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The Making of a President

January 2009
The Making of a President

By Poornima Apte

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

Vintage, Paperback, 464 pages

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Three Rivers Press, Paperback, 480 pages

After he delivered his famous keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, President-elect Obama’s political career skyrocketed. Overnight he began to be heralded as the Democratic Party’s new rock star. “It is true, I worry about the hype,” he admitted to Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, in an interview in late 2005. “The only person who is more over-hyped than me is you.”

Interestingly enough, the hype doesn’t seem to have made much of a dent. As Obama later explained in his book, The Audacity of Hope, he could tell it was all part of a need to feed the endless media machine.

Published in 2006, The Audacity of Hope is Obama’s political manifesto—a book in which he visits many themes that form the tenets of basic political discourse: education, healthcare, the economy and more. In here, he acknowledges some of the many divides that plague our nation—while trying to at least analyze (if not solve) the many complexities we face.

“Privately, those of us in government will acknowledge this gap between the politics we have and the politics we need,” Obama writes. Even if he acknowledges that there are many Republicans in the House and Senate who exhibit more “traditional conservative virtues of temperance and restraint,” Obama points out that the Republicans who have driven the debate over the past few years have stuck not with “compassionate conservatism” but with absolutism. “There is the absolutism of the free market, an ideology of no taxes, no regulation, no safety net—indeed, no government beyond what’s required to protect private property and provide for the national defense,” he writes.

The sweeping and somewhat fuzzy chapter headings in Audacity—Politics, Values, Opportunity, Faith and more—belie the fairly precise subjects that do get discussed under these topics. Included in the book are topics such as what an economic consensus would look like, why we need better funding of basic sciences, and the insistence on responsible parenting.

Looking back after the election, it is hard not to wonder if Obama meant for Audacity to be more than an explanation of his political views. You can almost see the junior senator from Illinois training his sights on the highest office in the land. In that sense, it also reads very much like he is making his case (for the presidency) to the American people. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20,and whether this was indeed Obama’s intention while writing Audacity will remain a matter for debate.

In Audacity, Obama takes President Bush to task for neglecting the poor—a result of “laissez-faire” economics that consistently favored the very rich. It is evident that Obama believes that government can (and should) help the needy and that progress can be achieved when “we rise and fall together.” He also criticizes President Bush for the war in Iraq and especially for the lack of due process on weighty topics worthy of debate. Obama was once a professor of constitutional law, after all, and it pains him to see the constitution being shredded by the Bush administration.

Despite the jabs at the Bush administration, Audacity is impressive for its non-partisan approach to politics. He takes fellow Democrats to task quite often for sticking to party line politics. Occasionally, The Audacity of Hope degenerates into a set of talking points, especially when he praises President Clinton’s Third Way—a path that was used to good effect when overhauling the welfare program. Nevertheless Audacity is a work full of cogent analysis, a brave attempt to move beyond the superficial sound bites that seem to constitute contemporary American politics.

During his speech before a crowd of thousands in Berlin last summer, Obama called himself a “fellow citizen of the world.” The importance of this phrasing cannot be overstated. Obama’s multicultural outlook has been shaped by many circumstances—he is, as is well known by now, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a student from Kenya. Of particular importance is also his early childhood spent in Indonesia, a period he recounts with wonderful clarity in his soul-searching memoir, Dreams from My Father. Obama wrote the powerful Dreams in 2004, well before the start of his political career. He was then working as a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago.

After Obama’s Kenyan father left when he was just two, his mother remarried an Indonesian student and moved to Indonesia, taking her young son with her. Interestingly enough, it was Lolo, his then stepfather, who introduced Obama to the Hindu god Hanuman. Pointing to a large statue of Hanuman in Jakarta, Lolo told Obama that the monkey god was a great warrior. It is noteworthy that many years later, during what would be a grueling presidential campaign, Obama carried a pocket-sized Hanuman with him at all times.

For somebody who is said to “transcend” race, Obama has often had to deal with the delicate subject. He did so to superb effect with his speech on the issue during the presidential campaign and devotes a chapter to the subject in Audacity. But it is a single event he recounts beautifully in Dreams that leaves the greatest impact on the reader. As a young boy in Indonesia, he once casually picked up a copy of Life magazine at the American embassy in Jakarta where his mother once worked. One picture in particular left a deep impression—it showed a black man badly burned by a chemical treatment that had promised to lighten his complexion. It was then that the enormous complexities of Obama’s mixed race, the idea that his color might be less than desirable, slowly begin to sink in to the child’s psyche. It’s an absolutely haunting image and one that is beautifully rendered in Dreams.

Obama recounts teen life with his grandparents in Hawaii in as much detail as his early childhood with his mother. He writes of Toots and Gramps—hard-working citizens who shaped his character to a great extent. Famously, Obama left his presidential campaign for a couple of days to say goodbye to the ailing Toot. She passed away just a day before the elections.

With heartbreaking clarity, Obama also details his life as a community organizer in Chicago—the city he embraced to give him the sense of community he lacked all his life.

Obama’s father abandoned the family when he was two and it is obvious that this event left a nagging ache behind. “At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man,” Obama writes in Dreams. In order to get to know the old man better, Obama went on a trip to Kenya just before he joined Harvard Law: “No one here in Kenya would ask how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue. My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances, and grudges that I did not yet understand,” he writes. It’s a feeling practically every Indian American can immediately relate to. On his trip to Kenya, he discovers his extended clan, sees first hand their experience of colonialism, loss, and struggle, and learns facts about his late father and grandfather that helped him grow up.

Obama’s multicultural heritage has afforded him a worldview that is quite different from most American politicians: he is able to look at America from the outside in. His thoughts on American unilateralism are reassuring. “When the world’s sole superpower willingly restrains its power and abides by internationally agreed-upon standards of conduct, it sends a message that these are rules worth following, and robs terrorists and dictators of the argument that these rules are simply tools of American imperialism,” Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope.

By outlining Obama’s political views, The Audacity of Hope serves its purpose well. However, because it hews to strict political discourse, it is quite dry and lacks some of the visceral power (and readability) of Dreams. Taken together though, the two books reveal some wonderful insights into the many elements that shaped Obama’s personality.

Arguably, no other American politician in recent history has written so candidly about himself and his political philosophy. It was therefore surprising to hear the Republican ticket often ask, “Who is the real Barack Obama?” during the 2008 presidential campaign. They need have looked no further than Dreams. It is a book that reveals a lot about Obama’s early years and the essential factors that shaped his personality.

If one is looking for insight into Obama’s potential governing style, it is clearly enunciated in Audacity: “I believe any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we’re in,” Obama writes. “I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose.”

Obama is a pragmatist. In both books, his writing shows he is clearly capable of rational discourse and, equally important, nuance. How heartening it is to note that meritocracy is back in style.

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