Obama, Barack: The Audacity of Hope. Text Publishing Co., 2008. ISBN: 9781921351365
President Barack Obama has sketched a vision of social renewal in the United States. It overlaps very closely in many areas with Catholic and more broadly Christian social thought. In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, he stresses the notions of the common good, of social justice and of equality of opportunity, along with individual responsibility.
Few US presidents have revealed so much before their election about their own personal lives and aspirations for social change as has President Barack Hussein Obama. His Audacity of Hope is an extraordinary account of how he has thought through many of the negative aspects of American public life and policies, especially of race and inequality, and what needs to be done to renew and change America for the better.
This book complements his earlier more personal account of his life and struggles in Dreams of My Father. But it focuses much more on public policy issues. Writing clearly and powerfully, Obama sketches a moral vision of the future, and calls on the US to recommit itself to 'a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together despite our differences'.
Obama is of course appalled by past racism, but also by the failure of the Bush Administration to address social inequality and the entrenched poverty of many working class Americans and immigrants. He laments the redistribution of wealth to the financial elites, as well as the reckless adventurism and deceit in the Iraq war.
Americans, he writes, 'are weary of the dead zone that politics has become, in which narrow interests vie for advantage and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of absolute truth'.
He writes with passion: 'I am angry about policies that consistently favour the wealthy and powerful over average Americans, and insist that government has an important role in opening up opportunity to all. I believe in evolution, scientific inquiry and global warming.'
Even before the financial meltdown, Obama denounced the 'ethic of greed' and materialism in US culture, and their effects on government, finance and public policy. 'In 1960, the average CEO made 42 times what an average hourly worker took home. By 2005, the ratio was 262 to 1. Between 1971 and 2001, average workers received no gain in incomes, while the income of the top hundredth of a percent went up almost 500 per cent.
But Obama is also a pragmatist, schooled as he has been as a community worker in the South Side of Chicago, trying to reconcile opposed groups and to come to solutions that will work. He brings this emphasis into national politics, trying to rise above party-political factionalism and build a wide consensus, so 'we can ground our politics in the notion of the common good'. This is a key phrase for Obama.
He is resolute in seeking a major change of direction in US policies, including in the economic area, and in seeking to rein in the excesses of laissez-faire, neo-liberal ideological views. 'There is the absolutism of the free market, an ideology of no taxes, no regulation, no safety net — indeed, no government beyond what's required to protect private property and provide for the national defence.'
Instead he calls for careful government regulation to ensure that markets and fiscal discipline help promote social justice.
His chapter on values reminds Americans that their 'individualism has always been bound by a set of communal values, the glue upon which every healthy society depends. We value the imperatives of family and the cross-generational obligations that family implies.' He argues that the Golden Rule is not just a call to charity, but 'a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes'.
Obama embraced Christianity because of his involvement with church groups, animating community renewal and sustaining the moral vision of oppressed blacks in particular. Yet he recognises that people of good will may disagree on key issues, such as abortion. He asks that 'proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason', and not advanced simply as religious imperatives.
Obama wants to be as inclusive of marginalised groups as he can, including gays and racial minorities, along with people without religious allegiance. His chapter on race is not hectoring, but is based on finely nuanced reflection on his own life and experience. This is so also true of his chapter on family.
The chapter, 'The world beyond our borders', argues for a more multilateral engagement with the rest of the world in addressing the urgent issues of peacemaking, global warming, hunger and poverty.
Obama has thought through many of these themes with great care, and articulated them cogently in hundreds of speeches. No wonder he seems so much at ease in his major speeches, and that he writes many key speeches himself, or even speaks off-the-cuff.
Obama has become president at a most difficult time. But it is also a moment of opportunity. Many Americans have been shocked at the consequences of the policies of the neo-conservatives; other Americans are demanding a major renewal of their values and institutions. The renewal must include more astute regulation of markets to ensure that they serve the common good, not just of all Americans, but of the world.
It is also an unprecedented moment for people inspired by Christian social traditions to engage in the conversation about making deep changes for the better.
Audacity of Hope (Text Publishing)
Father Bruce Duncan is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and coordinates social justice studies at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.