Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope

The first of three columns on books by presidential candidates.

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If platitudes had weight, Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope would be impossible to lift off the table. Still, it’s a good book. By the standards of “writings by politicians” it’s in the top percentile. You read it and you like the man. You read it and feel that he has managed somehow to be both a skilled politician and a genuine human being. He writes, for instance, about what motivates politicians to run for office and to continue doing so:

Neither ambition nor single-mindedness fully accounts for the behavior of politicians, however. There is a companion emotion, perhaps more pervasive and certainly more destructive, an emotion that, after the giddiness of your official announcement as a candidate, rapidly locks you in its grip and doesn’t release you until after Election Day. That emotion is fear. Not just fear of losing — although that is bad enough — but fear of total, complete humiliation.

Those lines are indicative of the book’s overall tone. They are disarming in their honesty on one hand, but calculated in the end for being so. Will anyone think less of him for admitting the role of fear in a politician’s life?

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But so much for the niceties of the man. So much for his essential
humanity. The more intriguing question is whether the book has any keys
in it, any revelations or signs for those who know how to read them.

There is one, and while it isn’t anything new, it is something that
I’m not sure has been unpacked in all its dimensions: Obama thinks of
himself as Lincoln. Anyone who cares to know that fact has known it at
least since Sunday, June 26, 2005, when he declared as much in an
article for Time magazine called “What I See in Lincoln’s Eyes.”

Indeed, Obama earned himself some rough treatment from Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal for writing that essay and he discusses the incident in his book. He writes:

Under the title “Conceit of Government,” [Noonan] wrote,
“This week comes the previously careful Sen. Obama, flapping his wings
in Time Magazine and explaining that he’s a lot like Abraham Lincoln,
only sort of better.” She went on to say, “There is nothing wrong with
Barack Obama’s resume, but it is a log-cabin free zone. So far it is
also a greatness-free zone. If he keeps talking about himself like this
it always will be.”

Ouch!

Undaunted, if suitably self-aware, Obama continues to beat the Lincoln drum throughout The Audacity of Hope.
On the face of it, this is unsurprising. Obama has presented himself to
America as a high-minded uniter and Lincoln was, of course, the savior
of the Union itself. But that is trivial stuff.

There is, however, a more complicated and interesting side to
Lincoln’s uniting. Lincoln united not so much by bringing all sides
together, though he had the populist touch and the knack for speaking
the common tongue, but because he outflanked nearly everyone and
thereby trumped the political impasse of the time. The crisis of
Lincoln’s time was slavery, of course, but the contemporary debate
centered on whether slavery should or shouldn’t be allowed to extend
into the newer states and territories in the West. You may remember the
ongoing imbroglio over the Missouri Compromise, which effectively
sliced the expanding nation of the early 19th century into slave and
non-slave halves. Lincoln recognized clearly and decisively, and as few
of his contemporaries ever did, that the terms of the debate itself
were untenable. He immortalized this insight in his famous biblical
quote that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” We tend to
think of that line now as a truism. But Lincoln was boldly redefining
the issue at the time. He was saying that the political divide of his
era was structurally stagnant and therefore that neither side would be
able to face the central questions of the day.

I think that’s the kind of uniter that Obama wants to be. He wants
to be an outflanker, not a synthesizer or a moderate in the typical
senses of those terms. As such, he’s not exactly a liberal, either,
although he comes out of and was nurtured in the liberal tradition. As
a Lincolnian outflanker, he is staking out a political territory that
simply doesn’t fit comfortably into the traditional
liberal/conservative axis that has characterized American politics for
more than 60 years.

And that is the second place where Lincoln comes in. In a seven-page
stretch of the book that begins with Lincoln and that ends with
Lincoln, Obama lays out a rough sketch of the last 150 years or so.
First, you have the period in which “Lincoln embarked on a series of
policies that not only laid the groundwork for a fully integrated
national economy but extended the ladders of opportunity to reach more
and more people.” A period of prosperity followed that came to an end
with the Great Depression. That set the stage for the legacy of the New
Deal. FDR and Keynes saved us but capitalism continued to grow and
transform. Reagan and then Clinton effectively ended the post-WWII
period by reducing government’s role while retaining something of a
social safety net. That brings us roughly to the present, which Obama
sees as a period ready for another political rearrangement but trapped
in the battles of the past. He writes: “Republicans are fighting the
last war, the war they waged and won in the eighties, while Democrats
are forced to fight a rearguard action, defending the New Deal programs
of the thirties. Neither strategy will work anymore.”

Structurally, it’s another Lincoln moment in Obama’s eyes. One in
which the necessary but nevertheless bold move is to outflank the
existing political options. And it’s a Lincoln moment in terms of
content as well. Because the currently available option, as Obama sees
it, is the old mix of Hamiltonian and Whiggish early Republicanism that
got brushed aside in the tumultuous 20th century. “We can be guided,”
Obama says, “by Lincoln’s simple maxim: that we will do collectively,
through our government, only those things that we cannot do as well or
at all individually and privately.” That maxim can sound just fine to
any traditional 20th century Republican or Democrat so long as they
listen to it in the manner to which they’re already inclined. And it is
OK to Obama, right now, if they do. He’s trying to ride that broad
approval all the way to the White House. But I suspect that what he
really means with that Lincolnian maxim is something that can’t sit
right for either side, because it seeks to shift the ground upon which
both sides are situated. Obama may indeed win the Democratic Party’s
nomination for President, but he’s running as a Whig. • 14 February 2008

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.
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