Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Audacity of Hope - A Review

Obama in this book written in 2006 when he was senator, has managed to weave together the personal with the political experiences beautifully and engagingly. Though the references are largely to the American politics, some of the issues that he speaks of and the concerns he says, unite Americans across “race, region, religion and class” transcend geographies and seem to be the same in our country too. Therein lies the beauty of this book; one doesn’t have to be an American to be able to gauge Mr. Obama’s sincerity. It shines throughout palpably and is one of the biggest reasons why the book has become very popular. Since it offers glimpses of what Roosevelt, Kennedy, Lincoln, Reagan, Johnson, Clinton and Bush stood for during their reign at the helm of America in a broad fashion, it is highly educating and informative to read each and every page.


What struck me quite clearly, as very different, was a whole chapter devoted to Values; a politician talking about values in such a fashion as Obama has did is quite astonishing. As in all the other chapters, he uses the book to express his stand on various issues. In the chapter devoted to values, for example, he talks about executive pay among others.

The language of the book is rich with intricately woven sentences; in their every curve and bend are nuggets of wisdom to be cherished, and revelations abound about the functioning of a sharp, intensely observant, shrewd and empathetic mind. At various points in the narrative, he stresses on the need to find common ground; to find in people the common value that everyone shares. How aptly it applies to the Indian context where we see politicians competing against one another in finding grounds to divide the electorate in pursuit of votes.


In the chapter on “Our constitution”, Mr. Obama throws light on the judiciary’s interpretation of the constitution as lifestyle changes sometimes make the Government’s role in a large democracy debatable. Ultimately, the conclusion drawn merits appreciation for who can rightly discern what the intent of the founders was!


Obama candidly observes that the more time one spends in the limelight of politics, the farther it takes the person from the problems of ordinary people. Talking about the amounts of money required for funding, suffering defeat, living by stereotypes, he convincingly gives an insider view of the traps and pitfalls that a Politician has to traverse. He is at his very best when he describes how complicated it is to decide either on an aye or a nay vote when both sides have some merit. He is also critical of the media who always want a “yes” or a “no” for an answer to complicated questions thereby always putting politicians in a spot in an attempt to trap them. In this particular aspect, the Indian media excel and our politicians either sadly don’t recognize their traps or are naive enough to fall into them and pay the price.


Obama talks about his meeting with the founders of Google – Larry Page and Sergey Brin – when he doesn’t meet any black or Latino in the group of new recruits. He realizes the potential trouble for the US economy as more companies hire non US employees to get their work done. As juxtaposition, he describes the meeting with a group of union leaders of a plant on the verge of laying off American workers. Now as we know that he has announced large stimulus packages to kick start economic activity, it comes as no surprise to read “…in each and every period of great economic upheaval and transition we’ve depended on Government action to open up opportunity, encourage competition, and make the market work better”. Some of these give broad outlines on how the president may act on grave issues that need American action.

He proceeds to suggest three investments to make America “more competitive in the global economy” – investments in education with reforms of high impact on student achievement, in science and technology with focus on R&D, in energy infrastructure to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels. One of my favorite chapters, Obama ends with an explanation of his vote against Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), as a “means of registering protest against White House’s inattention to the losers from free trade”.


Tackling the issues of abortion and gay marriage which we know dominated the discourse of debates in the run up to the Presidential elections, Mr. Obama feels his pro-choice stance and stand on homosexuality makes him “human and limited in the understandings of God’s purpose”.


Obama clearly acknowledges on the issue of race that, there is a need to “acknowledge the sins of the past and the challenges of the present without becoming trapped in cynicism and despair”. There is optimism and subtlety employed judiciously to defend affirmative action and placing some responsibilities on the minorities. In his earnestness to address the nexus of unemployment and crime, there is the urge to tackle the root causes impeding progress. Will any Indian Politician boldly address the pathetic infrastructure of the public school system and wean the focus away from just quantity to a combination of quality and quantity?

The Outer World:

Titled “The World beyond our borders”, Obama traces the rise and fall of the land he grew up in – Indonesia. After reading this, what stays with the reader is the trajectory of US foreign policy from isolationist sentiment in the world war era to the interference of today. How successive US Presidents felt the pressure to sound “hard” on communism, how certain resultant policies led to a loss of credibility – there is a touch of candid and critical self introspection.


Obama ends the book by ravishing praise on his wife and commenting on the increasing role of women as breadwinners. It is a fitting end by a man who loves his family as much as his nation.

In its sweeping look at history, broad and honest examination of grave issues, it is an engrossing read and one that is strongly recommended.

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