Barack Obama: Lost in the Foothills of Hope
My wife, Sandra, warned me, "Don’t be hating." Now San (as we call her), who has worked in retail sales, selling ladies shoes, throughout her working life, is not an overtly political person. She is one of those old-timey, "salt of the earth" types. But when she doesn’t like a person, there is usually something wrong with that person. For instance, before it became evident that Al Sharpton’s effort in South Carolina was going nowhere fast, she coined the now-popular phrase "scampaign" to refer to the reverend’s run. I know it is ill-advised not to take heed of her warning.
With San’s admonition in mind, I tried to table her (and my) Oprah-tainted, media-hyped preconception of Baraka Obama so that I could read The Audacity of Hope with an open mind and with the same hopeful spirit as the title seeks to portray.
But the book is like those two solid yellow lines on a two-lane mountain road. They’re just there in the middle and never-ending, with a stop sign as the only relief.
He offers no boldness. Dr. King set out to change the social, economic, and political structures of this country. He described the change as a ‘third way’ beyond capitalism and socialism. King’s "third way" is far different than Bill Clinton’s "third way," promoted by Obama and all those around Hillary, who tout the Clintons as the second and third coming of Camelot.
The Clinton "third way" is Republican Party politics in slow motion. Under Bill Clinton, U.S. troops weren’t trapped in Iraq, but just as many, if not more, Iraqis died as a result of his policies. His destruction of the welfare system, his embrace of capital punishment and other punitive and discriminatory crime policies, his bowing to Wall Street all made him palatable to Republicans.
The hope in Obama’s title is for a mixture of Kennedyism, Reaganism, and Clintonism packaged as the new face of multicultural America. At its core, this is what The Audacity of Hope promotes, instead of any fundamental progressive change.
Nonetheless, it comes as no surprise that The Audacity of Hope is a New York Times bestseller. The book arrives amidst the hype of an upcoming and wide-open Presidential race, the collective angst over the country moving in the wrong direction, an economy that working people know isn’t as good as they are being told it is, and a war that has washed away – at home and abroad – the country’s preexisting false sense of moral superiority. As the line in Ethan and Joel Cohen’s 2000 movie, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, goes, "Everybody’s looking for answers."
Yet, does Obama’s book provide any real answers? It there anything in it that will help stimulate measurable change? Or, is it all just talk, posturing, and positioning for personal political goals? Is it an orchestrated, consciously plotted pretext to inoculate a politician from the perceived liabilities of race, lineage and inexperience?
The answers are no, no, yes, yes.
I can agree with Obama on the need for a new kind of politics. But he suggests that what’s broken can be fixed versus being replaced altogether. He opines that if we would all just recognize our "shared understanding," "shared values," and "the notion of a common good" that life (or politics) in the United States would be better.
Take, for instance, his praise of Reagan, hedged as it is by criticism of Reagan’s "John Wayne, Father Knows Best pose, his policy by anecdote, and his gratuitous assault on the poor." Writes Obama:
"I understood his appeal. It was the same appeal that the military bases back in Hawaii always held for me as a young boy, with their tidy streets and well-oiled machinery, the crisp uniforms and crisper salutes. . . . Reagan spoke to America’s longing for order, our need to believe that we are not subject to blind, impersonal forces, but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies. So long as we rediscover the traditional values of hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility, optimism, and faith."
Obama gets a lot wrong from start to finish. While people may indeed have a shared reality – which means we witness the same things – we don’t always feel, understand, process, or react to what we witness in the same way. The simplest example of not having a "shared understanding" is the difference in how blacks and whites view the police.
What is lacking here is devotion to principles, which Obama constantly sacrifices on the altar of "shared values." And of course the issue is not of shared values. It’s how we rank our values. Many people value religion, but which religion has more value? In this country we all know the answer to that question. As proof that the United States government values Christians over Muslims, consider that the United States is at war with an Islamic country. Consider that Muslims in this country are subject to increased government scrutiny and racial, ethnic, and religious profiling. No one in their right mind could believe that the United States place a Muslim on an equal footing with a Christian or Jew. The daily body count dispels that notion.
At the top of Obama’s shared values matrix is his Christian faith, his heterosexual family, the American flag, and the Democratic Party. "Shared values" and "the notion of a common good" pretty much amounts to the same thing in Obamaspeak. It all sounds pleasant, but it’s surely not new. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Jesse Jackson’s "common ground" theme that he built his ’88 campaign around. Clinton picked up the phrase, and it is now a standard part of the political lexicon.
But the use and meaning of Jackson’s phrase has changed over the years since Clinton co-opted it. Jackson’s "common ground" meant bringing together a coalition of workers, women, men, blacks, progressive whites, gays and lesbians, environmentalists, anti-apartheid activists, those opposed to Ronald Reagan’s illegal war in Central America, farmers, Latinos, Arab-Americans and other traditionally underrepresented or unrepresented groups. With Jackson’s phrase, all could demand a seat at the Democratic Party table.
By contrast, Clinton wanted the Democratic Party to renew its "common ground" with those who left the party with Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats and those who jumped ship when Ronald Reagan rose to power: white men. Clinton’s "common ground" was with the Democratic Leadership Council. Clinton "common ground" pushed aside those whom Jackson brought to the party. And The Audacity of Hope places Obama squarely in the DLC camp, even if he never applies for a membership card.
As a political tome, The Audacity of Hope is kind of a new and improved, better-written version of Clinton’s long-winded speech at the ’88 Democratic Convention in book form. Obama touches all the hot button words like the "nuclear option," "strict constructionists," and the like but never really says anything deep or brave or new other than to remind us that the hot buttons are really hot.
Give Obama credit for copping to the fact that his "treatment of the issues is often partial and incomplete." Overall, the treatise reads like a very, very long speech of sound bites and clichés arranged by topic and issue and connected by conjunctions, pleasantries, and apologies. Pleasantries like wishing for a return to the days when Republicans and Democrats "met at night for dinner, hashing out a compromise over steaks and cigars." Or, leading with apologias to describe painful parts of United States history or softening a rightfully deserved blow as when he describes racist southern Senator Richard B. Russell as "erudite." Or accusing his mom of having a "incorrigible, sweet-natured romanticism" about the ’60s and the civil rights era as he waxes romantically about Hubert Humphrey’s Democratic Party. It’s like he did not have a clue about the 1964 struggles of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
The shame of Obama’s lack of depth is that Hamer’s conflict over representation pretty much set the table for how the Democratic Party deals with blacks today. But of course he was only three years old and living in Hawaii when Lyndon Johnson went on national television to give a speech so that Hamer’s image and the MFDP challenge would be off the airwaves. Hamer’s fight was a precursor to the candidacy of Shirley Chisholm, the first black to seriously run for President in 1972 (if you exclude Dick Gregory’s 1968 bid). Chisholm continued Hamer’s fight for a greater black and female voice in politics and government.
Throughout, Obama proffers an unnaturally romantic view of the Democratic Party for a person of his age. His appreciation of party seems as times deeper than his understanding of the civil rights movement, which comes across as antiseptic. And he goes out of his way to comfort whites with a critique of black Americans that could tumble out of the mouth of William Bennett. "Many of the social or cultural factors that negatively affect black people, for example, simply mirror in exaggerated form problems that afflict America as whole: too much television (the average black household has the television on more than eleven hours per day), too much consumption of poisons (blacks smoke more and eat more fast food), and a lack of emphasis on educational attainment," he writes. "Then there’s the collapse of the two-parent black household, a phenomenon that . . . reflects a casualness towards sex and child rearing among black men."
The book has no soul. That perhaps explains why some (with motives good and bad) in the black community complain that he "is not black enough," or "he has no respect or appreciation for the past," or "he is the amalgamation of everything white folk want a black man to be," or "he’s a white boy being scripted by smart-ass white boys."
The book is surprisingly short on substance. Given all the policy disasters of the Bush Administration, what troubles Obama about the Bush era is not so much the policies Republicans championed but "the process" or lack of process "by which the White House and its Congressional allies disposed of opposing views." In the end, all he offers is the promise of a ‘hope’ that he will manage the process better than the other guy or gal.
So then, why write the book?
Obama’s face is everywhere. And, there is no shortage of opinion about him, which makes it difficult to read his book and sort things out without atmospheric bias. But The Audacity of Hope plays on the creation of a Kennedy-like mystique. I’ve spoken to a couple of writer friends who attended an Obama event and in both conversations the comparison to John Kennedy was bandied about. On cue, Obama plays the Kennedy-card throughout his book, tossing in passages from Profiles in Courage.
Although we now know that John F. Kennedy did not write Profiles in Courage, the book is one you have on your shelf that you might look through on occasion and actually enjoy rereading. Profiles in Courage is a historical marker in a way Audacity of Hope will never be. Not that I am a fan in the slightest regard of the early John and Robert Kennedy. There was much to dislike about them even before the days when they authorized then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to bug Dr. King, after which the top cop and closet cross dresser (no disrespect to cross dressers) in turn authorized his agents to try to prod King into killing himself.
Not everyone writes a book before running for the Presidency. But some do, and those books reveal things about the person and the time. Jackson’s Straight from the Heart, of which many people contributed to, still holds up as a record of where progressive stood at a particular point and where many progressives stand today. Ross Perot’s United We Stand at least tried to confront some familiar problems such as the federal debt. And he actually wrote of reforming the system of campaign finance, increasing electoral participation, and eliminating the Electoral College.
The title of a book usually tells the story. Sometimes it may take reading the entire book, down to the last page before you realize how telling or appropriate a title is. The Audacity of Hope. You can’t chant it in a crowd like, well, "Keep Hope Alive!" Or "Keep the Faith, Baby!" or "Power to the People!" And while the book is technically well-written with aspirations to inspire, Obama falls far short of the mountaintop. In the end, the feels trapped in a valley of buzzwords, catch-phrases, and insider jargon with words like "halcyon" thrown in for good measure.
So, if you are searching Obama’s book for hints or even the language of the kind of change that means something in a structural and systemic way, it’s not there.
But I’m afraid people are going to discount Obama not for what he says, but for who he is. I was at the bank talking politics, among other things, with Maria, the head teller. As I spoke in my usual unrestrained and audible way, so as to let anyone hear me without having to eavesdrop, Obama’s name came up. An older white gentleman standing next to me said, "Ya know his middle name is Hussein? This country will never elect a man named Hussein President!" To which I could only respond, "Well, the country elected a man that is insane!"
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY is lead organizer of the Harriet Tubman Freedom House Project in Columbia, South Carolina, which focuses on community-based political and cultural education. He is also a contributing editor to Black News in South Carolina. Gray served as 1988 South Carolina coordinator for the Presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson and as 1992 southern political director for Iowa Senator Tom Harkin’s Presidential bid. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This review originally appeared in the print edition of The Progressive.