In reading Senator Barack Obama's #1 bestseller, The Audacity of Hope, one begins to wonder whether he is another cynical politician or just a helplessly naïve neophyte.
After a few chapters, one actually has the audacity to hope that it is his inexperience and nothing sinister that accounts for his sometimes silly and often misleading narrative. Anyone who is that naive should not be a U.S. Senator, much less the president.
Obama is a uniquely charismatic candidate who has catapulted into second place among democratic primary voters, forcing Hillary Clinton to hastily abandon her coy pretense that she hasn't made a decision about whether to run. He inspires people by his story, his demeanor and his message.
But if his book offers a window into the real Barack Obama, one thing is certain: He has a long way to go before he is ready for the presidency. He's only been in the U.S. Senate for two years and before that, he was a state senator and a professor of constitutional law. He's never been an administrator, met a payroll, developed a budget, or solved a crisis. It's not only his greenness that sends out warnings; at times, he doesn't seem to grasp the implications of all that he writes. At other times, his words have a distinct disconnect with his actions and legislative record.
Sometimes he sounds downright juvenile. Consider this missive, which opens chapter five: "One thing about being a U.S. Senator you fly a lot." Brilliant! It gets worse: "Most of the time I fly … in coach, hoping for an aisle or window seat" (But not always.) " … there are times when … I fly on a private jet." Then, "the flying experience is a good deal different." Wow. Obama then describes the experience: "lounges that feature big soft couches and big screen TVs." Hog heaven. "Restrooms are generally empty and spotless, and have those mechanical shoe-shine machines and mouthwash and mints in a bowl." The planes? "Well, they're nice." The purpose of the trip was "fund raising" but the senator was thrilled when his staff "explained to him" that he could travel on "someone else's jet" and only have to pay the comparatively minor cost of first class airfare.
There's no mention of the special interests that pay for those corporate jets for senators or about the lobbyists that usually accompany them, using the down time to fill their heads with information and arguments for their client's legislative priorities. All we learn from Obama is how la dolce vita prevails at private airports.
Obama actually took 23 separate trips on corporate jets during his first year in the Senate, until he was appointed as the democratic point man on ethics legislation last year, following the Jack Abramoff scandal involving lobbyists paying for Congressional travel. Given the political atmosphere and the intense probe of Congressional travel, it would not have been good politics for him to continue to avail himself of the lobbyist largesse. So, that's when he stopped taking the free rides. Cushy sofas or not.
Obama is a political infant, a babe in the woods. He's a Jimmy Carter, running for president based on his personal moral outlook, his background and history, and making a virtue out of his limited knowledge of how American government works. One thing is sure in the age of terrorism, we don't need a president who can't find the men's room.
Obama's book is replete with paeans to non-partisanship and rising above the bitterness of the blue/red divide. He sees the virtues in his political opponents. "I find it possible," he declares, "to understand their motives, and to recognize in them the values I share."
But, in reality, Obama is no "third way" politician. He is a party line Democrat, according to the National Journal, the 18th most liberal member of the Senate, which puts him ahead of (or behind) 60% of his fellow Democrats in the Senate. The gospel according to Planned Parenthood? He gets 100%. Right to life? Zero. The AFL-CIO celebrates his vote with them on nine out of ten issues and the ACLU agrees.
He talks like a moderate, but he votes like a liberal.
This deception, which he shares in common with Hillary, would be par for the Washington course. But it is the sound bites that festoon his book that lead one to suspect that he really doesn't understand the facts or the issues.
For example, he writes, "we say we value the legacy we leave the next generation and then saddle that generation with mountains of debt." Really? Has the senator noticed that the deficit is now down to only a bit more than 2% of our GDP, or is that sound bite too precious to lose in the face of the facts?
Or he accuses us of tolerating "schools that don't teach, that are chronically underfunded and understaffed and underinspired." We hate to get in the way of his speechwriter's momentum, but how about the central issues: teacher incompetence, the need for merit pay and the importance of waiving tenure to get rid of bad instructors?
He speaks of an increasingly wealthy "knowledge class" of Americans able to purchase "whatever they want on the marketplace private schools, private health care, private security and private jets." But then he opposes the voucher system designed to give the poor parity in purchasing power for private education.
And then he says that voters are tired of "sound bite solutions to complicated problems." So are his readers.
Senator Barack Obama could indeed represent something new in our politics instead of something old and simply repackaged. He could step up and truly develop a third way, carrying on where Bill Clinton left off on issues of poverty, race, standards, education and global competitiveness. But Bill Clinton worked hard at grappling with our problems and designing real solutions. He immersed himself in the data and worked hard to learn how to be president.
But Obama is taking the easy way out skimming the surface, sloganeering and hiding behind Democratic orthodoxy while pretending to be something else.
The saving grace is that he is young and just starting out. If he pays the same attention to substance that he appears to have spent acquiring a profound understanding of constitutional law which he used to teach then he has the potential to be a great figure.
But he's not there yet.