Excuse me for getting uncharacteristically political for another post, but I believe this is really important…
I’ve just finished Barack Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, subtitled “thoughts on reclaiming the American dream.” It’s quite inspiring to read the words of this caring, brilliant, insightful, balanced, and still ordinary man. It is clear that he has thought deeply about the many issues facing this country, and he discusses these complex problems in language that is grounded in common sense and that is focused on the basic things we have in common as Americans and more so as human beings – things like families, values, individual rights, and the desire to be treated fairly. His chapter titles show the range of his thoughts – Republicans & Democrats, Values, Our Constitution (he has studied and taught constitutional law), politics, opportunity, faith, race, the world beyond our borders, and family. He has ideas and approaches on all of these many problems, but he doesn’t pretend to have definitive answers to everything. He does make it clear that answers that don’t put people first, that don’t recognize the realities of the “global village” of the twenty-first century, that don’t take a wide enough view, or that are based on wishful thinking about the way things used to be – that those aren’t really answers at all.
Obama’s love for this country is apparent on every page in this book, but his is not the patriotism of “my country, right or wrong” – it’s the patriotism of someone who knows and cares for our diverse American people, who knows the great things we have achieved and can still achieve, and who knows that no matter how powerful America may be, that we are still members of a family of nations, all of us sharing a fragile planet. Obama’s life is itself a microcosm of the American experience. He’s the son of a woman from Kansas and a man from Kenya, he has relatives in Africa, Indonesia, Hawaii, and elsewhere. He eloquently told the story of his early life and his search for his identity in his first book, Dreams from my Father, which I also read recently.
In the last week there has been some press about how Obama is supposedly “tacking to the center,” adjusting his positions on various issues to be more mainstream, more acceptable to a wider range of voters in the general election. If you read this 2006 book, you will see how wrong that is. Although Obama is proud to call himself a Democrat and a progressive, his positions are and have been based more on finding common ground and achievable solutions than on sticking to party doctrine. As he says in his chapter on values, “The political labels of liberal and conservative rarely track people’s personal attributes.” He’s talking there about Americans in general, about how people typically hold a mix of views. But it applies to Obama as well. Does this make him wishy-washy? Not at all – it makes him American, mixing idealism, optimism, and pragmatism with a strong dose of roll up your sleeves and get it done.
What I like about this book and about Obama himself is that while it is about politics, it really feels like it is about life. Obama is not Superman, and electing him president will not make everything all better. The problems are too big to just whisk away. Obama is optimistic but he is not naïve – he understands the need for political and military power in the world, and under his presidency, I think the US will regain some respect in the world. We won’t be a bully, but neither will we be a wimp. With the fundamental strength of our market economy and our large and diverse population, people can work together to make things better here if they are given some hope and some opportunity. And we can work with other nations to help make this world more just, and ultimately safer and more stable because of this. With the giant weight of the Iraq War and our current head-in-the-sand energy policy, it will not be easy to get our economy back on track, maintain our security, and prepare for the future by improving education, energy, and much more. But I believe that Barack Obama has the best chance of leading us in the right direction, and of assembling a capable team and inspiring the American people to work to help us get there. That’s why we need to elect President Obama this fall.
P.S. Obama has a lot of great material on his web site, but if you have doubts about him, or even if you like him and think you know something about him, I strongly recommend reading both of his books. If you only have time for one, I guess it should be Audacity since that deals most directly with our current situation, but his first book is well worth the time if you can read both.
And lest you think that I believe Obama walks on water, I have to say that as a secularist (to put it mildly), I am not completely comfortable with his support for faith-based initiatives, though I understand his position on a practical basis, and I know that he stands strongly for the separation of church and state. As a space and education guy, I also believe that he has sold NASA short. He plans to delay the Constellation program by five years and to use the savings (small by social program standards) to fund some early education programs. It’s true that NASA may not be as inspirational as it was in the Apollo era, but it is still a powerful force for science and technology that could be better coupled to education rather than pushing it aside. Moving beyond low Earth orbit can be inspirational, even though went to the Moon 38 years ago. But to be honest and practical, on a greatest-good basis, these are pretty small things – he doesn’t have a religious agenda, and he doesn’t plan to shut down NASA.