Monday, November 16, 2009

The Audacity of Hope

The Audacity of Hope

Barack Obama


IT’S BEEN ALMOST ten years since I first ran for political office. I was thirty-five at the time, four years out of law school, recently married, and generally impatient with life. A seat in the Illinois legislature had opened up. I entered the race and proceeded to do what every first-time candidate does: I talked to anyone who would listen. If two guys were standing on a corner, I would cross the street to hand them campaign literature. And everywhere I went, I’d get some version of the same question:

“You seem like a nice enough guy. Why do you want to go into something dirty and nasty like politics?”

I was familiar with the question.. It signaled a cynicism not simply with politics but with the very notion of a public life, a cynicism that had been nourished by a generation of broken promises. In response, I would usually smile and nod and say that I understood the skepticism, but that there always had been another tradition to politics, a tradition based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart.

It was a pretty convincing speech, I thought. And enough of the people appreciated my earnestness and youthful swagger that I made it to the Illinois legislature.

Six years later, when I decided to run for the United States Senate, I wasn’t so sure of myself. The years had taken their toll. Some of it was just a function of my getting older, I suppose, for if you are paying attention, each successive year will make you more intimately acquainted with all of your flaws—the blind spots, the recurring habits of thought that will almost certainly worsen with time. In me, one of those flaws had proven to be a chronic restlessness; an inability to appreciate, no matter how well things were going, those blessings that were right there in front of me.

It was as a consequence of that restlessness that I decided to challenge a sitting Democratic incumbent for his congressional seat in the 2000 election cycle. It was an ill-considered race, and I lost badly—the sort of drubbing that awakens you to the fact that life is not obliged to work out as you’d planned.

The pleasures of politics— the adrenaline of debate, the warmth of shaking hands and plunging into a crowd—began to pale against the meaner tasks of the job: the begging for money, the long drives home after the banquet had run two hours longer than scheduled, the clipped phone conversations with a wife who had stuck by me so far but was pretty fed up with raising our children alone and was beginning to question my priorities. I began to harbor doubts about the path I had chosen.

At some point, though, I arrived at acceptance—of my limits, and, in a way, my mortality. I came to appreciate how the earth rotated around the sun and the seasons came and went without any particular exertions on my part.

And it was this acceptance, I think, that allowed me to come up with idea of running for the United States Senate. My wife─perhaps more out of pity than conviction—agreed to this one last race, though she also suggested that given the orderly life she preferred for our family, I shouldn’t necessarily count on her vote.

I threw myself into the race with an energy and joy that I’d thought I had lost. I hired four staffers, all of them smart, and suitably cheap. We found a small office, printed letterhead, installed phone lines and several computers. Four or five hours a day, I called major Democratic donors and tried to get my calls returned. I held press conferences to which nobody came.

Mostly, though, I just traveled, often driving alone, first from ward to ward in Chicago, then from county to county and town to town, eventually up and down the state, past miles and miles of cornfields and train tracks. Without the machinery of the state’s Democratic Party organization, without any real mailing list, I had to rely on friends to open their houses, or to arrange for my visit to their church, union hall, or Rotary Club. Sometimes, after several hours of driving, I would find just two or three people waiting for me around a kitchen table. I would have to assure the hosts that the turnout was fine and compliment them on the refreshments they’d prepared.

But whether I was meeting with two people or fifty, whether I was in one of the stately homes, a walk-up apartment, or a farmhouse, whether people were friendly, indifferent, or occasionally hostile, I tried my best to keep my mouth shut and hear what they had to say. I listened to people talk about their jobs, their businesses, the local school; their dogs, their back pain, and the things they remembered from childhood. Some had well-developed theories to explain the loss of manufacturing jobs or the high cost of health care. But most of them were too busy with work or their kids to pay much attention to politics, and they spoke instead of what they saw before them: a plant closed, a promotion, a high heating bill, a parent in a nursing home, a child’s first step.

What struck me was just how modest people’s hopes were, and how much of what they believed seemed to hold constant across race, region, religion, and class. Most of them thought that anybody willing to work should be able to find a job that paid a living wage. They believed that every child should have a genuinely good education and that those same children should be able to go to college even if their parents weren’t rich. They wanted to be safe, from criminals and from terrorists; they wanted clean air, clean water, and time with their kids. And when they got old, they wanted to be able to retire with some dignity and respect.

That was about it. It wasn’t much. And although they understood that how they did in life depended mostly on their own efforts—although they didn’t expect government to solve all their problems, and certainly didn’t like seeing their tax dollars wasted—they figured that government should help.

And by the time I was back on the road on my way to my next stop, I knew once again just why I’d gone into politics.

I felt like working harder than I’d ever worked in my life.

My encounters with voters reminded me that at the core of the American experience are a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together. These values and ideals find expression not just in the marble slabs of monuments or in the recitation of history books. They remain alive in the hearts and minds of most Americans—and can inspire us to pride, duty, and sacrifice.

I recognize the risks of talking this way. In an era of globalization and dizzying technological change, and cutthroat politics, we don’t seem to possess the tools to work together to bring those ideals about. Most of us are wise to the ways of admen, pollsters, speechwriters, and pundits. We know how high-flying words can be deployed in the service of cynical aims, and how the noblest sentiments can be subverted in the name of power, expedience, greed, or intolerance. In such a climate, any assertion of shared ideals or common values might seem hopelessly na├»ve.

However we have no choice. The vast majority of Americans are weary of the dead zone that politics has become, in which narrow interests vie for advantage. We feel in our gut the lack of honesty, rigor, and common sense in our policy debates. We sense that the nation’s most significant challenges are being ignored. We need a new kind of politics.

That’s the topic of this book: how we might begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life. This isn’t to say that I know exactly how to do it. I don’t.

What I offer is: some thoughts on the ways that our current political discourse unnecessarily divides us, and my own best assessment of the ways we can ground our politics in the notion of a common good.

I suspect that some readers may find my presentation of these issues to be insufficiently balanced. To this accusation, I stand guilty. I am angry about policies that consistently favor the wealthy and powerful over average Americans, and insist that government has an important role in opening up opportunity to all. I am suspicious of using government to impose anybody’s religious beliefs on nonbelievers. Furthermore, I can’t help but view the American experience through the lens of a black man of mixed heritage, forever mindful of how generations of people who looked like me were subjugated and stigmatized, and the ways that race and class continue to shape our lives.

I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally. I think that our values and spiritual life matter at least as much as our GDP.

Undoubtedly, some of these views will get me in trouble. I am bound to disappoint some. Which perhaps indicates a second theme to this book—namely, how anybody in public office can avoid the pitfalls of fame, the hunger to please, the fear of loss, and thereby retain that kernel of truth, that singular voice within each of us that reminds us of our deepest commitments.

[Extracted by Mahendra Meghani from the book The Audacity of Hope]

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