Book notes: The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama book summary.

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

Synopsis: “In July 2004, Barack Obama electrified the Democratic National Convention with an address that spoke to Americans across the political spectrum. Now, in The Audacity of Hope, Senator Obama calls for a different brand of politics: a politics for those weary of bitter partisanship and alienated by the “endless clash of armies” we see in Congress and on the campaign trail; a politics rooted in the faith, inclusiveness, and nobility of spirit at the heart of “our improbable experiment in democracy”. He also speaks, with surprising intimacy and self-deprecating humor, about settling in as a senator, seeking to balance the demands of public service and family life, and his own deepening religious commitment.

At the heart of this audiobook is Senator Obama’s vision of how we can move beyond our divisions to tackle concrete problems. Underlying his stories about family, friends, members of the Senate, and even the president is a vigorous search for connection: the foundation for a radically hopeful political consensus.” -Audible

Opening thoughts:

I’ve always been a huge admirer of President Obama. I think his compassion, intellect, hard work, integrity, class, and humility, especially as one of the biggest public figures of our time, is something so praiseworthy. No matter what your political beliefs, it’s hard not to like a man like him. I really look up to the guy, so when I found out he had an autobiography, I immediately put it on my list. I think the timing was right, which is why I added it to this month’s book list.

Key notes:

  • We have a stake in each other, and what binds us together is stronger than what drives us apart
    • If enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, though we might not solve every problem, we could get something meaningful done
  • One of his flaws was a chronic restlessness, and inability to appreciate, no matter how well things were going, those blessings that were right there in front of him
  • What struck him was how modest peoples hopes work, and how much what they seem to believe hold constant across race, religion, creed, and class
  • Chapter 1: Republicans and Democrats
    • Americans were vehemently divided and argued on every single thing
  • What’s troubling about politics is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics
    • The ease by which we are distracted by the petty and trivial. Our chronic avoidance of tough decisions. Our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any problem
  • After Reagan, the lines between Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, would be drawn in more sharply idea logical terms
    • It was an either or mentality, either for one extreme or for the other
    • In politics, if not in policy, simplicity what is a virtue
  • This new vanguard of the right the politics not as between competing policy visions, but between good and evil. You had to choose sides
    • Bill Clinton did a good job trying to transcend and find a third way
  • A cynical electorate is a self-centered electorate
  • Stripped of the title and position, the president and his staff he imagines is just like common other people with their own virtues and vices
    • The political labels of liberal and conservative rarely track peoples personal attributes
  • What are the core values that we, as Americans hold in common? That’s not how we usually frame the issue, of course, our political culture fixates on where our values clash
  • It is the language of values that people use to map their world, it is what can inspire them to take action and move them beyond their isolation
  • The values of equal opportunity and nondiscrimination complements rather than impinge on our liberty
  • We long for the most elusive quality in our leaders, the quality of authenticity, of being who you say you are, of possessing a truthfulness that goes beyond words
    • Empathy is at the core of his values
  • How would that make you feel? (as a guidepost for his politics)
    • If we think they are like us, then their struggles are ours. If we fail to help, then we diminish ourselves
  • As the saying goes, his first year in the Senate was like drinking from a firehose
  • Filibuster: any senator can bring proceedings to a halt by exercising his right to unlimited debate and refusing to move onto the next order of business
    • In other words, he can talk for as long as he wants, so long as he or like-minded colleagues are willing to stay on the floor and talk, everything else has to wait
    • This gives each senator and enormous amount of leverage and a determined minority and effective veto power over any piece of legislation
  • Instead of relying on tricks like the filibuster, Obama suggested why not went through a democracy by winning at the polls instead
  • The founders recognized that there were seeds of anarchy in the idea of individual freedom
    • An intoxicating danger in the idea of quality, for if everybody were truly free, without the constraints and social order, and how can we ever hope to form a society that coheres
  • He sees democracy not as a house to be built but a conversation to have. Madison’s rules are simply a framework to go by
    • In our early history, theory yielded to fact and necessity
  • The Constitution envisions a road map by which we marry passion to freedom, the ideal of individual freedom to the demands of community
  • It’s curious why people hate Congress, but like their congressman. Most people seem like sincere and likable people, but appear from the outside to be bad
  • One of the greatest fears being in politics is of humiliation, for your losses are public
  • In Congress, particularly the Senate, money isn’t about getting rich for most of them are wealthy. It’s about maintaining status and power, it’s about scaring off challengers and fighting off the fear
    • Money can’t buy victory or charisma or passion, but without money, you are pretty much guaranteed to lose
    • The longer you are a senator, the narrower your scope of interactions
    • You naturally start aligning your values in circles with the upper echelon’s and wealthier class because it’s easier to conform your values to their’s and get donations from them
  • As important as money is in campaigns, it’s not just fundraising that puts the candidate over the top, but organized people as well
    • Politicians held captive by their big money contributors or succumbing to interest group pressures
  • Every politician at the federal level is almost entirely dependent on the media to reach their constituents, it is the filter through which is votes are interpreted, is statements analyzed and his beliefs examined
  • Civility in media has declined because civility is boring. The media likes confrontation and disputes
  • Every legislator as a difficult job of voting on bills that are so complicated and both options are tough
  • Chapter 5: Opportunity
    • At first, he took coach but realized what a different experience it was taking a private jet
  • No doubt that globalization has brought significant benefits to American consumers, but it is also greatly increased economic instability for millions of ordinary Americans
    • There is a great opportunity in the market for knowledge workers like lawyers and consultants, but a shrinking opportunity for labors and service workers whose jobs can be automated and out sourced
  • The chief business of the American people is business
  • It’s useful to remind ourselves that our free market system is neither the result of natural law nor divine providence
    • Rather it emerged are painful process of trial and error, a series of difficult choices between efficiency and fairness, stability, and change
  • We’ve depended on the government action to open up opportunity, encourage competition, and make the market work better
  • Hamilton and Jefferson agreed on establishing the meritocracy in which anyone with enough energy and talent can make it
  • For Lincoln, the essence of America was opportunity, the ability of free labor to advance in life
    • We should be guided by what works
  • Investments that will make us more competitive in the global economy: education, science and technology, and energy independence
  • Our task in education is to identify those reforms that have the highest impact on student achievement, fund them adequately, and eliminate those programs that don’t produce results
    • Studies show that the singular most important factor in determining a students achievement is who their teacher is
  • Due to globalization, when it comes to trade, there are a few borders left that can be enforced
  • The ownership economy simply magnifies the uneven risks and rewards of today’s winner take all economy. This is not a recipe for sustained economic growth
  • The two main funded government healthcare programs, Medicare and Medicaid, really are broken
    • Without any changes, these two entitlements along with Social Security will outpace federal spending on every other priority except defense
  • The financial inequality gap has only increased in the past few decades
    • Despite great differences in wealth, we are all bound together which we cannot afford to lose
  • Chapter 6: Faith. It’s a truism that we Americans are religious people
  • His mother taught him about various religions as part of being well-rounded and next to other historical textbooks
    • She brought him to various cultural and religious events to be exposed to it without commitment
  • As his mother said, religion was an expression of human culture, not its wellspring. Just one way, and not necessarily the best way, that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives
  • Despite her anthropological approach and detachment to religion, she was the most spiritual and awakened people he knew
    • She hadn’t unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love. She worked hard to instill the values in him that many learned in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work
  • He came to realize that without a vessel for his beliefs, without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, he would be consigned at some level to always remain apart, to be free like his mother but also alone like her
  • Out of necessity, the black church had to minister to the whole man, and rarely have the luxury of separating the individual salvation from collective salvation.
    • It had to serve as the center of the communities political, Economic, and social as well as spiritual life in order to spur change
  • He was inspired by the way of the men and women he met in church to make a way out of no way, and maintain hope and dignity and a direst of circumstances, he could see the word made manifest
  • Liberalism teaches us to be tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs, so long as those beliefs don’t cause anyone else harm or any change on another’s right to believe differently
  • We can recognize the values that both religious and secular people share plan it comes to the moral and material direction of our country
    • We need to take faith seriously to engage all persons of faith in the larger project of American renewal
  • To say that men and women should not inject their personal morality into public policy debates is a practical absurdity
    • Our laws by definition are a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo Christian tradition
    • What our pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal rather than religious specific values
  • Politics like science depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality
    • Moreover politics, unlike science, involves compromise, the art of the possible
    • At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It insists on the impossible
  • To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments as in relation, may be sublime. But to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing
  • Chapter 7: Race
    • His family was so diverse looking that his family get together’s look like a UN General assembly meeting
  • He believes that part of Americas genius has always been its ability to absorb and assimilate newcomers, to forge a national identity out of the desperate lot that arrived on our shores
  • To suggest that our racial attitudes play no part in these racial disparities in America is to turn a blind eye to our history and our experience, and to relieve ourselves of our responsibility to make things right
    • He views progress like a split screen, we must acknowledge the progress that we’ve made in the struggles of others from the past but also understand that better is not good enough
  • The notion that a black person has unlimited potential even despite the history and handicaps, it is the most important legacy of the civil rights movement
    • More minorities may be living the American dream, but their hold on that dream remains tenuous
  • Closing the gap in regards to race shouldn’t just be governments responsibility, but also the individual and collective responsibility of the minority groups as well
    • While government action can help change behavior, a transformation in attitude has to begin in the home and in neighborhoods and in places of worship
  • A plan for universal healthcare coverage will do more to eliminate health disparities between whites and minorities than any race specific program we might design
  • Universal is not only good policy but it is good politics. White guilt has largely been exhausted in America
    • Mainly it’s a matter of simple self-interest, most white Americans figured they haven’t engaged in discrimination themselves, and have plenty of their own problems to worry about
  • African Americans understand that culture matters, but that culture is shaped by circumstances
    • Many in the inner city are trapped by their own self-destructive behaviors, but those behaviors are not innate
  • The danger will come if we fail to recognize the humanity of immigrants, if we withhold from them the rights and opportunities that we take for granted, and tolerate the hypocrisy of a servant class in our midst, or sit idly by as America continues to become increasingly unequal
  • Chapter 8: Family
    • In America today, it’s now more common to have non-traditional family households
    • Research suggests that on average, married couples live healthier, wealthier, and happier lives
  • In the minds of most Americans, the opportunity for women to pursue careers, achieve economic presence and realize their talents on equal footing with men have been one of the great achievements of modern life
  • For the first few years of marriage, there is a period where couples go through the usual adjustments, learning to read each other’s moods, and accepting their quirks and habits
  • The new economic realities of rising costs of everything require both parents to work which changes the household dynamic
  • Having a father figure in the home, and his own normal doubts as a father and husband

Closing thoughts:

Great book, one of my new favorite autobiography-type books. Of all the books I’ve read the past 2-3 years, this was probably the most eloquently written with such a high-level discussion on topics I’m not too familiar with like American history, politics, economics, policy, etc. I will say this book is one part memoir, one part history lesson, and one part discussion on American politics (the complexities and a surface-level discussion on many of the moving parts that come together). It was enjoyable to listen to another book that was outside of the normal, non-fiction books that are mostly focused on personal development.

I’ve already put Barack Obama’s other book Dreams From My Father into my to-read list. I would also be curious to read any more recent works he’s published as this one was published while he was a senator, a couple years before running for president I believe.

Nutshell: Obama discusses his journey to become a U.S. Senator, American politics, and the values that drive his career and shape his life.

Rating: 4.5/5

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