Man of the moment


By Barack Obama

Canongate, 384pp, 14.99

IN A MORE PERFECT WORLD, A PhD might be required of all those seeking the US presidency. In some ways, this book is Democratic candidate Barack Obama's doctoral thesis submission. While exhibiting his leadership attributes, life experiences and personal qualities largely in anecdotal form, it also displays reasonably wide and thoughtful, if occasionally predictable, responses to domestic controversies and underscores the fact that in his brief time as the junior senator from Illinois he has been exposed to conflicts in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.

The self-portrait is appealing. It presents a man of relative youth yet maturity, a wise observer of the human condition, a figure who possesses perseverance and writing skills that have flashes of grandeur. Obama also demonstrates a wry sense of humour. His life has given him many reasons to be wry.

The senator is a global man for the age of globalisation. A Kansas mother, a Kenyan father, an Indonesian stepfather, and years growing up in the disparate places of Hawaii and Indonesia marked him for distinction the moment he walked through the doors of the Senate, and provided him with a unique prism through which to view the glory and the folly of US politics.

Obama disarmingly admits to ambition, "chronic restlessness" and envy of more successful younger politicians. Before rolling the dice on a risky senate race, he had begun to harbour doubts about his choice of career, and suggests that he went through at least some of "the stages prescribed by the experts: denial, anger, despair". In a particularly Tolstoyan moment, he confesses to "acceptance" of "my mortality". He listened to countless people's stories and came to a Roosevelt-like epiphany: "Government should help." He laments the loss of a shared civic language and the widening gap between the myth of American life and its reality, and he devotes this book to the discovery of "a new kind of politics" and "civic life", to "the notion of a common good". He specifically refuses to offer "a manifesto for action, complete with ten-point plans".

Confessing guilt at being "insufficiently balanced" in his political views - "I am a Democrat, after all" - Obama insists that "government has an important role in opening up opportunity to all" ; he also believes in the free market. He suspects that some of his views - his open-mindedness on social issues, for example, combined with economic traditionalism - will cause him trouble. His relative newness on the political scene, he admits, will also cause him to be seen as a "blank screen" on which a variety of people will project their own views, but he then quickly acknowledges that he must "avoid the pitfalls of fame".

"Precisely because I've watched the press cast me in a light that can be hard to live up to," he writes, "I am mindful of how rapidly that process can work in reverse." The media age has been known, as he wisely recognises, to devour what it creates.

Despite being new to the scene (although he did serve three terms in the Illinois state senate), Obama casts himself in the role of a political veteran. But his upbringing gives him special insights into the transition of US politics in the 1960s and 1970s from debates over economic principles to a focus on culture and morality, and into the divisiveness, polarisation and incivility that accompanied this transition. He describes the Democratic Party as one that merely reacts to events, and he documents the strangulation of conviction by "triangulation". His answer? Trans-partisan consensus around a "project of national renewal".

The success of a book like this may be judged by determining for whom it is written. Obama perceives his audience as intelligent, involved (though only slightly wonkish) citizens interested in knowing more about who he is and what and how he thinks. Much of his book is dedicated to the who and the how, though he is also out to demonstrate the what - intellectual depth, policy innovation and international exposure. As sprightly as his political observations are (eg: the longer you are in the Senate, the more you come to resemble your wealthy contributors), the discussions often seem didactic, thus revealing - especially on the subject of the constitution - the law professor he once was.

Obama thinks Democrats have been "wrong to run away from a debate about values" (though who has been guilty of running away is not made clear) and his correct definition of values - "the standards and principles that the majority of Americans deem important in their lives, and in the life of the country" - is hardly what the evangelical polemicists who have hijacked the traditional Republican Party have in mind. He is particularly evocative on the issue of ideological inconsistency, blaming liberals for demanding civil liberties but not deregulation and conservatives for wanting deregulation of markets but encouraging wiretapping. "Values," Obama writes, "are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question."

Obama calls for public investment in education, science and technology and energy, as the key to expanded opportunity. This has been standard fare for neo-liberals since the late 1970s. But he also writes that "what's missing is not money, but a national sense of urgency". He promotes cutting-edge ideas - abolishing all tax breaks for the oil industry and requiring contributions from the big companies which would help finance alternative energy research - and shows great interest in governmental experimentation instead of traditional bureaucratic programmes. His inherent internationalism causes him to ponder why the US "still lacks a coherent national security policy", rightly finding the Bush doctrine of pre-emption and defeat of evil in the world wanting.

Truly great leaders possess a strategic sense, an inherent understanding of how the framework of their thinking and the tides of the times fit together and how their nation's powers should be applied to achieve its large purposes. The Audacity of Hope is missing that strategic sense. Perhaps the senator should address this in his next book. By doing so, he would most certainly propel himself into the country's small pantheon of leaders in a way that personal narrative and sudden fame cannot.

In a very short time, Obama has made himself into a figure of US national interest, curiosity and some undefined hope. This book fully encourages those sentiments. His greatest test will be that of sensing the times, of matching his timing with the tides of the nation.

He is at his best when he writes things like this: "I find comfort in the fact that the longer I'm in politics the less nourishing popularity becomes, that a striving for power and rank and fame seems to betray a poverty of ambition, and that I am answerable mainly to the steady gaze of my own conscience."

• Gary Hart is a former Democrat senator and was a presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988.

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