The Audacity of Hope

Barack Obama (New York: Vintage Books, 2008)

Tuesday 18 November 2008, by Emrah Sahin

The ideological struggle between republicanism and
liberal democracy has been undergoing a profound
transformation in favour of the latter ever since the days
of Andrew Jackson, the first of the so-called People’s
Choice candidates. Now that the dust of the longest
campaign in American history has settled and sealed
victory for Barack Obama, the urge of American minds
to find out more about their next president may begin to
wane. If that were to happen it would underscore one
of the fundamental characteristics
of the American political tradition:
American voters tend to leave their
curiosity on the campaign trail and in
the ballot box.

This post-election, with an
abundance of material to pour-over
from a relatively prolific and candid
President-Elect, may prove to be an
exception. Inspired by a sermon of his
former pastor Jeremiah Wright, and
an expansion on the keynote address
Obama delivered at the 2004
Democratic Convention, The Audacity
of Hope is a must-read that can turn the chronic make-
a-decision-and-forget-about-it tide. It invites the reader
to enter the ideological, political, intellectual, innately
revolutionary and sometimes personal foibles of
Obama’s sophisticated world. It provides an informed
understanding of the changes in the political landscape
that are represented in his person and his success,
while offering a glimpse into the possible future of
American political discourse.

The Audacity of Hope fits well into the American
political and civil rights typography. For instance, similar
to Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait, it projects
nation-old discussions onto a contemporary context and
comes up with an analysis that, although insufficiently
balanced, is insightful, passionate, and progressive.
The first chapter “Republicans and Democrats”
examines the recent political developments and
questions the validity of the prevailing bipartisanship.
Instead, the second chapter, “Values,” argues that
mutual understanding between strongly polarized
political factions is the necessary foundation for a new
political consensus.

The constitution, which has been historically interpreted
as a source of individual liberties and applied to justify
partisan perspectives, is interpreted in the third
chapter. “Our Constitution” is seen as a means of
organizing a liberal democratic conversation around
America’s collective future. Therefore, life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness guarantee the welfare
of individual citizens, but they also require a political
initiative that considers the individuals as a whole. The
fourth chapter, “Politics,” is striking, particularly for the
way in which institutional forces such as the media and
lobbying are described as having spoiled- and that
they may yet spoil- even the most honest politicians.
The remaining chapters move on to the specific issues
that matter most for Obama: how
to remedy the growing insecurity of
American families, how to unravel the
racial and religious tensions within
the body politic, and how to handle
terrorism and pandemics of disease.

Throughout the book, Obama nurses
a relentless optimism. He underscores
the shared ideals that continue to
stir the collective conscience of the
United States, promotes a score of
common values that bind Americans
together despite their differences,
and holds on to the audacity of hope that makes
America’s democratic experiment work. These values
and ideals, he believes, are not only expressed in the
history books and the marble slabs of monuments but
also lurk in hearts and the public mind. In fact, Obama’s
tendency to see the cup as half-full and his enthusiasm
to serve the people stems from the fact that he and
Benjamin Franklin share the same hoped-for epitaph,
“I would rather have it said, He lived usefully, than He
died rich.”

Barack Obama emerges from the book as candid as
Abraham Lincoln, as promising as F. D. Roosevelt,
as passionate as Martin Luther King, and as
accommodating as John F. Kennedy. His constant
emphasis on the inclusion into the body politic of the
middle-class as the backbone of American society and
of any minority group, racial, religious, or ethnic, seems
to take the Jacksonian liberal democracy one giant
leap further. The transparency of his vision and the
universality of his ideals allay the minor deficiencies of
his panacea. The Audacity of Hope shows that Obama
seems capable of executing comprehensive plans for
critical issues- and not just to the benefit of Americans
or until the next election is won.

Emrah Sahin is a PhD Candidate in History, McGill

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