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The Phenomenon

The word “phenomenon”—from the Greek word phainesthai, “to appear,” and related to another Greek word that is the root of the English word “fantasy”—possesses a unique potency in our culture. While scientists may use it to mean anything observable, it is popularly applied to rock stars, movie stars, top athletes, and the like. Even today, in our hype-drenched society, it is not used promiscuously. It is reserved for that special minority of people who seem to have singular talent and potential; for those with the ability, that is, to fulfill our collective fantasies.

Politics, the domain of middling time-servers and the more talented few who spend years or even decades working their way methodically up the ladder, doesn’t see many phenomenons. But it certainly encountered one in late July 2004, when Barack Obama—still, then, a state senator from Illinois—gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The convention delegates and convention-goers and the television audience (smaller than usual—the networks decided not to broadcast live convention coverage the night of Obama’s speech, so he was watched only by the cable audience1 ) saw, in his delivery, a confident and eloquent and handsome young man, then just a week shy of his forty-third birthday. And they heard something most unusual, particularly during a bitter presidential election year—a plea to rise above the red–blue divide that was rooted in fundamental civic principles not often invoked these days by politicians of either party:

…Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people…. It is that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: “E pluribus unum”; out of many, one…. There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and a white America and a Latino America and an Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice our country into red states and blue states…. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.

Immediately, Obama was hailed as a possible savior, and the speech as possibly the greatest convention speech by a relatively unknown politician since Hubert Humphrey’s rousing plea for civil rights at the 1948 Democratic convention. A candidate for the United States Senate at the time, Obama had the good fortune to be running against Alan Keyes, a hard-right, crackpot conservative from Maryland—also black, which is the main reason the Illinois Republican Party recruited him to face Obama—who had no chance of winning. Obama’s election to the Senate that November, when he took 70 percent of the vote to Keyes’s 27 percent, led to instant speculation about his someday seeking the presidency. A phenomenon was born.

What is at the heart of his appeal? His name, memorable and euphonious, helps. So do his looks—his eyes and face project ease and warmth and sincerity; nothing about them is hard or inscrutable. He comes across, to both African-Americans and whites, as someone who simultaneously epitomizes black advancement and transcends race. But the main reason for his success surely has to do with the central theme of his rhetoric. In the convention speech, as in all his major speeches, Obama aimed far higher than the usual uninspiring Democratic laundry list of health care, good jobs, devotion to Roe v. Wade, and the rest. His subject is our shared civic culture, which he sees as under threat—mostly from the right but also from the left. He believes our red-versus-blue politics of today is positively toxic, and he thinks that our only hope is to rise above it. The theme of The Audacity of Hope is not how the Democrats can win more elections, or how a certain liberal policy goal can be attained; it is, he writes in the book’s early pages, “how we might begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life.” He wants a political culture that is, to be sure, liberal in its outlook but does the difficult work of trying to speak to people who don’t share liberalism’s assumptions (without being accommodationist to conservatives in power; Obama is no Joe Lieberman).

He has set, then, a large task for himself (in the book, and in life). And clearly, he thinks he’s the man to bring about such changes. Much of his confidence grows out of his experience and upbringing, which give him a unique (to put it mildly) outlook on American society. He is the son of a Harvard-trained Kenyan economist and a white mother from Kansas, and he was raised in Hawaii mostly by his white maternal grandparents. His father returned to Kenya when he was two years old, and his parents divorced; he lived for a time with his mother, moving to Indonesia with her for five formative years, from age six to ten, when she married an Indonesian man. He returned to Hawaii with his mother, and now a little sister, and they lived together for three years as his mother pursued her master’s degree. But when she returned to Indonesia to do her fieldwork, young “Barry,” as he was often called then, chose to stay behind with his grandparents. He attended a private high school and, though his grandparents were far from rich, he had a life of relative comfort.

Still, although Hawaii was not Mississippi, he was a black person in America. His emotional wrestling match with his background is the subject of his first book, the 1995 Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Because Obama wrote that book before he entered politics, it is an unusually frank document for someone in his current position—a sometimes searingly blunt account of his feelings during his earlier years. Surely few senators in American history have committed to the page words like these:

At best, these things [manifestations of blackness] were a refuge; at worst, a trap. Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger.2

The succeeding years would soften his perspective. He went off to college (two years at Occidental, then two more at Columbia). In 1985, he moved from New York to Chicago, where he worked as a community organizer on the South Side. Much of Dreams from My Father is devoted to an affecting chronicle of these years of trying to improve the living conditions in housing projects and to start youth programs. (“The Audacity of Hope,” it turns out, was the name of a sermon Obama heard a reverend deliver on a Sunday morning shortly after the death of Harold Washington, the black mayor of Chicago, and after Obama had decided to leave his job to attend Harvard Law School.)

At Harvard, he was elected president of the Law Review. He returned to Chicago, opened a small law practice, and met his wife, Michelle, also a Harvard Law graduate and a down-to-earth South Sider who considers her husband “something of a dreamer” (they now have two young daughters). He was elected to the Illinois State Senate, representing the Hyde Park neighborhood in which he lived, in 1996. He passed numerous bills and won the trust of his Republican colleagues. Four years after an ill-advised congressional run in 2000, when he lost a primary to the incumbent, Bobby Rush, he sought the Senate seat once held by the moderate Republican Everett Dirksen. He started out as an also-ran in a seven-person field, but his magnetism—and a lucky break in the form of allegations of spousal abuse against a rich opponent—led him to a smashing primary victory. Another lucky break in the general election—his heavily favored GOP opponent, Jack Ryan, withdrew after his salacious divorce papers were leaked about a month before that famous keynote address—handed him Keyes as his opponent.

For all the fury in the passage quoted above from his first book, it must be said that Obama was not that person most of the time. Both of his books suggest a man who has been engaged in an intellectual and spiritual quest. In a particularly telling chapter of Dreams from My Father he discusses his troubled reactions upon learning from a Kenyan half-sister that his father, once a high government functionary in Kenya, had been punished by Jomo Kenyatta for speaking too freely and ended in poverty. He decided early in life that he would not let race limit him. Having lived in the white man’s world not only at his private high school and Columbia and Harvard but at home, Obama learned to look beyond race perhaps as much as a black man can in America.

This sensibility informs his politics, and he leaves no doubt of his debt to American civic culture—the great universities he attended, the political process that he encountered as an organizer, frustrating as it was; all the ways by which citizens can grow to become a part of something larger than themselves. He makes plain his belief that such a culture is something to cherish and foster so that it will be more inclusive. That is what he talks about in his best speeches. In a political climate in which very few Democrats have had anything genuinely interesting to say for a very long time, this is what makes him, deservedly, a star.

The Audacity of Hope hews closely to formula. Each of its nine chapters—on broad, thematic subjects like politics, opportunity, faith, race, and family—begins with an anecdote that suggests the point he wants to make about the subject, then moves on to his ruminations about it, and ends with another anecdote meant to drive the point home. These can tend toward the homiletic (the chapter on faith ends with the sentence “I know that tucking in my daughters that night, I grasped a little bit of heaven”).

Most unusually for an American politician, though, he has a sense of historical irony—and is willing to articulate it. After being sworn in to the Senate he listens to a stirring speech of welcome by Senator Robert Byrd, who warns of the “dangerous encroachment, year after year, of the Executive Branch on the Senate’s precious independence.”

  1. 1

    Reported, for example, in “Networks Blew It by Blowing Off Obama,” The Kansas City Star, July 31, 2004.

  2. 2

    Dreams from My Father, revised edition (Three Rivers, 2004), p. 85.

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