Better Late Than Never: Obama’s ‘Audacity of Hope’ Is Essential Reading

I’m a little late to the party here. I should have read The Audacity of Hope years ago, when President Obama was still a senator with vague presidential aspirations, or even after he was president, to better understand him. I should have read it to get the full measure of the man, instead of waiting for the sound bites to start trickling in from the Far Right.

But now, in this time of tribulation best described with that shudder-inducing phrase The Age of Trump, one might wonder: is Obama’s book relevant anymore? The new order seems on the precipice of entirely erasing Obama and his legacy from America’s history books. Is there any use in looking backward?

The answer to each of the above questions is yes. Yes, the book is still relevant, and yes, there’s a great deal of value in looking backward, especially now. President Obama’s story is as sad as it is inspiring — and he walks that line on every page of this occasionally funny, unexpectedly timless, and tragically prescient memoir-cum-political treatise. His writing is as melancholy as it is hopeful.

I published the following review a couple of years ago and have made only superficial changes to it recently to better reflect the current political realities.

A statistically significant portion of the American electorate believes Obama was a dictator. Another portion believes he is a visionary who arrived 50 years before his time.

Below are some of my thoughts about The Audacity of Hope. I’m sorry if it goes on a little long, but the book is practically comprehensive in addressing the current climate of politics and policy in this country. I have decided to focus on two things:

  1. The ways that Obama on the page bears little resemblance to the caricature that has taken root in the collective unconscious of the Far Right.
  2. The ways that The Audacity of Hope is not remotely revolutionary nor unique, but instead attempts to renew our interest in the political and philosophical values that helped build our nation in the first place.

This book is a call for us to return to our Traditional Values — a curious thing, given the Christian Right’s near-monopoly on the phrase. But while he touches briefly on religion and its place in our culture, Obama instead discusses objective and universal values like social justice and equal opportunity. His is not a radical agenda; it’s actually pretty simple and, if you live in the same America I do, it should be familiar as well.

Before I go on: please note that I did not categorically support Obama. His support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was nearly a disaster, and he didn’t do nearly enough to dismantle the NSA’s domestic spying program (indeed, he made the apparatus more powerful than ever). And apart from attempting modest, incremental changes within the Democratic Party, he did virtually nothing to address the proximate cause of most of America’s troubles: our fucked-up campaign finance laws.

No; I am not an “Obama fan.” I favor bold and decisive steps toward progress, informed by facts. That’s not something you’ll find in any of America’s major political parties.

Nevertheless, our commander-in-chief was the face of the movement I now belong to. And something that helped change my opinion of the man was realizing the literally unbelievable scope of the sensationalism, crude exaggerations, and flat-out lies circulated about him. He is not a Muslim; he is an imperfect (and frankly possibly hypocritical) Christian. He was born in Hawaii, grew up in Indonesia, and later taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago. He’s also a gentle and thoughtful man, a doting father, and has shied away from the public spotlight for much of his career. In other words: a far cry from the scheming dictator role that was invented for him by the Far Right.

But despite his obvious intelligence, proven track record of faithful public service, and obvious love for his family and his country, he suffered more disrespect and slander than any other public figure I’m aware of. Maybe you’re scoffing right now, but a quick trip to PolitiFact or Snopes will handily debunk any of the more entrenched conspiracy theories you can throw at the man.

Don’t believe me? I’ll give you an example from the book.

Many Conservative-leaning pundits would (still!) have us believe Obama is a Muslim with deep ties to extremism and no love for America. They have argued this point with equal parts vitriol and ignorance, citing a quote from Audacity stating that Obama will “stand with the Muslims” if “the political winds shift.” The people quoting this passage as scripture have very obviously not even read the rest of the paragraph in which that sentence appears. If they had, they’d know that he was referencing the internment of Japanese-Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He states that, if history were to repeat itself, he would fight for the rights of Muslim-Americans not to be removed from their homes and placed in indefinite detention.

Sounds pretty reasonable to me. The lesson here is that disingenuity is very dangerous and literacy is very important. It’s why I chose to read this book for myself instead of assuming I understood the man. But I admit that before I started reading it, I expected some saccharine political treatise from a man who wanted to drum up interest in a future presidential run. Instead, the book turned out to be hauntingly prophetic, brilliantly considered, and elegantly written.

And the title is quite significant. Obama talks a lot about hope and its place in the American Dream, but I think we can also apply the idea of hope to our political ideologies. The Republican worldview, for example, has nothing to do with hope. It piggybacks on Nixon-era mistrust of politicians in general and wields it the same way religion is wielded: as an instrument of control. It maintains that our government is hopelessly broken, cannot be fixed, and we shouldn’t even make the attempt. The government should never again work as an agent of positive change in the lives of the average American. Even our duly elected Republican lawmakers believe this, or say they do, and chant it back to us to thunderous applause. Why should we take seriously a political party that seeks not to improve the mechanism they serve, but instead to dismantle it from within and work to privatize our most important institutions? Social security, public roads, national parks, healthcare, education, and public works? Wouldn’t you prefer to believe that we can change these things for the better, rather than giving up our government for dead?

Voting Republican is like going to Chik-Fil-A, having the cashier tell us “it’s made of people,” and then sitting down and eating there anyway.

But Obama’s hope that things can (and will) get better is not a false one. His hope is based on the knowledge that America was great once. Until the ’70s, the incomes of every American, on every rung of the social ladder, were growing at the same rate. Yes — there were (and always will be) people better off than others. But until very recently, opportunity (not wealth) was shared equally by all. During these decades of prosperity, the federal government remained the very best safety net available for Americans who fell on hard times. These days, though, instead of giving our neighbors a gentle helping hand when they need it, we shame the poor, the homeless, and the underemployed, arbitrarily tell the very poor what they can and can’t do, and subject them to the indignity of drug tests (which are proven to be both wasteful and unhelpful). And in some cities, we persecute even the homeless; churches and other public buildings all across America have been roundly criticized for installing “homeless spikes” on the ground, which are exactly what they sound like.

I found out quite recently that America has as many as 24 vacant homes for every homeless human being within our borders. Even if those numbers fluctuate from time to time, even if they’re only half what is claimed, tell me, please: what fucking country is this again?

The good news is that all of this institutionalized nihilism can only flourish if the American people continue to turn their back on hope. That, and if they stop voting, which is what we got last November, and which is why Congress is now being run by a bunch of idiot children.

I guess this turned out to be less a review of the book and more an exploration of the values it explores in its manageable 362 pages. I urge you to pick up the book and find out for yourself how well it fits into your own political philosophy.

The short version is that this book is not very radical at all, when you get right down to it. All it does is invoke the values and traditions this country was founded on in the first place — and urges us to remember why they used to mean so much to us.

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