Saturday, November 08, 2008

Book Review: The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

The Audacity of Hope The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Audacity of Hope is not a biography, it is a discussion of politics in the United States. It is not a denunciation of the current political system, but a description of it and how and why it developed the way it has.

Obama walks through a number of topics, the two-party system, values, the constitution, politics, opportunity, faith, and race, and writes about how each is related to the political process. He discusses the actual issues that are involved, how various groups within the United States view the various sides of the issues, and he discusses on how these issues are addressed during political campaigns.

The theoretical part is instructive. Among other things, Obama taught constitutional law in one of the top law schools in the country. That is not a qualification in itself, but he notes that it exposes him to intelligent people who will challenge details of his understanding, and force him to clarify the corners of what he believes. The chapter on constitutional law is probably one of the better descriptions of the views and implications of the strict constructionist view of law, and why Obama opposes it (Strict construction implies that the law should be taken as written. The opposition arguement "judicial review" is the law (especially founding fathers) tells us how to think, not what to think, the writers of the constitution actually disagreed on many things, so the concept of "founders intent" in "what to think" is meaningless. Since the founders left behind considerable commentary (paralleled by the congressional record in the case of laws), the commentary can be used in understanding "how to think" and give an understanding of how the law should be applied to the situation at hand.) )

The more practical components stem from his experiences on state and federal level campaigns (Illinois and U.S. Congress) and his experience at the community level as an organizer with a number of churches on the south side of Chicago. It is highly practical, how politics work at street level. It is probably one of the more comprehensive explanations of why special interests are so important to political campaigns, especially as the area covered by the campaign gets larger.

His main point about special interests is they provide two things, money and political workers on the ground. A normal candidate cannot provide these things by him/herself because a mere candidate base of support starts as local, where the candidate has been working in the past. So all political candidates work with people who can provide large sums of funds, and motivate people who would be willing to speak on behalf of the candidate in various parts of the country, and to their neighbors through phone banks and canvassing. For the Democrats, the main groups that provide this manpower are labor unions, environmental groups, and prochoice groups. For Republicans, the key special interest groups are the religious right, local chambers of commerce, the NRA and anti-tax organizations. And the messages are "spun" by media in this context.

So it is instructive on how this understanding of the political process played out in the campaign. Not just how the sides were taken (the Republican advocacy of Strict construction, the Republican use of Gov. Palin to keep the key special interest groups involved in the campaign, the McCain/Palin emphasis on not raising taxes.) but how Obama structured his campaign. The emphasis on small donations rather then large donations. The refusal to take money from lobbyists or allow lobbyists to take positions in the campaign. The heavy recruiting of volunteers not associated with unions, environmental or prochoice groups. So if a lobbyist comes to advocate a position, that lobbyist cannot say that the group he represents provided the decisive contribution to the Obama campaign, in either money or workers. The lobbyist must advocate the issue on its face.

Audacity of Hope is a primer on the U.S. political system, both as theory, and how it actually works and why. It also provides a framework to look at the American political system at work. And, it provides thoughts on how the more self-destructive tendencies can be mitigated. The next question is how this works in practice.

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