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The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream


It's been almost ten years since I first ran for political office.
I was thirty-five at the time, four years out of law school,
recently married, and generally impatient with life. A seat in the
Illinois legislature had opened up, and several friends suggested
that I run, thinking that my work as a civil rights lawyer, and
contacts from my days as a community organizer, would make me a
viable candidate. After discussing it with my wife, I entered the
race and proceeded to do what every first-time candidate does: I
talked to anyone who would listen. I went to block club meetings
and church socials, beauty shops and barbershops. If two guys were
standing on a corner, I would cross the street to hand them
campaign literature. And everywhere I went, I'd get some version of
the same two questions.

"Where'd you get that funny name?"

And then: "You seem like a nice enough guy. Why do you want to go
into something dirty and nasty like politics?"

I was familiar with the question, a variant on the questions asked
of me years earlier, when I'd first arrived in Chicago to work in
low-income neighborhoods. It signaled a cynicism not simply with
politics but with the very notion of a public life, a cynicism that
--- at least in the South Side neighborhoods I sought to represent
--- had been nourished by a generation of broken promises. In
response, I would usually smile and nod and say that I understood
the skepticism, but that there was --- and always had been ---
another tradition to politics, a tradition that stretched from the
days of the country's founding to the glory of the civil rights
movement, a tradition based on the simple idea that we have a stake
in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than
what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the
truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve
every problem, but we can get something meaningful done. It was a
pretty convincing speech, I thought. And although I'm not sure that
the people who heard me deliver it were similarly impressed, enough
of them appreciated my earnestness and youthful swagger that I made
it to the Illinois legislature.

Six years later, when I decided to run for the United States
Senate, I wasn't so sure of myself.

By all appearances, my choice of careers seemed to have worked out.
After spending my two terms during which I labored in the minority,
Democrats had gained control of the state senate, and I had
subsequently passed a slew of bills, from reforms of the Illinois
death penalty system to an expansion of the state's health program
for kids. I had continued to teach at the University of Chicago Law
School, a job I enjoyed, and was frequently invited to speak around
town. I had preserved my independence, my good name, and my
marriage, all of which, statistically speaking, had been placed at
risk the moment I set foot in the state capital.

But the years had also taken their toll. Some of it was just a
function of my getting older, I suppose, for if you are paying
attention, each successive year will make you more intimately
acquainted with all of your flaws --- the blind spots, the
recurring habits of thought that may be genetic or may be
environmental, but that will almost certainly worsen with time, as
surely as the hitch in your walk turns to pain in your hip. In me,
one of those flaws had proven to be a chronic restlessness; an
inability to appreciate, no matter how well things were going,
those blessings that were right there in front of me. It's a flaw
that is endemic to modern life, I think --- endemic, too, in the
American character --- and one that is nowhere more evident than in
the field of politics. Whether politics actually encourages the
trait or simply attracts those who possess it is unclear. Lyndon
Johnson, who knew much about both politics and restlessness, once
said that every man is trying to either live up to his father's
expectations or make up for his father's mistakes, and I suppose
that may explain my particular malady as well as anything

In any event, it was as a consequence of that restlessness that I
decided to challenge a sitting Democratic incumbent for his
congressional seat in the 2000 election cycle. It was an
ill-considered race, and I lost badly --- the sort of drubbing that
awakens you to the fact that life is not obliged to work out as
you'd planned. A year and a half later, the scars of that loss
sufficiently healed, I had lunch with a media consultant who had
been encouraging me for some time to run for statewide office. As
it happened, the lunch was scheduled for late September 2001.

"You realize, don't you, that the political dynamics have changed,"
he said as he picked at his salad.

"What do you mean?" I asked, knowing full well what he meant. We
both looked down at the newspaper beside him. There, on the front
page, was Osama bin Laden.

"Hell of a thing, isn't it?" he said, shaking his head. "Really bad
luck. You can't change your name, of course. Voters are suspicious
of that kind of thing. Maybe if you were at the start of your
career, you know, you could use a nickname or something. But now...
"His voice trailed off and he shrugged apologetically before
signaling the waiter to bring us the check.

I suspected he was right, and that realization ate away at me. For
the first time in my career, I began to experience the envy of
seeing younger politicians succeed where I had failed, moving into
higher offices, getting more things done. The pleasures of politics
--- the adrenaline of debate, the animal warmth of shaking hands
and plunging into a crowd --- began to pale against the meaner
tasks of the job: the begging for money, the long drives home after
the banquet had run two hours longer than scheduled, the bad food
and stale air and clipped phone conversations with a wife who had
stuck by me so far but was pretty fed up with raising our children
alone and was beginning to question my priorities. Even the
legislative work, the policy-making that had gotten me to run in
the first place, began to feel too incremental, too removed from
the larger battles --- over taxes, security, health care, and jobs
--- that were being waged on a national stage. I began to harbor
doubts about the path I had chosen; I began feeling the way I
imagine an actor or athlete must feel when, after years of
commitment to a particular dream, after years of waiting tables
between auditions or scratching out hits in the minor leagues, he
realizes that he's gone just about as far as talent or fortune will
take him. The dream will not happen, and he now faces the choice of
accepting this fact like a grown-up and moving on to more sensible
pursuits, or refusing the truth and ending up bitter, quarrelsome,
and slightly pathetic.

Denial, anger, bargaining, despair --- I'm not sure I went through
all the stages prescribed by the experts. At some point, though, I
arrived at acceptance --- of my limits, and, in a way, my
mortality. I refocused on my work in the state senate and took
satisfaction from the reforms and initiatives that my position
afforded. I spent more time at home, and watched my daughters grow,
and properly cherished my wife, and thought about my long-term
financial obligations. I exercised, and read novels, and came to
appreciate how the earth rotated around the sun and the seasons
came and went without any particular exertions on my part.

And it was this acceptance, I think, that allowed me to come up
with the thoroughly cockeyed idea of running for the United States
Senate. An up-or-out strategy was how I described it to my wife,
one last shot to test out my ideas before I settled into a calmer,
more stable, and better-paying existence. And she --- perhaps more
out of pity than conviction --- agreed to this one last race,
though she also suggested that given the orderly life she preferred
for our family, I shouldn't necessarily count on her vote.

I let her take comfort in the long odds against me. The Republican
incumbent, Peter Fitzgerald, had spent $19 million of his personal
wealth to unseat the previous senator, Carol Moseley Braun. He
wasn't widely popular; in fact he didn't really seem to enjoy
politics all that much. But he still had unlimited money in his
family, as well as a genuine integrity that had earned him grudging
respect from the voters.

For a time Carol Moseley Braun reappeared, back from an
ambassadorship in New Zealand and with thoughts of trying to
reclaim her old seat; her possible candidacy put my own plans on
hold. When she decided to run for the presidency instead, everyone
else started looking at the Senate race. By the time Fitzgerald
announced he would not seek reelection, I was staring at six
primary opponents, including the sitting state comptroller; a
businessman worth hundreds of millions of dollars; Chicago Mayor
Richard Daley's former chief of staff; and a black, female
health-care professional who the smart money assumed would split
the black vote and doom whatever slim chances I'd had in the first

I didn't care. Freed from worry by low expectations, my credibility
bolstered by several helpful endorsements, I threw myself into the
race with an energy and joy that I thought I had lost. I hired four
staffers, all of them smart, in their twenties or early thirties,
and suitably cheap. We found a small office, printed letterhead,
installed phone lines and several computers. Four or five hours a
day, I called major Democratic donors and tried to get my calls
returned. I held press conferences to which nobody came. We signed
up for the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade and were assigned the
parade's very last slot, so that my ten volunteers and I found
ourselves marching just a few paces ahead of the city's sanitation
trucks, waving to the few stragglers who remained on the route
while workers swept up garbage and peeled green shamrock stickers
off the lampposts.

Mostly, though, I just traveled, often driving alone, first from
ward to ward in Chicago, then from county to county and town to
town, eventually up and down the state, across miles and miles of
cornfields and beanfields and train tracks and silos. It wasn't an
efficient process. Without the machinery of the state's Democratic
Party organization, without any real mailing list or Internet
operation, I had to rely on friends or acquaintances to open their
houses to who ever might come, or to arrange for my visit to their
church, union hall, bridge group, or Rotary Club. Sometimes, after
several hours of driving, I would find just two or three people
waiting for me around a kitchen table. I would have to assure the
hosts that the turnout was fine and compliment them on the
refreshments they'd prepared. Sometimes I would sit through a
church service and the pastor would forget to recognize me, or the
head of the union local would let me speak to his members just
before announcing that the union had decided to endorse someone

But whether I was meeting with two people or fifty, whether I was
in one of the well-shaded, stately homes of the North Shore, a
walk-up apartment on the West Side, or a farmhouse outside
Bloomington, whether people were friendly, indifferent, or
occasionally hostile, I tried my best to keep my mouth shut and
hear what they had to say. I listened to people talk about their
jobs, their businesses, the local school; their anger at Bush and
their anger at Democrats; their dogs, their back pain, their war
service, and the things they remembered from childhood. Some had
well-developed theories to explain the loss of manufacturing jobs
or the high cost of health care. Some recited what they had heard
on Rush Limbaugh or NPR. But most of them were too busy with work
or their kids to pay much attention to politics, and they spoke
instead of what they saw before them: a plant closed, a promotion,
a high heating bill, a parent in a nursing home, a child's first

No blinding insights emerged from these months of conversation. If
anything, what struck me was just how modest people's hopes were,
and how much of what they believed seemed to hold constant across
race, region, religion, and class. Most of them thought that
anybody willing to work should be able to find a job that paid a
living wage. They figured that people shouldn't have to file for
bankruptcy because they got sick. They believed that every child
should have a genuinely good education --- that it shouldn't just
be a bunch of talk --- and that those same children should be able
to go to college even if their parents weren't rich. They wanted to
be safe, from criminals and from terrorists; they wanted clean air,
clean water, and time with their kids. And when they got old, they
wanted to be able to retire with some dignity and respect.

That was about it. It wasn't much. And although they understood
that how they did in life depended mostly on their own efforts ---
although they didn't expect government to solve all their problems,
and certainly didn't like seeing their tax dollars wasted --- they
figured that government should help.

I told them that they were right: government couldn't solve all
their problems. But with a slight change in priorities we could
make sure every child had a decent shot at life and meet the
challenges we faced as a nation. More often than not, folks would
nod in agreement and ask how they could get involved. And by the
time I was back on the road, with a map on the passenger's seat, on
my way to my next stop, I knew once again just why I'd gone into

I felt like working harder than I'd ever worked in my life.

This book grows directly out of those conversations on the campaign
trail. Not only did my encounters with voters confirm the
fundamental decency of the American people, they also reminded me
that at the core of the American experience are a set of ideals
that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of
values that bind us together despite our differences; a running
thread of hope that makes our improbable experiment in democracy
work. These values and ideals find expression not just in the
marble slabs of monuments or in the recitation of history books.
They remain alive in the hearts and minds of most Americans --- and
can inspire us to pride, duty, and sacrifice.

I recognize the risks of talking this way. In an era of
globalization and dizzying technological change, cutthroat politics
and unremitting culture wars, we don't even seem to possess a
shared language with which to discuss our ideals, much less the
tools to arrive at some rough consensus about how, as a nation, we
might work together to bring those ideals about. Most of us are
wise to the ways of admen, pollsters, speechwriters, and pundits.
We know how high-flying words can be deployed in the service of
cynical aims, and how the noblest sentiments can be subverted in
the name of power, expedience, greed, or intolerance. Even the
standard high school history textbook notes the degree to which,
from its very inception, the reality of American life has strayed
from its myths. In such a climate, any assertion of shared ideals
or common values might seem hopelessly naive, if not downright
dangerous --- an attempt to gloss over serious differences over
policy and performance or, worse, a means of muffling the
complaints of those who feel ill served by our current
institutional arrangements.

My argument, however, is that we have no choice. You don't need a
poll to know that the vast majority of Americans --- Republican,
Democrat, and independent --- are weary of the dead zone that
politics has become, in which narrow interests vie for advantage
and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of
absolute truth. Whether we're from red states or blue states, we
feel in our gut the lack of honesty, rigor, and common sense in our
policy debates, and dislike what appears to be a continuous menu of
false or cramped choices. Religious or secular, black, white, or
brown, we sense --- correctly --- that the nation's most
significant challenges are being ignored, and that if we don't
change course soon, we may be the first generation in a very long
time that leaves behind a weaker and more fractured America than
the one we inherited. Perhaps more than any other time in our
recent history, we need a new kind of politics, one that can
excavate and build upon those shared understandings that pull us
together as Americans.

That's the topic of this book: how we might begin the process of
changing our politics and our civic life. This isn't to say that I
know exactly how to do it. I don't. Although I discuss in each
chapter a number of our most pressing policy challenges, and
suggest in broad strokes the path I believe we should follow, my
treatment of the issues is often partial and incomplete. I offer no
unifying theory of American government, nor do these pages provide
a manifesto for action, complete with charts and graphs, timetables
and ten-point plans.

Instead 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 --- based on
my experience as a senator and lawyer, husband and father,
Christian and skeptic --- of the ways we can ground our politics in
the notion of a common good.

Let me be more specific about how the book is organized. Chapter
One takes stock of our recent political history and tries to
explain some of the sources for today's bitter partisanship. In
Chapter Two, I discuss those common values that might serve as the
foundation for a new political consensus. Chapter Three explores
the Constitution not just as a source of individual rights, but
also as a means of organizing a democratic conversation around our
collective future. In Chapter Four, I try to convey some of the
institutional forces --- money, media, interest groups, and the
legislative process --- that stifle even the best-intentioned
politician. And in the remaining five chapters, I suggest how we
might move beyond our divisions to effectively tackle concrete
problems: the growing economic insecurity of many American
families, the racial and religious tensions within the body
politic, and the transnational threats --- from terrorism to
pandemic --- that gather beyond our shores.

I suspect that some readers may find my presentation of these
issues to be insufficiently balanced. To this accusation, I stand
guilty as charged. I am a Democrat, after all; my views on most
topics correspond more closely to the editorial pages of the New
York Times
than those of the Wall Street Journal. I am
angry about policies that consistently favor the wealthy and
powerful over average Americans, and insist that government has an
important role in opening up opportunity to all. I believe in
evolution, scientific inquiry, and global warming; I believe in
free speech, whether politically correct or politically incorrect,
and I am suspicious of using government to impose anybody's
religious beliefs --- including my own --- on nonbelievers.
Furthermore, I am a prisoner of my own biography: I can't help but
view the American experience through the lens of a black man of
mixed heritage, forever mindful of how generations of people who
looked like me were subjugated and stigmatized, and the subtle and
not so subtle ways that race and class continue to shape our

But that is not all that I am. I also think my party can be smug,
detached, and dogmatic at times. I believe in the free market,
competition, and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of
government programs don't work as advertised. I wish the country
had fewer lawyers and more engineers. I think America has more
often been a force for good than for ill in the world; I carry few
illusions about our enemies, and revere the courage and competence
of our military. I reject a politics that is based solely on racial
identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood
generally. I think much of what ails the inner city involves a
breakdown in culture that will not be cured by money alone, and
that our values and spiritual life matter at least as much as our

Undoubtedly, some of these views will get me in trouble. I am new
enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank
screen on which people of vastly different political stripes
project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if
not all, of them. Which perhaps indicates a second, more intimate
theme to this book --- namely, how I, or anybody in public office,
can avoid the pitfalls of fame, the hunger to please, the fear of
loss, and thereby retain that kernel of truth, that singular voice
within each of us that reminds us of our deepest commitments.

Recently, one of the reporters covering Capitol Hill stopped me on
the way to my office and mentioned that she had enjoyed reading my
first book. "I wonder," she said, "if you can be that interesting
in the next one you write." By which she meant, I wonder if you can
be honest now that you are a U.S. senator.

I wonder, too, sometimes. I hope writing this book helps me answer
the question.

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
by by Barack Obama