Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Book Review (#31 of 2014) The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Vintage)
Better late than never, but obviously should have read this book when published. If you want to know what a candidate is going to do, read his book. But I'm not sure how true that is for this one. You definitely know he's going to push through health care reform with a push toward universal coverage, but that's the only obvious policy in this book.

I should say that reading this book would have lowered my esteem of Candidate Obama. It was evident to me from interviews he gave through the campaign that he was very knowledgeable about health care, philosophy, and even some economics relative to other politicians. I liked his intelligence and pragmatic introspection very much. It does not show up in this book. The book shifts between Obama's sociological musings, autobiographical reflection, and some stories from his political life. These are roughly divided into categories: "Faith, Race, Our Constitution," etc. but there is a lot of spillover.

Obama begins by bemoaning the state of politics, and says he aimed his Senate campaign at people who didn't fit neatly into stereotypes:

"I imagine the white Southerner who growing up heard his dad talk about niggers this and niggers that but who has struck up a friendship with the black guys at the office and is trying to teach his own son different, who thinks discrimination is wrong but doesn’t see why the son of a black doctor should get admitted into law school ahead of his own son. Or the former Black Panther who decided to go into real estate, bought a few buildings in the neighborhood, and is just as tired of the drug dealers in front of those buildings as he is of the bankers who won’t give him a loan to expand his business. There’s the middle-aged feminist who still mourns her abortion, and the Christian woman who paid for her teenager’s abortion, and the millions of waitresses and temp secretaries and nurse’s assistants and Wal-Mart associates who hold their breath every single month in the hope that they’ll have enough money to support the children that they did bring into the world.
I imagine they are waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point."

But he seems to put too much faith in the rationality of the voters, while at the same time admitting that people mostly vote for their "Red Team" or "Blue Team" regardless of the merits or policies. Then he himself repeats the broken record of the Democratic stereotypes, blasting certain Republican policies without examining either the merits or economic analysis behind them. He resorts to the same old "they're sticking it to labor" or "giving tax breaks to millionaires," etc. Even writing in late 2007, he brings out the canard of "Bush squandered the surplus"-- the surplus mythology has been debunked by Democratic economists. He has some straw men of the religious right that he tears down--namely that most white religious conservatives want to establish a theocracy. That is disappointing.

Where Obama differs from "stereotypical" Democrat in this book is his praising Reagan for having a point-- that government programs had overreached and needed to be scaled back or reexamined. For praising Clinton and Republican's welfare reform in the 1990s and even mentioning the "failures" of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. He advocates EITC expansion and doesn't mention minimum wage as that important.

He agrees with social conservatives about "values" and "faith" being important in helping prevent teen pregnancy and promoting marriage. For hailing all the progress that has been made in reducing racial inequality.

He states his belief in competition, free markets, and entrepreneurship. But later in the book he criticizes gains from trade. He espouses himself as a Hamiltonian, or a late 1800s Republican (a la Lincoln)-- a strong national government is needed to protect and grow industry (tariffs, subsidies where needed) and Progressive labor policies are needed to strengthen unions and raise wages and working conditions at the bottom. I would say Obama has lived up to this in office, he has often trumpeted his "pro-business" policies, which I would argue favor the large monopolies much more than a wide base-- they're not pro-market policies.

More frustrating is the naivete found in paragraphs like the one below. "We should be guided by what works" as if there is broad agreement on what "works"(!):

"America can’t compete with China and India simply by cutting costs and shrinking government—unless we’re willing to tolerate a drastic decline in American living standards, with smog-choked cities and beggars lining the streets. Nor can America compete simply by erecting trade barriers and raising the minimum wage—unless we’re willing to confiscate all the world’s computers.
But our history should give us confidence that we don’t have to choose between an oppressive, government-run economy and a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism. It tells us that we can emerge from great economic upheavals stronger, not weaker. Like those who came before us, we should be asking ourselves what mix of policies will lead to a dynamic free market and widespread economic security, entrepreneurial innovation and upward mobility. And we can be guided throughout by Lincoln’s simple maxim: that we will do collectively, through our government, only those things that we cannot do as well or at all individually and privately.
In other words, we should be guided by what works."
That paragraph is about the emptiest political rhetoric I've read.

Most disappointing to me are his comments about inner city poverty and unemployment. Instead of looking at the benefits of gentrification, he advocates more government spending on vague housing renovation and laying fiber optic cable--only for the hope of it increasing the chance that the unemployed men in these areas can do those jobs as unskilled labor. 

Obama gives some very broad overviews of his political campaigns. When Obama gets to the U.S. Senate he meets with Robert Byrd, who lectures him on the importance of studying the history and rules of the Senate. Byrd claims to be "saving the Republic." This inspires Obama to get back to the Constitution and other founding documents (the man is well-read, there is no doubting this). But Obama neglects to mention all the pork that Byrd brought to West Virginia at the expense of the rest of Americans. That is out of character with the criticisms of others, particularly Republicans, he mentions in the book. 

Obama takes the time to articulate his own Christian faith experience and why he resonates with the historically Black church. Black churches tend to be more of the center of their community, and minister to the "whole man." They also tend to be more open-minded and allow for "doubts" and rational thinking. I predict the time will come when conservative Christians in America will remember Obama's faith and family values more fondly than they esteem them currently.

Barack Obama closes his book with some stories of his development as a husband and a father. When he started in public office, Michelle was both the career woman and homemaker, which stressed her out and caused friction in their marriage that it took Obama years to appreciate. He reflects on his desire to be a better father than the male figures he had in his life, and explains their shortcomings.  He remains aware of how many more resources his family has to deal with career and family issues than many families. Obama's family life has always been a positive for him in my eyes. His diverse upbringing is important to me as well.

There is no foreign policy in this book.

Overall, I give it 2 stars out of 5. I hope for many thoughtful memoirs from President Obama after the White House. I sincerely hope this book will not be considered one of his best works.

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