Okay, so I read it. After all, the guy is now president and he smiles friendly from the cover. What is there to say? It's an entirely flawless book. Neatly organized into 9 chapters -- Republicans and Democrats, Values, Our Constitution, Politics, Opportunity, Faith, Race, The World Beyond our Borders, Family -- covering every sector a politician should have an opinion on, sprinkled with anecdotes, personal stories and reflections, it is an easy read, entertaining and interesting. The book is so good it is disgusting. One has to hate it. It feels as if one thousand PR agents went over it and sanded out all edges. Doesn't the guy have any vices, doesn't he have any regrets, didn't he make any mistakes, doesn't he have anything provocative to say at all? Can somebody be so smoothly intellectual and considerate and indeed be real?
Here is the only upsetting sentence I could find: "[T]here will be times when we must again play the role of the world's reluctant sheriff." Unfortunately, this sentence is only outrageous when quoted out of context since the rest of the chapter provides a perfectly reasonably 21st century view on foreign politics. The guy is neither a dumb pacifist nor eager to convert the rest of the world to Americanism.
What I liked best about the book has however nothing do to with it largely overlapping with my political views. No, it is that it communicates that politics is done by humans for humans, that arguments can be approached from an intellectual rather than a personal point of view, and that one can disagree with somebody without declaring that person an enemy. And it describes how the media by and large grossly distorts this process, amplifying and exaggerating differences to everybody's disadvantage.
Though the book is generally optimistic (well, what did you expect?) it is cautious about the status of our democracies, especially the influence of wealth and the functionality of the political system itself. You shouldn't be surprised I pick out these two points, readers of this blog know they are among my pet topics. Obama writes:
"[T]oday's constitutional arguments can't be separated from politics. But there's more than just outcomes at stake in our current debates about the Constitution and the proper role of the courts. We're also arguing about how to argue -- the means, in a big, crowded, noisy democracy, of settling our disputes peacefully. We want to get our way, but most of us also recognize the need for consistency, predictability, and coherence. We want the rules governing our democracy to be fair."
Which nicely highlights the necessity to ensure our political systems work optimally. One could call that meta-politics. It is unfortunately a topic that doesn't receive enough attention though one should think the need to occasionally update procedures that are centuries old would be apparent. He further points out:
"[W]e must test our ideals, visions, and values against the realities of a common life, so that over time they may be refined, discarded or replaced by new ideals, sharper vision, deeper values."
If I translate that into my usual, considerably less eloquent, style: We must ensure our systems allow not only for variation, but also evaluation and following adaption so we remain able to learn and improve. The world is changing and we have to change with it.
About the devastating backlash it can have on our democracies when influence is weighted by wealth, Obama writes "[T]hose who use their economic power to magnify their political influence far beyond what their numbers might justify [...] subvert the very idea of democracy." Well said. Unfortunately, he remains vague on what to do about it.
A general criticism is that with his elaborations on all these topics he doesn't set any priorities. It is all well and fine to have high goals and visions about everything, but where to start? What is it that he finds most important? If you were president, what were the first thing you'd do? Also, the chapter about religion strikes me as somewhat odd, but then it seems to be a big deal in the USA. And one issue I found completely missing is what appears funny about American elections to most outside observers: it is essentially a two party system. I don't think this is a good status and a point that would have merited a sentence or two.
Altogether, I guess the book is as good as a book from a politician can get. I find it neither particularly inspiring nor insightful, but I learned something about American history and politics. If this was an Amazon review I'd give four stars. One lacking because of leaving me nothing to complain about.
PS: Thanks, mom :-)