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The Audacity of Hope
By Barack Obama
On July 27, 2004, at the Democratic National Convention at the Fleet Center in Boston, a star was born. The son of a white woman from Kansas and a graduate student in economics from Kenya, Barack Obama was a candidate for the United States Senate from Illinois.
Born in Hawaii and reared (for four years) in Muslim Indonesia, Obama returned to the United States and became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. "In no other country on earth is my story possible," he proclaimed in his keynote speech to the convention. And to thunderous applause he added, "There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there is a United States of America."
The next day, The New York Times reported, Obama "could not walk around town without being swarmed." That fall, Obama won his election in a landslide. In October 2006, he revealed that he was considering a run for president of the United States. Elegantly written, with disarmingly self-deprecating comments about Obama as husband and father, The Audacity of Hope presents a blueprint for his campaign strategy in 2008.
Most Americans, Obama believes, "are weary of the dead zone that politics has become, in which narrow interests vie for advantage and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of absolute truth."
Like his role model, Bill Clinton, Obama seeks a "Third Way" to break the deadlock of Right versus Left, liberal versus conservative, individual versus communal values.
To regain the political center, Obama implies, Democrats must change their rhetoric. For decades, the party has seemed exhausted and defensive, militant about rights but tone deaf to duties and responsibilities. Most importantly, Democrats have ceded to Republicans the moral language that infuses politics with larger meanings. Obama is convinced that a Democratic party rooted in faith, inclusiveness, and optimism - the audacity of hope - can build the foundation for a new political consensus.
He knows how to talk the centrist talk. Democrats as well as Republicans, he demonstrates, often complain about government encroachment only when it impinges on programs they like. So Democrats should acknowledge that "the recreational hunter feels the same way about his gun as they feel about their library books." Accept as legitimate complaints about "the coarsening of our culture, the promotion of easy materialism and instant gratification, the severing of sexuality from intimacy." And understand that "even the most fair-minded whites" now push back when they encounter race-specific government mandates to remedy racial victimization.
Since law is a codification of morality, Obama - who as an adult was baptized in the Trinity United Church of Christ - asserts that it "is a practical absurdity" to demand that religious views not inform public debate. A sense of proportion should guide Christian activists as well as guardians of the provision against establishments of religion in the US Constitution. In a pluralistic democracy, Obama insists, sectarian values must be translated into universal terms and subjected to reasoned argument. Thus zealous Christians do not have the right to rely on the Bible to deny rights to homosexuals. But it is acceptable to ask students to recite the phrase "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, use school property for meetings of religious organizations, and spend public funds on some faith-based social programs.
On occasion, Obama is willing to walk the centrist walk. He agrees that the welfare program abolished by President Clinton sapped self-respect and removed incentives to work. Despite the opposition of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, he supports merit pay for teachers. But on most major issues, as Republicans are sure to point out, Obama is reliably liberal, with a voting record similar to that of John Kerry or the other heir to the Clinton legacy, Hillary Clinton. He supports a government-sponsored health care plan, available to all citizens; a woman's right to abortion; same-sex civil unions; gun-control; a tax on oil companies to fund alternative energy research; environmental regulation; an increase in the minimum wage. And he opposes tax cuts for the wealthy, including repeal of the estate tax; the privatization of Social Security; and some provisions of the anti-terrorist "Patriot Act." On foreign policy, Obama is less specific - and less sure of himself. In favor of the war in Afghanistan, he was an early opponent of the attack on Iraq, declaring in 2002 that it would require "an occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences," likely to strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaida. Obama supports a phased withdrawal of American troops. Beyond this, he has "no grand strategy" for peace and stability in his "hip pocket." Obama's chapter on foreign policy, "The World Beyond Our Borders," is mostly hortatory, acknowledging that the United States has the right to take unilateral action against any truly imminent threat to our security, but endorsing a multi-lateral foreign policy focused less on imposing democracy by force than on reducing poverty and insecurity.
On the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Obama ponders "the possible futility" of believing that a resolution can be reached "in our time," dismisses pessimism as the "thoughts of an old man" and affirms an obligation to seek peace for the benefit of the people in the region as well as the safety and security of the United States.
Given Obama's prescient stand on Iraq - and a pragmatic electorate often more interested in domestic than in foreign policy - these generalizations may be enough. Pundits now predict that Obama will be a formidable contender for the presidency. In politics, Obama writes, "there may be second acts, but there is no second place." Perhaps. But it's also possible that in the summer of 2008, the freshman senator from Illinois, intelligent, articulate, unseasoned, and untested, will find himself on a Clinton-Obama ticket.
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.