09/19/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Barack Obama And The Hope Of Audacity

Obama Part II: The Hope of Audacity
Adapted from: Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative President (Chelsea Green Publishers.

Who, really, is Barack Obama? The moment may cry out for dramatic national change, but why should we think he will be that rare transformational leader? Giving him some benefit of the doubt, there are two basic reasons. First, his personal odyssey, writings, and speeches suggest a capacity to truly move people and shift perceptions as well as bridge differences. Second, they suggest more a principled idealist than a cynic.

Anyone who thinks Obama is more weather vane than compass has not carefully read his books, followed his history, or watched him in action. His first book, Dreams from My Father, conveyed a depth and self-reflective life journey breathtaking for one still in his early thirties. It suggested Obama's character, and something else absurdly improbable in a thirty-three-year-old -- wisdom.

Progressives who backed Obama rather than John Edwards or Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination gave Obama a pass on some of the issues. At that stage of the campaign, many positions of Edwards and Clinton were actually a shade more progressive. But the Obama backers saw in him the raw material of transforming leadership, even of greatness.

Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope, written in anticipation of his presidential run, combined a desire to unify and heal with a willingness to take principled risks as a progressive. The book was the opposite of the usual campaign volume written by ghostwriters and carefully scrubbed to send coded messages to the base while blandly reassuring a broader public.

Here is Obama, supposedly packaged as the post-racial African American, the Tiger Woods of American politics, casually sharing a reverie about race, expressing the audacious hope that far more unites Americans than divides them -- but doing so with nerve and a refreshing absence of platitudes:

I imagine the white southerner who growing up heard his dad talk about niggers this and niggers that but who has struck up a friendship with the black guys at the office and is trying to teach his own son different, who thinks discrimination is wrong but doesn't see why the son of a black doctor should be admitted to law school ahead of his own son. Or the former Black Panther who decided to go into real estate, bought a few buildings in the neighborhood, and is just as tired of the drug dealers in front of those buildings as he is of the bankers who won't give him a loan to expand his business.

Deconstruct those two sentences: Yes, there is plenty of ugliness in America's racial history -- niggers this, niggers that. There are decent whites trying to transcend it, but affirmative action sometimes isn't fair to whites, either. Though the black experience is more brutal, blacks and whites alike have legitimate anxieties about race. Many of the concerns are really about who gets ahead economically. Most blacks don't have any more tolerance for crime than most whites. Redemption is always possible -- the white southerner, his black office mates, and his son; the former Black Panther as small businessman. All of this is deeply personal as well as subtle, complicated, and elegant; it's about the struggles of decent people that shouldn't be reduced to slogans and stereotypes.

This is a narrative that speaks to American life as it is lived. It conveys genuine empathy. It is intuitive Obama. No pollster or speechwriter could have composed that passage. The fervent desire to transcend difference is sincere -- and hardly surprising in the son of a white Kansan and a black Kenyan. Likewise the wish to reach across the partisan aisle, which reflects Obama's own experience in the Illinois legislature, sometimes moving Republicans to embrace surprisingly progressive policies.

In July, Obama disappointed many of his supporters with centrist appointment, backpedaling on some issues, and feeble anti-recession policies. He was on the verge of squandering his most precious asset -- the widespread perception that he is something special, not just another politician. In August, he has been recovering his progressive voice.

Obama, in his books and speeches, has been almost obsessed with the idea that people are sick of partisan bickering. Yet he also has claimed the identity of a resolute progressive. Can he be both?

History suggests that it is possible both to govern as a radical reformer and to be a unifier, and thereby move the political center to the left. But that achievement requires wisdom, resolve, and leadership. The easier course is to split the difference, as our last two Democratic presidents have done, and just move to the center generally. This is also what our last two losing Democratic nominees did. Their strategy failed to either inspire liberals, co-opt conservatives, or move enough swing voters. It signaled: Just another politician.

Presidential candidates, as they assemble legions of pollsters and campaign consultants, are at grave risk of being turned into risk-averse mush. This seems to be more of a recent Democratic malady than a Republican one. Lincoln, Roosevelt, and the Lyndon Johnson of the civil rights era needed no polls. They were exquisitely tuned to public opinion, a talent that that helped them to be superb tacticians; but each was anchored by a strong inner compass as well. To the extent that Obama relies more on his handlers than on his own core convictions, he weakens his unique self.

Some observers initially viewed Obama as a lucky novice ("Obambi," in Maureen Dowd's oft-repeated put-down) -- a sweet naïf who got to where he did based on a smile and a shoeshine. It is increasingly clear that he is no political innocent. As Ryan Lizza wrote in a long New Yorker profile, "Obama's rise has often appeared effortless. His offstage tactics -- when he is engaged in the sometimes combative work of a politician -- are rarely glimpsed by outsiders."

But we should hardly be shocked, much less disillusioned, that Barack Obama turns out to be an effective, shrewd politician. All our great presidents were also superb politicians. One other relatively unknown politician from Illinois startled veteran political observers when he came, seemingly out of nowhere, to wrest a presidential nomination from three better-known and better-situated rivals. "Chance, positioning, and managerial strategy -- all played a role in Lincoln's victory," writes Doris Goodwin. "His nomination, finally, was the result of his character and his life experience -- these separated him from his rivals and provided him with advantages unrecognized at the time."

Going forward, will Obama use his political gifts as a true progressive? Here the jury is out -- though my bet is that economic circumstances will compel nothing less, and that Obama is astute enough to grasp this reality.

End of Part II. Read Part I here. Tomorrow, Part III: The Economic Trap

Robert Kuttner's new book is Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency. (Chelsea Green Publishers. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. He'll be covering the election, convention, and the economic situation on at