On its cover, “The Audacity of Hope” doesn’t seem remarkably different from any of the other dozens of campaign biographies penned (which is to say, ghost-written) by past presidential hopefuls. It features Barack Obama’s grinning mug, his pearly-white teeth gleaming alongside his vaguely hokey-sounding catchphrase-turned-title. Many Yalies, noting its striking surface resemblance to George W. Bush’s stunning literary work “A Charge to Keep,” could be forgiven for preferring to save their $30 for a better day.
So I understand most readers will be skeptical when I tell them this: You have a moral imperative to read this book.
When it comes to political leadership, Americans are starving, and they have been for a long time. The United States has gradually seen its population waste away, malnourished on an insubstantial diet of focus-group-tested platitudes. Above all, candidates are afraid of saying the wrong thing, and so they manage to say nothing at all. They are on perpetual verbal autopilot; they stick to the party line and their talking points, using all their mental energy to strike out at the other side of the aisle, rather than propose innovative solutions to the problems ordinary America faces.
Obama’s appeal comes, more than anything else, from his recognition that the American people are exhausted with this brand of politics. His charisma and his eloquence are magnified by his tendency to assume that he isn’t speaking to a bunch of idiotic preschoolers whenever he opens his mouth in public. On issue after issue, Obama is given to speaking with nuance, respect and a quiet appeal to reason. It is marvelously refreshing, and so far it has worked.
One core of Obama’s message for the country is spectacularly simple: Few things are really all black or all white. The candidate, who has described his Kansas mother as “white as milk” and his Kenyan father as “black as pitch,” is a walking, talking almost-too-perfect metaphor for this principle.
He has consistently infused his rhetoric with this conviction, and he has gotten an overwhelming response. His now-famous 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address was an electrifying success in part because it tore into the overly simplistic notion that America is divided into red states and blue states. In one of his most successful Senate speeches last year, he noted that his Web site had initially described all opponents of abortion as “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose” — but that he had taken the offending words down when a doctor wrote to him and asked whether Obama truly believed all opponents of abortion to be so extreme. Obama has consistently gone out of his way to emphasize that he believes George Bush to be a fundamentally decent man, trying in his own misguided way to do the right thing. It’s surprising how rare this kind of rhetoric is heard from major figures in the Democratic Party today.
Moreover, Obama has practiced what he preaches. To give just one example: While serving in the Illinois state Senate, he championed a bill that required all police interrogations to be videotaped, so as to cut down on prisoner abuse. Liberals had vilified the police for opposing the measure, most centrist politicians had backed law enforcement, and the bill had gotten nowhere. Obama finally persuaded top police union representatives to sit down at a table with the bill’s backers and hammer out a compromise that satisfied everyone. The bill passed.
The magic of Barack Obama is that he doesn’t water down his stances just to placate swing voters. Indeed, he is an unapologetic liberal in many key areas of public policy — a man who clearly wants to revitalize public education in this country, provide uninsured Americans with health care, and support the lower and middle classes through a fair taxation of the wealthiest winners of the global economy. But his candid and disarming style of speaking, and his non-combative, reasonable approach, allows him to stick firmly to his principles without either demonizing the other half of the country or oversimplifying the problems we all face.
And this is why everyone reading this should go out and buy Obama’s book. Because it’s all there. In one of the best-written modern books on American politics that I have ever read, Obama clearly lays out his views on the state of politics today, and offers some thoughts on how it might be improved.
Obama is a total neophyte on the national stage. Some will charge that he lacks sufficient experience to lead the free world. But come Feb. 10, when Barack Obama declares his intention to run for the presidency, every Democrat at Yale should support him. He is the best chance that the Democratic Party has, not just to take back the White House, but to make the kind of sweeping changes in American politics that the country so desperately needs.
Roger Low is a senior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.