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Obama's 'Audacity of Hope' is part memoir, part politics

Margaret Talev
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- If the title of Sen. Barack Obama's new book, "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream," sends you page-turning in search of daring solutions for the nation's problems, you may feel let down.

But if you're one of many Americans who see the eloquent 45-year-old biracial senator from Illinois as a player to watch in future presidential politics, his second memoir offers some intimate glimpses into the man on the pedestal.

Its timing and chutzpah are certain to raise some eyebrows.

For all the buzz about Obama, being a junior senator from the party out of power hasn't allowed him to accomplish much yet. Only one of his bills has been enacted into law -- creating a database so the public can track federal contracts -- and it had a Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Despite that, the book's release this month comes at a pivotal time: just before elections in which Democrats are trying to recapture the House of Representatives and the Senate, and as politicians who are considering presidential runs start getting serious.

Obama, who's said he's not planning to run for president in 2008, nevertheless made his first appearance last month in Iowa -- where the first balloting for 2008 candidates occurs -- as a speaker at Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak-fry. And he's stumping for Democrats in congressional races all over the country.

"The Audacity of Hope" (Crown Publishers, $25) is the first installment of a three-book deal that Obama inked before he took office. It focuses on his experiences on the campaign trail, during his breakthrough speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and in his first two years in the Senate. The second installment is to be a children's book, not yet written, and the theme of the third isn't set.

"I'm not sure anything's more audacious than thinking I could actually write a book while I was serving in the Senate," he joked in a hurried phone interview.

The book is part history, part political platform and part memoir; the latter carries the book.

A freshly sworn-in Obama takes the reader onto the Senate floor, peeling back the pomp to expose the reality in which politicians typically demagogue to TV cameras in an otherwise empty chamber: "In the world's greatest deliberative body, no one is listening."

He writes of his poignant first meeting with Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the 88-year-old orator and master of Senate rules who joined the Ku Klux Klan as a young man but later regretted it.

He rubs shoulders with Google executives and billionaire investor Warren Buffett, but also with poor women and union workers struggling with family health crises and lost jobs. He worries that the social perks and time constraints of his job could conspire to insulate him from the masses and change his sense of self. At moments he comes across as aloof.

There are revelations of self-doubt: Being gone from home so much, does he live up to his responsibilities as a husband and father of two? Is he battle-ready, given that his ascent from state lawmaker to senator was eased by his opponents' flameouts?

"To political insiders my victory proved nothing," he wrote of his 2004 election. "No wonder then that upon my arrival in Washington that January (of 2005), I felt like the rookie who shows up after the game, his uniform spotless, eager to play, even as his mud-splattered teammates tend to their wounds."

He reveals ambition, posturing and humility.

Right off the bat, President Bush pulls him aside to warn him, "You've got a bright future. ... Everybody'll be waiting for you to slip ... so watch yourself."

Obama subtly positions himself to red-state voters.

"Perhaps I possess a certain Midwestern sensibility that I inherited from my mother and her parents, a sensibility that Warren Buffett seems to share: that at a certain point one has enough, that you can derive as much pleasure from a Picasso hanging in a museum as from one that's hanging in your den, that you can get an awfully good meal in a restaurant for $20, and that once your drapes cost more than the average American's yearly salary, then you can afford to pay a bit more in taxes," he wrote.

He says the publicity wave after his 2004 convention speech "reinforces my sense of how fleeting fame is, contingent as it is on a thousand different matters of chance, of events breaking this way rather than that."

He wrote of falling in love with his wife, recalling that their first kiss "tasted of chocolate."

Some of the book's most eloquent moments are in Obama's discussion of Americans' race relations and the struggles of black Americans. Nestled in these passages are the gambles on which his future political opportunities may be built.

Obama asserts that "the overwhelming majority of white Americans these days are able -- if given the time -- to look beyond race in making their judgments of people.

"That simple notion -- that one isn't confined in one's dreams -- is so central to our understanding of America that it seems almost commonplace. It is perhaps the most important legacy of the civil rights movement."

From a policy standpoint, Obama uses the book to articulate a midpoint between liberal and moderate Democrats.

He wrote of the merits of universal health care. He says teachers should be paid more, but also should have to prove their worth. He wrote that Republicans' targeted tax breaks for the wealthy are gratuitous and hurt the working class.

He wrote that he opposes too much religion in government, but as a Christian thinks that Democrats make a mistake when they don't acknowledge the role that religion plays in shaping people's ethics and cultural references.

He supports abortion rights, but wants to focus more on preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancy. He supports gay rights but not gay marriage, though he allows that he might change his mind one day.

The book voices concerns about the United States' standing in the world, as a result of the Iraq war and the Bush administration's foreign policies. Obama says he wants more peace efforts and multilateral decisions.

"I cannot honestly say that I am optimistic about Iraq's short-term prospects," he wrote. "Five years after 9-11 and 15 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States still lacks a coherent national security policy."

Only in the book's epilogue does Obama answer one nagging question: The book's title is borrowed from his pastor, who's used the phrase to describe the power of the human spirit to persevere despite hardships and obstacles.

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