and, to an extent, its own people, and defusing the globe would require a superpower with actual superpowers. And where would one even begin.

A junior senator from Illinois had an idea, several actually. His thoughts about race, religion, values and, of course, politics provide the first inkling of the kind of policies Obama championed. It is a unique manuscript that simultaneously serves as a political manifesto, a guidance manual and a reference book. It is hard not to get carried away by the image of a leadership so well attuned to the plight of its people. But today more time will probably be spent trying to figure out exactly how this profound wisdom from a (offline) repository of ideas translates to online policies.

He casts a sweeping glance at American history to locate the core values still coursing through its veins, using the constitution to get his bearings right. What we get is a refined debate on the US’s unmined potential. So he dives in the deep end to make some sense of the reigning chaos. The world of politics, in Obama’s capable hands, appears to be neither bland nor insincere and the alternate storyline he suggests sounds perfectly plausible. Yet, he calmly admits that his views could be insufficiently balanced because, he states and I quote, “I am a Democrat after all.”

He is troubled by what he sees as the “gap between the magnitude of challenges and smallness of politics”; he condemns and commiserates with decisions made in a “complex and complicated world”. When he concedes the difficulties of finding the right balance between competing values, he steps back to take stock of the time when “9/11 played fast and loose with constitutional principles”, but admits that “even the wisest president and the most prudent Congress would struggle to balance the critical demands of collective security against the equally compelling need to uphold civil liberties”.

While he stands opposed to the Bush way of waging war, believing that “any exercise of American military power helps rather than hinders their broader goals: to incapacitate the destructive potential of terrorist network and win this global battle of ideas”, he also goes on to spell out his war plan. Going after imminent threats, or taking unilateral actions, are part of the agenda. So far, he has stuck to this script.

Obama speculates about the policy challenges looming on the horizon, seeing “long-term security dependent upon judicious projection of military power and increased cooperation with other nations where tackling global poverty and failed states is tied to national interests”. He observes current foreign policy debates oscillating between two modes — belligerence or isolationism — even though he understands that the battle with international terrorism is “at once an armed struggle and a contest of ideas”.

He journeys beyond borders to tackle foreign policy matters, but strays back to address domestic concerns like fiscal reforms, racial conflicts, offering a glimpse of what a serious healthcare reform may look like and taking the impact of globalisation into account when appraising the US economy or the “ability of its workers to compete in a free trade environment”. But this, he believes, is conditional upon “distributing the costs and benefits of this globalisation more fairly across the population”. As the first black president in Harvard Law Review’s 104-year-old history, Senator Obama was already being applauded for breaking the race barrier. His accession to the White House since has only confirmed his own assessment of the racial divide where he sees “prejudices in today’s America to be far loosely held and a majority would overlook race when making judgements about people”.

Audacity of hope helps outsiders understand the contemporary US better. They also get to learn how it came to play an increasingly larger role in the world and when Franklin D Roosevelt came to the conclusion that his nation “cannot measure [its] safety in terms of miles on any maps any longer”. In 2006, they would get a virtual tour of Obamaland. The man who was soon to charm people on the campaign trail leaps out from the pages. Whether the president is in there somewhere is for the readers to decide.

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