Obama’s audacious vision

It says something about the wide appeal of a US presidential candidate when his «Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream» are published in Greek as well as many other languages, including Italian, Spanish, German and French. Senator Barack Obama’s «The Audacity of Hope» has recently been translated and released on the Greek market by Polis as the interest in Obama’s campaign to win the Democratic nomination and run for president against John McCain continues to grow here. Greek readers will be in for a surprise as this is not the type of book they have become used to from their own politicians. Instead of grandiose political theorizing, they will get a down-to-earth view of policies that can change people’s lives. Instead of stories about the agonizing process of decision making, they will get accounts of meetings with real people who have real problems. The only drawback for readers in Greece is the fact that the Greek title translates as «I Dare to Hope.» The problem with this is that it misses probably the single most significant word in the whole book – audacity. The two distinct meanings of audacity (from fearlessness to presumptuousness) in the English language also encapsulate the two different views of Obama and his vision that someone can take after reading this book. You will either come away uplifted by having read the thoughts of an inspiring politician who is audacious enough to want to change the American political system and cut through party lines to improve people’s lives or you will be left with the impression that the senator from Illinois is audacious enough to believe that he has the gravitas to carry through these unlikely reforms. At its core, Obama’s message in the book is very straightforward and can be found on just its second page: «… the simple idea that we have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the truth of this proposition and act upon it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done.» It is clearly a message of hope and the book follows Obama’s journey to the Senate and beyond as he hones his beliefs and policies. Obama is the front-runner in what is likely to be a generation of politicians across the world that realize that the current political system is not serving the people well enough and that entrenchment in traditional party battle formations is not going to help change the situation. Just as Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 inspired a closer alignment to a «third way» in many European countries, so Obama has the potential to force politicians on this side of the Atlantic to re-examine their beliefs. There is a long way for Obama to go before he can claim this mantle but «The Audacity of Hope» lays a useful marker along the way. As a Washington insider, albeit a relatively new one, his criticisms of the way the Senate and the wider political system in the USA works carry considerable weight and are intelligent enough to go beyond the customary raging against the state that some politicians use to get the public on their side. His call for politicians to develop a greater sense of empathy, for instance, is difficult to argue with: «I am obligated to try and see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I disagree with him. That’s what empathy does – it calls us to task, the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor. We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision. No one is exempt from the call to find common ground.» His honest look at the failings of the Democrats as well as the Republicans to grasp people’s problems and their inability to align themselves with the hopes and needs of the electorate is also an indication that despite his relatively young age of 46 (or 44 when the book was written), he has enough political maturity to identify the problems around him; the book contains suggestions (not fully formulated policies) on tackling America’s health insurance problems, poverty, crime, immigration and racial division. His writing also suggests that he is not the kind of politician that is willing to follow the crowd simply for the sake of expediency. Obama is perhaps the USA’s most skilled orator since Clinton and many parts of the book read like excerpts from stump speeches. Their heady mix of human interest and political vision makes the book eminently readable. He also makes the book very personal by including self-deprecating anecdotes about himself as a politician, husband and father. In fact, the strongest parts of the book are when he recounts meetings with normal people and how the problems of these voters have helped mould his position on a number of issues. It is very clear from reading this book that Obama has a passion for politics that is matched by his love for the USA. In fact, the book ends with the line: «My heart is filled with love for this country.» Although an insight into his thinking and the makeup of this presidential hopeful, the book ultimately fails to answer the one question that is at the back of so many people’s minds in the USA and beyond: Can this one-term US senator from a mixed-race background really live up to the vision he is building? Just as there are some encouraging signs that he can pull it off, there are also some glaring gaps that leave plenty of room for doubt. His chapter on foreign policy, for instance, strikes a chord that will be music to the ears of many who believe the USA needs to regain trust and help rebuild diplomatic bridges. But the argument that the USA can simply negotiate with some of its strongest adversaries, such as Iran, and settle its differences is more lightweight than the paper it is written on. It smacks a little of Richard Nixon’s so-called «secret plan» during the 1968 presidential campaign to end the Vietnam War, which eventually turned out to be no plan at all. Similarly, Obama’s desire to limit the influence of big business, protect US industries and create more jobs can only be applauded. But it is arguable how much a US president controls the free market as opposed to how much it controls him. There is a possibility that in the not-too-distant future we will look back on Obama and his book as just being a flavor of the month that melted away into the political abyss. But there is enough audacious thought, in both senses of the word, woven into these 400 or so pages to provide even the most skeptical reader with some hope that the dream can, indeed, be reclaimed. nmalkoutzis@ekathimerini. com

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