Thursday, October 11, 2012

Obama's Books

Over at reason.com there is an article about President Obama's two books.  The article, written by Peter Suderman, is different than I would have guessed it to be.

The first quarter of the article is about Obama's book Dreams from My Father.  It does not sound very interesting as the article's author says that its about a young man who doesn't really accomplish anything, but he hears the stories of other people's lives and has empathy for them.

Three quotes:
He’s angry at the world in a way that only a middle class kid with an Ivy League degree can be.
 Like a lot of literary types, Obama places high stock in the value of stories, and is always trying to live up to the story he imagines for himself. When explaining the big turning points in his life, he doesn’t spill much ink over the pros and cons; cost-benefit analysis tends to be an afterthought. Instead, Obama looks for symbolic acts that reveal—or create—his true character.
On those occasions when Obama does talk about politics, it’s mostly to register unease or reduced expectations, and the focus is almost always local and personal. In his early days at Altgeld, he recognizes that he and the people he represented didn’t “yet have the power to change state welfare policy, or create local jobs, or bring substantially more money into the schools.” But they could “begin to improve basic services in Altgeld—get the toilets fixed, the heaters working, the windows repaired.” It wasn’t about changing the world; it was about fixing the toilets. “I don’t like politics so much,” he recalls his sister saying, perhaps portentously. “People always end up disappointed.”

Had this article been just about that, I wouldn't have bothered to comment on it here.  But the discussion about Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope, is fascinating.  Obama was interested in stories, not politics.  But politics is where he ended up nonetheless.
But as Obama’s ambitions grew, so did the size and scope of his political expectations. And the stories he began to tell no longer served the individuals they were about, but the conventional political and policy goals he espoused. Early reservations about politics began to disappear, replaced by grander, self-centered narratives and promises to match.

Unlike its predecessor, Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, is a fairly conventional politician’s tome. Released in the autumn of 2006 as the senator was gearing up for a long-planned presidential run, Audacity splits time between explaining Obama’s basic outlook on life and politics, and talking about political issue areas that motivate him. Unlike his first book, it’s designed more for mass appeal than literary kudos. There’s nothing punk rock about it.
Obama seems to have became a politician in order to help people, to be a public servant, and to fulfill his vision of himself. But he wonders if going to Washington would change him.
One of Obama’s most oft-repeated fears is becoming a conventional politician, a compromised careerist who lives only for power, prestige, and reelection. Versions of this anxiety appear throughout Audacity. When Obama gets to Washington as a United States senator in 2004, he finds himself sympathizing with legislators he might have previously viewed as sellouts, and wonders if he’ll follow the same path, “transforming into the stock politician of bad TV movies.”

As he closes out the book’s introduction, he recalls a journalist asking him if he could be as interesting with his second book as he was with his first, which he takes to mean as a question of whether he could be as honest. He admits to wondering the same. Tellingly, he implies that we’ll know if he has changed not by his actions, but by his words. “How long,” he asks himself, “before you started sounding like a politician?” The transformation had already begun.
It seems as though, with The Audacity of Hope, Obama is trying to, at least, portray himself as someone who is going to be a pragmatic politician.
But Audacity does retain some of Dreams from My Father’s fa├žade of humility and superficial wariness about asking too much from the political system. Obama still writes as if he is keenly aware that most people don’t really like politics and don’t have any desire to make it the focal point of their lives. He starts the book by declining to offer either a “unifying theory of American government” or “a manifesto for action.” Instead, he writes, “What I offer is something more modest: personal reflections on those values and ideals that have led me to public life, 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.” When he actually starts to make demands of government, they turn out to be a little bigger than his aw-shucks introduction suggests. But he still starts from an assumption there’s only so much politics can, or should, do.
Never mind who he is, or his awful politics, here we have a book about a guy who became a politician, and he had feared becoming just another stereotypical politician.  The Audacity of Hope could be a book worth reading.

In a recent article, What Should Freedom Lover's Do?, Lew Rockwell points out:
We've all seen this a thousand times. It rarely takes more than a few months for a libertarian intellectual headed for the Beltway to "mature" and realize that his or her old ideals were rather childish and insufficiently real world. A politician promising to defang Washington later becomes the leading expert in applying tooth enamel. Once that fateful step is taken, there are no limits. I know a bureaucrat who helped run martial law in Iraq who once swore fidelity to Rothbardian political economy.
and,
I've known people who have gone this route and one day took an honest look in the mirror, and didn't like what they saw. They have said to me that they were mistaken to think it could work. They didn't recognize the subtle ways in which they themselves were being drawn in. They recognize the futility of politely asking the state, day after day, to permit a bit more liberty here and there. Ultimately you must frame your arguments in terms of what is good for the state, and the reality is that liberty is not usually good for the state. Hence, the rhetoric and finally the goal begin to change.
We should know that our politicians will disappoint us.  How well has Obama kept his campaign promises? 38% of them kept.  The republicans are no better.

I'll be voting for Gary Johnson for president in a few weeks.  If he is elected, he won't be, I would expect him to be much better than Obama or Romney, but I would plan on being disappointed.  He is a politician, after all.

P.J. O'Rourke said after the 2010 republican landslide, "I think we lost the election on November 2. Every race was won by a politician."

We might read Audacity of Hope and discover that politicians from both sides have ideas and goals, but they always disappoint even themselves.

***

Let's go back to the article about Obama's books.
Obama often gets credit for going out of his way to recognize the concerns and viewpoints of his political opponents. It can seem as if he’s disarming himself. But what he’s actually done is deploy a weaponized rhetorical formula that gives him a tactical advantage. Regardless of the policy up for debate, that formula usually goes something like this: Democrats are partially right and partially wrong, and so, too, are Republicans. What we need to do, then, is come together and accept the solution put forth by Obama and his Democratic colleagues.
The article follows Obama's transformation from someone who went to Washington to serve the people to one who is there to serve himself.
He’s no longer helping readers walk in others’ shoes; he’s helping potential voters walk in his. What were once displays of empathy toward others are now calls for the public to empathize with him. The same youthful self-absorption that saw the stories from Altgeld as part of his own journey toward meaning and personal fulfillment now sees the lives of every American as a path toward the same.
Obama has been a failure, if you judge him by his own goals.
History had another story in mind. Obama took the White House, but he did not unite the country behind a single agenda. Nor did he bring peace to the warring factions in American politics. Instead he pursued the symbolic acts that his grand historic narrative required: an economic stimulus bill of unprecedented size and unhelpful effect, an overhaul of the nation’s financial markets that complicates the system without protecting it, a health policy overhaul that was opposed by every single Republican in Congress and remains stubbornly unpopular with the public.
Obama’s early promises to control the deficit and reduce the national debt have similarly gone unmet. In The Audacity of Hope he described with alarm “the most precarious budget situation that we’ve seen in years,” pointing to an “annual budget deficit of almost $300 billion” and a total government debt that “now stands at $9 trillion—approximately $30,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country.” Under Obama’s watch, deficits have soared past $1 trillion every year, and the debt now clocks in at $15 trillion. 
The result of Obama’s agenda has not been increased unity but increased division, not increased civic togetherness but a rise in political disaffection. Polls show that partisan intensity has increased amongst those who pick a side in the Team Red/Team Blue squabbles. At the same time, more Americans are refusing to pick sides than at any time in the last 75 years, with 38 percent of adults describing themselves as independents in a June 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center.
He has been a failure in achieving his goals but perhaps Obama will look back on his presidency and rewrite his failures as successes, like he did with his life before he became president.
From an early age, Obama imagined a better story for himself than the world was willing to provide. In the summer of 2012, journalist David Maraniss released The Story of Obama, an exhaustively researched look at the president’s early life, including background on many of the individuals who make formative appearances in Dreams from My Father. What Maraniss finds is that many of the stories Obama tells in that book are not strictly true, in the journalistic sense, and several of the characters have been reimagined to the point that they scarcely resemble their real-life antecedents.
This is neither unprecedented in memoirs nor undisclosed in the book: In the introduction, Obama admits to taking certain literary liberties with the truth. Some of the characters are composites or have had details changed to protect their identities; some events are combined or placed out of order. But the degree to which Obama has rewritten his own past is still somewhat surprising. Regina, a black female friend he meets in college, is cast as a representative of the authentic black experience who evokes “a vision of black life in all its possibility.” The character turns out to be based on a white woman. His grandfather was not imprisoned and beaten by the British, as Obama claims. Nor was the father of his stepfather killed by the Dutch army during a battle for independence.
Many of the distortions that Maraniss chronicles are not there for the sake of convenience or compression, but for their symbolic value. The story that Obama told himself—and everyone else—was not the story that actually happened. It was the story that felt like it should be true.
It seems as though our President is still very fond of stories and will continue to be.
Stories are how Obama explains himself to the world. They’re how he explains the world to himself. And he admits as much. Speaking to Rose, Obama continued: “When I ran, everybody said, ‘Well, he can give a good speech, but can he actually manage the job?’ And in my first two years, I think the notion was, ‘Well, he’s been juggling and managing a lot of stuff, but where’s the story that tells us where he’s going?’ And I think that was a legitimate criticism.”
Halfway through reading this article I wanted to read Audacity of Hope, but now I don't think that reading that many falsehoods would be all that informative.

The article gives a kinder perspective on the President.  He's just another guy, with his own faults.

I think that this post of mine deserves a better conclusion.  All I can think of is to leave it with this:

No matter who gets elected, prepare to be disappointed.

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