Obama’s Foursquare Politics, With a Dab of Dijon
Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois and the Democratic Party’s new rock star, is that rare politician who can actually write — and write movingly and genuinely about himself.
His 1995 memoir,“Dreams From My Father,” written before Mr. Obama entered politics, provided a revealing, introspective account of his efforts to trace his family’s tangled roots and his attempts to come to terms with his absent father, who left home when he was still a toddler. That book did an evocative job of conjuring the author’s multicultural childhood: his father was from Kenya, his mother was from Kansas, and the young Mr. Obama grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia.
And it was equally candid about his youthful struggles: pot, booze and “maybe a little blow,” he wrote, could “push questions of who I was out of my mind,” flatten “out the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my memory.” Most memorably, the book gave the reader a heartfelt sense of what it was like to grow up in the 1960’s and 70’s, straddling America’s color lines: the sense of knowing two worlds and belonging to neither, the sense of having to forge an identity of his own.
Mr. Obama’s new book, “The Audacity of Hope”— the phrase comes from his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address, which made him the party’s rising young hope— is much more of a political document. Portions of the volume read like outtakes from a stump speech, and the bulk of it is devoted to laying out Mr. Obama’s policy positions on a host of issues, from education to health care to the war in Iraq.
He recalls a meet-and-greet encounter at the White House with George W. Bush, who warmly shook his hand, then “turned to an aide nearby, who squirted a big dollop of hand sanitizer in the president’s hand.” (“Good stuff,” he quotes the president as saying, as he offered his guest some. “Keeps you from getting colds.”) And he recounts a trip he took through Illinois with an aide, who scolded him for asking for Dijon mustard at aT.G.I. Friday’s, worried the senator would come across as an elitist; the confused waitress, he adds, simply said: “We got Dijon if you want it.”
In his 2004 keynote address Mr. Obama spoke of the common ground Americans share: “There is not a Black America and White America and Latino America and Asian America— there’s the United States of America.” And the same message— rooted in his own youthful efforts to grapple with racial stereotypes, racial loyalty and class resentments— threads its way through the pages of this book. Despite the red state-blue state divide, despite racial, religious and economic divisions, Mr. Obama writes, “we are becoming more,
not less, alike” beneath the surface: “Most Republican strongholds are 40 percent Democrat, and vice versa. The political labels of liberal and conservative rarely track people’s personal attributes.”
His thoughts on domestic and foreign policy try to hew to this consensus-building line. Some of his recommendations devolve into little more than fuzzy statements of the obvious: i.e., that America’s “addiction to oil” is affecting the economy and undermining national security, or that the education system needs to be revamped and improved. Others echo Bill Clinton’s “third way,” methodically triangulating between traditionally conservative and traditionally liberal ideas.
Mr. Obama writes that “conservatives— and Bill Clinton— were right about welfare as it was previously structured: By detaching income from work and by making no demands on welfare recipients other than a tolerance for intrusive bureaucracy and an assurance that no man lived in the same house as the mother of his children, the old A.F.D.C.program sapped people of their initiative and eroded their self respect.”
He assails President Bush for waging an unnecessary and misguided war in Iraq and for promoting an “Ownership Society” that “magnifies the uneven risks and rewards of today’s winner-take-all economy.” Yet he also takes the Democrats to task for becoming “the party of reaction”: “In reaction to a war that is ill-conceived, we appear suspicious of all military action. In reaction to those who proclaim the market can cure all ills, we resist efforts to use market principles to tackle pressing problems. In reaction to religious overreach, we equate tolerance with secularism and forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with a larger meaning. We lose elections and hope for the courts to foil Republican plans. We lose the courts and wait for a White House scandal.”
This volume does not possess the searching candor of the author’s first book. But Mr. Obama strives in these pages to ground his policy thinking in simple common sense— be it “growing the size of our armed forces to maintain reasonable rotation schedules” or reining in spending and rethinking tax policy to bring down the nation’s huge deficit— while articulating these ideas in level-headed, nonpartisan prose. That, in itself, is something unusual, not only in these venomous pre-election days, but also in these increasingly polarized and polarizing times.