Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Book Review: The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama.

One of my ethics professors in graduate school, Dr. Michael Beals, once said, "Thinking people are not extreme anything."

It's not surprising that so many have formed so many opinions about President-Elect Barack Obama. That’s endemic to politicians. What's surprising is that so many do so without bothering to read his written words.

One of the great advantages of the printed word, as Dr. Neil Postman has written in his prophetic, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), is that "Writing freezes speech and in so doing gives birth to the grammarian, the logician, the rhetorician, the historian, the scientist--all those who must hold language before them so that they can see what it means, where it errs, and where it is leading." (p. 12.)

At the 2008 Republican Convention, candidate Obama was ridiculed for authoring two books, as if writing was a bad thing. True, he has written two personal books, Dreams from My Father (originally published in 1995 and reviewed here on June 4, 2008) and The Audacity of Hope (2006). While Dreams is more memoir, and Audacity is more manifesto, the two lucidly reveal both aspects of Dr. Beals' quote—thoughtfulness and moderation.


Two chapters stand out to display Obama's thoughtfulness. First, his first chapter entitled, "Republicans and Democrats" demonstrates an acute understanding of the shifting American political landscape. In particular, he draws lessons from Presidents Reagan and Clinton.

"That Reagan's message found such a receptive audience spoke not only to his skills as a communicator; it also spoke to the failures of liberal government, during a period of economic stagnation, to give middle-class voters any sense that it was fighting for them. For the fact was that government at every level had become too cavalier about spending taxpayer money. Too often, bureaucracies were oblivious to the cost of their mandates. A lot of liberal rhetoric did seem to value rights and entitlements over duties and responsibilities." (pp. 48-49 [large print edition].)

From Clinton, "It was Bill Clinton's singular contribution that he tried to transcend this ideological deadlock, recognizing not only that what had come to be meant by the labels of 'conservative' and 'liberal' played to Republican advantage, but that the categories were inadequate to address the problems we faced. ... [Clinton] instinctively understood the falseness of the choices being presented to the American people. He saw that government spending and regulation could, if properly designed, serve as vital ingredients and not inhibitors to economic growth, and how markets and fiscal discipline could help promote social justice. He recognized that not only societal responsibility but personal responsibility was needed to combat poverty. In his platform--if not always in his day-to-day politics--Clinton's Third Way went beyond splitting the difference. It tapped into the pragmatic, nonideological attitude of the majority of Americans." (p. 53.)

Second, betraying his long-standing tenure as a constitutional law lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School (p. 3), Obama's third chapter, "Our Constitution," shows a considerable depth of thought about American jurisprudence. Obama especially grasps interpretive issues underlying and roiling the law. "Partly it's the nature of the law itself. Much of the time, the law is settled and plain. But life turns up new problems, and lawyers, officials, and citizens debate the meaning of terms that seemed clear years or even months before. For in the end laws are just words on a page--words that are sometimes malleable, opaque, as dependent on context and trust as they are in a story or poem or promise to someone, words whose meanings are subject to erosion, sometimes collapsing in the blink of an eye." (p. 118.)


In chapter eight, "The World Beyond Our Borders", Barack Obama explains his pragmatic and principled opposition to the Iraq invasion. (pp. 459-61). His was no knee-jerk anti-military reaction. In fact, when he delivered his speech opposing the war, he distanced himself from many in the anti-war audience. "To the two thousand people gathered in Chicago's Federal Plaza, I explained that unlike some of the people in the crowd, I didn't oppose all wars.... 'I supported this Administration's pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance' and would 'willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy [9/11] from happening again.'" (p. 460.)

The quotes I have selected and placed in the "Thoughtfulness" section also evince Obama's moderation and pragmatism. He has no difficulty chastising his own party for its excesses: "I also think my party can be smug, detached, and dogmatic at times. I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of government programs don't work as advertised. I wish the country had fewer lawyers and more engineers. I think America has more often been a force for good than for ill in the world; I carry few illusions about our enemies, and revere the courage and competence of our military. I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally. I think much of what ails the inner city involves a breakdown in culture that will not be cured by money alone, and that our values and spiritual life matter at least as much as our GDP." (p. 16.)

Similarly, he endorses capital punishment in some instances, questions purely race-based affirmative action and opposes homosexual marriage.

The closest Obama comes to extreme views can be found in his fifth chapter on "Opportunity" when he delves into tax policy, education and health care, and repeatedly lauds FDR and his Social Security/New Deal safety-net.

Nevertheless, I think the more liberal wing of his party will be surprised how Obama governs--more pragmatic than dogmatic. They needn't have been surprised. All they had to do was read his books, especially The Audacity of Hope.

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