Barack Obama: My America

First, he captivated the world. Now a young senator from Illinois has a fighting chance of becoming the first black president in US history. But who exactly is he? And what inspired his bid for the White House? On the eve of Super Tuesday, Barack Obama explains why he wants to become the most powerful man on earth
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The inside of the White House doesn't have the luminous quality that you might expect from TV or film; it seems well kept but worn, a big old house that one imagines might be a bit draughty on cold winter nights. Still, as I stood in the foyer and let my eyes wander down the corridors, it was impossible to forget the history that had been made there – John and Bobby Kennedy huddling over the Cuban missile crisis; FDR making last-minute changes to a radio address; Lincoln alone, pacing the halls and shouldering the weight of a nation.

As I munched on hors d'oeuvres and engaged in small talk with a handful of House members, I recalled my previous two encounters with the President, the first a brief congratulatory call after the election, the second a small White House breakfast with me and the other incoming senators. Both times I had found the President to be a likeable man, shrewd and disciplined but with the same straightforward manner that had helped him win two elections; you could easily imagine him owning the local car dealership down the street, coaching Little League, and grilling in his backyard – the kind of guy who would make for good company so long as the conversation revolved around sports and the kids.

There had been a moment during the breakfast meeting, though, after the backslapping and the small talk and when all of us were seated, with Vice President Cheney eating his eggs Benedict impassively and Karl Rove at the far end of the table discreetly checking his BlackBerry, that I witnessed a different side of the man. The President had begun to discuss his second-term agenda, mostly a reiteration of his campaign talking points – the importance of staying the course in Iraq and renewing the Patriot Act, the need to reform Social Security and overhaul the tax system, his determination to get an up-or-down vote on his judicial appointees – when suddenly it felt as if somebody in a back room had flipped a switch. The President's eyes became fixed; his voice took on the agitated, rapid tone of someone neither accustomed to nor welcoming interruption; his easy affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty. As I watched my mostly Republican Senate colleagues hang on his every word, I was reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring, and appreciated the Founders' wisdom in designing a system to keep power in check.

"Obama!" the President said, shaking my hand. "Come here and meet Laura. Laura, you remember Obama. We saw him on TV during election night. Beautiful family. And that wife of yours – that's one impressive lady."

"We both got better than we deserve, Mr President," I said, shaking the First Lady's hand and hoping that I'd wiped any crumbs off my face. The President turned to an aide nearby, who squirted a big dollop of hand sanitiser in the President's hand.

"Want some?" the President asked. "Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds."

Not wanting to seem unhygienic, I took a squirt.

Since my arrival in the Senate, I've been a steady and occasionally fierce critic of Bush Administration policies. I consider the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to be both fiscally irresponsible and morally troubling. I have criticised the Administration for lacking a meaningful healthcare agenda, a serious energy policy, or a strategy for making America more competitive. Back in 2002, just before announcing my Senate campaign, I made a speech at one of the first anti-war rallies in Chicago in which I questioned the Administration's evidence of weapons of mass destruction and suggested that an invasion of Iraq would prove to be a costly error. Nothing in the recent news coming out of Baghdad or the rest of the Middle East has dispelled these views.

So Democratic audiences are often surprised when I tell them that I don't consider George Bush a bad man, and that I assume he and members of his Administration are trying to do what they think is best for the country.

I say this not because I am seduced by the proximity to power.

I see my invitations to the White House for what they are – exercises in common political courtesy – and am mindful of how quickly the long knives can come out when the Administration's agenda is threatened in any serious way. Moreover, whenever I write a letter to a family who has lost a loved one in Iraq, or read an email from a constituent who has dropped out of college because her student aid has been cut, I'm reminded that the actions of those in power have enormous consequences – a price that they themselves almost never have to pay.

It is to say that after all the trappings of office – the titles, the staff, the security details – are stripped away, I find the President and those who surround him to be pretty much like everybody else, possessed of the same mix of virtues and vices, insecurities and long-buried injuries, as the rest of us. No matter how wrongheaded I might consider their policies to be – and no matter how much I might insist that they be held accountable for the results of such policies – I still find it possible, in talking to these men and women, to understand their motives, and to recognise in them values I share.

This is not an easy posture to maintain in Washington. The stakes involved in Washington policy debates are often so high – whether we send our young men and women to war; whether we allow stem cell research to go forward – that even small differences in perspective are magnified. The demands of party loyalty, the imperative of campaigns, and the amplification of conflict by the media all contribute to an atmosphere of suspicion. Moreover, most people who serve in Washington have been trained either as lawyers or as political operatives – professions that tend to place a premium on winning arguments rather than solving problems. I can see how, after a certain amount of time in the capital, it becomes tempting to assume that those who disagree with you have fundamentally different values – indeed, that they are motivated by bad faith, and perhaps are bad people.

Outside of Washington, though, America feels less deeply divided. I first travelled through southern Illinois in 1997. It was the summer after my first term in the Illinois legislature, and Michelle and I were not yet parents. With session adjourned, no law school classes to teach, and Michelle busy with work of her own, I convinced my legislative aide, Dan Shomon, to toss a map and some golf clubs in the car and tool around the state for a week.

But as the date of our departure approached, it became apparent that he wasn't quite sure how I would be received in the counties we were planning to visit. Four times he reminded me how to pack – just khakis and polo shirts, he said; no fancy linen trousers or silk shirts. I assured him that I didn't own any linens or silks. On the drive down, we stopped at a TGI Friday's and I ordered a cheeseburger. When the waitress brought the food I asked her if she had any Dijon mustard. Dan shook his head.

"He doesn't want Dijon," he insisted, waving the waitress off. "Here" – he shoved a yellow bottle of French's mustard in my direction – "here's some mustard right here." The waitress looked confused. "We got Dijon if you want it," she said to me.

I smiled. "That would be great, thanks." As the waitress walked away, I leaned over to Dan and whispered that I didn't think there were any photographers around.

And so we travelled, stopping once a day to play a round of golf in the sweltering heat, driving past miles of cornfields and thick forests of ash trees and oak trees and shimmering lakes lined with stumps and reeds, through big towns like Carbondale and Mount Vernon, replete with strip malls and Wal-Marts, and tiny towns like Sparta and Pinckneyville, many of them with brick courthouses at the centre of town, their main streets barely hanging on with every other store closed, the occasional roadside vendors selling fresh peaches or corn, or in the case of one couple I saw, "Good Deals on Guns and Swords."

We stopped in a coffee shop to eat pie and swap jokes with the mayor of Chester. We posed in front of the 15ft-tall statue of Superman at the centre of Metropolis. We heard about all the young people who were moving to the big cities because manufacturing and coal-mining jobs were disappearing. We learned about the local high school football teams' prospects for the coming season, and the vast distances veterans had to drive in order to reach the closest VA facility. We met women who had been missionaries in Kenya and greeted me in Swahili, and farmers who tracked the financial pages of The Wall Street Journal before setting out on their tractors. Several times a day, I pointed out to Dan the number of men we met sporting white linen slacks or silk Hawaiian shirts. In the small dining room of a Democratic party official in Du Quoin, I asked the local state's attorney about crime trends in his largely rural, almost uniformly white county, expecting him to mention joy-riding sprees or folks hunting out of season.

"The Gangster Disciples," he said, munching on a carrot. "We've got an all-white branch down here – kids without jobs, selling dope and speed."

By the end of the week, I was sorry to leave. Not simply because I had made so many new friends, but because in the faces of all the men and women I'd met I had recognised pieces of myself.

In them I saw my grandfather's openness, my grandmother's matter-of-factness, my mother's kindness. The fried chicken, the potato salad, the grape halves in the Jell-O mold – all of it felt familiar.

It's that sense of familiarity that strikes me wherever I travel across Illinois. I feel it when I'm sitting down at a diner on Chicago's West Side. I feel it as I watch Latino men play soccer while their families cheer them on in a park in Pilsen. I feel it when I'm attending an Indian wedding in one of Chicago's northern suburbs.

Not so far beneath the surface, I think, we are becoming more, not less, alike.

I don't mean to exaggerate here, to suggest that the pollsters are wrong and that our differences – racial, religious, regional, or economic – are somehow trivial. In Illinois, as is true everywhere, abortion vexes. In certain parts of the state, the mention of gun control constitutes sacrilege. Attitudes about everything from the income tax to sex on TV diverge wildly from place to place.

It is to insist that across Illinois, and across America, a constant cross-pollination is occurring, a not entirely orderly but generally peaceful collision among people and cultures. Identities are scrambling, and then cohering in new ways. Beliefs keep slipping through the noose of predictability. Facile expectations and simple explanations are being constantly upended. Spend time actually talking to Americans, and you discover that most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual. Most rich people want the poor to succeed, and most of the poor are both more self-critical and hold higher aspirations than the popular culture allows. Most Republican strongholds are 40 per cent Democrat, and vice versa. The political labels of liberal and conservative rarely track people's personal attributes.

All of which raises the question: What are the core values that we, as Americans, hold in common? That's not how we usually frame the issue, of course; our political culture fixates on where our values clash. In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 election, for example, a major national exit poll was published in which voters ranked "moral values" as having determined how they cast their ballot. Commentators fastened on the data to argue that the most controversial social issues in the election – particularly gay marriage – had swung a number of states. Conservatives heralded the numbers, convinced that they proved the Christian right's growing power.

When these polls were later analysed, it turned out that the pundits and prognosticators had overstated their case a bit. In fact, voters had considered national security as the election's most important issue, and although large numbers of voters did consider "moral values" an important factor in the way they voted, the meaning of the term was so vague as to include everything from abortion to corporate malfeasance. Immediately, some Democrats could be heard breathing a sigh of relief, as if a diminution in the "values factor" served the liberal cause; as if a discussion of values was a dangerous, unnecessary distraction from those material concerns that characterised the Democratic Party platform.

I think Democrats are wrong to run away from a debate about values, as wrong as those conservatives who see values only as a wedge to pry loose working-class voters from the Democratic base. It is the language of values that people use to map their world. It is what can inspire them to take action, and move them beyond their isolation. The post-election polls may have been poorly composed, but the broader question of shared values – the standards and principles that the majority of Americans deem important in their lives, and in the life of the country – should be the heart of our politics, the cornerstone of any meaningful debate about budgets and projects, regulations and policies.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Those simple words are our starting point as Americans; they describe not only the foundation of our government but the substance of our common creed. Not every American may be able to recite them; few, if asked, could trace the genesis of the Declaration of Independence to its roots in 18th-century liberal and republican thought. But the essential idea behind the Declaration – that we are born into this world free, all of us; that each of us arrives with a bundle of rights that can't be taken away by any person or any state without just cause; that through our own agency we can, and must, make of our lives what we will – is one that every American understands. It orients us, sets our course, each and every day.

Much of my appreciation of our Bill of Rights comes from having spent part of my childhood in Indonesia and from still having family in Kenya, countries where individual rights are almost entirely subject to the self-restraint of army generals or the whims of corrupt bureaucrats. I remember the first time I took Michelle to Kenya, shortly before we were married. As an African American, Michelle was bursting with excitement about the idea of visiting the continent of her ancestors, and we had a wonderful time, visiting my grandmother up-country, wandering through the streets of Nairobi, camping in the Serengeti, fishing off the island of Lamu.

But during our travels Michelle also heard – as I had heard during my first trip to Africa – the terrible sense on the part of most Kenyans that their fates were not their own. My cousins told her how difficult it was to find a job or start their own businesses without paying bribes. Activists told us about being jailed for expressing their opposition to government policies. Even within my own family, Michelle saw how suffocating the demands of family ties and tribal loyalties could be, with distant cousins constantly asking for favours, uncles and aunts showing up unannounced.

On the flight back to Chicago, Michelle admitted she was looking forward to getting home. "I never realised just how American I was," she said. She hadn't realised just how free she was – or how much she cherished that freedom.

At its most elemental level, we understand our liberty in a negative sense. As a general rule we believe in the right to be left alone, and are suspicious of those – whether Big Brother or nosy neighbours – who want to meddle in our business. But we understand our liberty in a more positive sense as well, in the idea of opportunity and the subsidiary values that help realise opportunity – all those homespun virtues that Benjamin Franklin first popularised in Poor Richard's Almanack and that have continued to inspire our allegiance through successive generations. The values of self-reliance and self-improvement and risk-taking. The values of drive, discipline, temperance, and hard work. The values of thrift and personal responsibility.

These values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will – a confidence that through pluck and sweat and smarts, each of us can rise above the circumstances of our birth. But these values also express a broader confidence that so long as individual men and women are free to pursue their own interests, society as a whole will prosper. Our system of self-government and our free-market economy depend on the majority of individual Americans adhering to these values. The legitimacy of our government and our economy depend on the degree to which these values are rewarded, which is why the values of equal opportunity and nondiscrimination complement rather than impinge on our liberty.

If we Americans are individualistic at heart, if we instinctively chafe against a past of tribal allegiances, traditions, customs, and castes, it would be a mistake to assume that this is all we are.

I value good manners. Every time I meet a kid who speaks clearly and looks me in the eye, who says "yes, sir" and "thank you" and "please" and "excuse me", I feel more hopeful about the country. I don't think I am alone in this. I can't legislate good manners. But I can encourage good manners whenever I'm addressing a group of young people.

The same goes for competence. Nothing brightens my day more than dealing with somebody, anybody, who takes pride in their work or goes the extra mile – an accountant, a plumber, a three-star general, the person on the other end of the phone who actually seems to want to solve your problem. My encounters with such competence seem more sporadic lately; I seem to spend more time looking for somebody in the store to help me or waiting for the deliveryman to show. Other people must notice this; it makes us all cranky, and those of us in government, no less than in business, ignore such perceptions at their own peril.

I recently gave a speech at the Kaiser Family Foundation after they released a study showing that the amount of sex on television has doubled in recent years. Now I enjoy HBO as much as the next guy, and I generally don't care what adults watch in the privacy of their homes. In the case of children, I think it's primarily the duty of parents to monitor what they are watching on television, and in my speech I even suggested that everyone would benefit if parents – heaven forbid – simply turned off the TV and tried to strike up a conversation with their kids.

Having said all that, I indicated that I wasn't too happy with ads for erectile-dysfunction drugs popping up every 15 minutes whenever I watched a football game with my daughters in the room. I offered the further observation that a popular MTV show targeted at teens, in which young people with no visible means of support spend several months getting drunk and jumping naked into hot tubs with strangers, was not "The Real World". I ended by suggesting that the broadcast and cable industries should adopt better standards and technology to help parents control what streamed into their homes.

You would have thought I was Cotton Mather. In response to my speech, one newspaper editorial intoned that the government had no business regulating protected speech, despite the fact that I hadn't called for regulation. Reporters suggested that I was cynically tacking to the centre in preparation for a national race.

More than a few supporters wrote our office, complaining that they had voted for me to beat back the Bush agenda, not to act as the town scold.

And yet every parent I know, liberal or conservative, complains about the coarsening of the culture, the promotion of easy materialism and instant gratification, the severing of sexuality from intimacy. They may not want government censorship, but they want those concerns recognised, their experiences validated.

When, for fear of appearing censorious, progressive political leaders can't even acknowledge the problem, those parents start listening to those leaders who will – leaders who may be less sensitive to constitutional constraints.

Of course, conservatives have their own blind spots when it comes to addressing problems in the culture. Take executive pay.

In 1980, the average CEO made 42 times what an average hourly worker took home. By 2005, the ratio was 262 to 1.

Conservative outlets like The Wall Street Journal editorial page try to justify outlandish salaries and stock options as necessary to attract top talent, and suggest that the economy actually performs better when America's corporate leaders are fat and happy. But the explosion in CEO pay has had little to do with improved performance. In fact, some of the country's most highly compensated CEOs over the past decade have presided over huge drops in earnings, losses in shareholder value, massive layoffs, and the underfunding of their workers' pension funds.

What accounts for the change in CEO pay is not any market imperative. It's cultural. At a time when average workers are experiencing little or no income growth, many of America's CEOs have lost any sense of shame about grabbing whatever their pliant, handpicked corporate boards will allow. Americans understand the damage such an ethic of greed has on our collective lives; in a recent survey, they ranked corruption in government and business, and greed and materialism, as two of the three most important moral challenges facing the nation ("raising kids with the right values" ranked first). Conservatives may be right when they argue that the government should not try to determine executive pay packages. But conservatives should at least be willing to speak out against unseemly behaviour in corporate boardrooms with the same moral force, the same sense of outrage, that they direct against dirty rap lyrics.

Sometimes we need both cultural transformation and government action – a change in values and a change in policy – to promote the kind of society we want. The state of our inner-city schools is a case in point. All the money in the world won't boost student achievement if parents make no effort to instil in their children the values of hard work and delayed gratification. But when we as a society pretend that poor children will fulfil their potential in dilapidated, unsafe schools with outdated equipment and teachers who aren't trained in the subjects they teach, we are perpetrating a lie on these children, and on ourselves. We are betraying our values.

That is one of the things that makes me a Democrat, I suppose – this idea that our communal values, our sense of mutual responsibility and social solidarity, should express themselves not just in the church or the mosque or the synagogue; not just on the blocks where we live, in the places where we work, or within our own families; but also through our government. Like many conservatives, I believe in the power of culture to determine both individual success and social cohesion, and I believe we ignore cultural factors at our peril. But I also believe that our government can play a role in shaping that culture for the better – or for the worse.

I often wonder what makes it so difficult for politicians to talk about values in ways that don't appear calculated or phoney.

Partly, I think, it's because those of us in public life have become so scripted, and the gestures that candidates use to signify their values have become so standardised (a stop at a black church, the hunting trip, the visit to a Nascar track, the reading in the kindergarten classroom) that it becomes harder and harder for the public to distinguish between honest sentiment and political stagecraft.

Like most of my values, I learned about empathy from my mother. She disdained any kind of cruelty or thoughtlessness or abuse of power, whether it expressed itself in the form of racial prejudice or bullying in the schoolyard or workers being underpaid.

Whenever she saw even a hint of such behaviour in me she would look me square in the eyes and ask: "How do you think that would make you feel?"

But it was in my relationship with my grandfather that I think I first internalised the full meaning of empathy. Because my mother's work took her overseas, I often lived with my grandparents during my high school years, and without a father present in the house, my grandfather bore the brunt of much of my adolescent rebellion. He himself was not always easy to get along with; he was at once warmhearted and quick to anger, and in part because his career had not been particularly successful, his feelings could also be easily bruised. By the time I was 16 we were arguing all the time, usually about me failing to abide by what I considered to be an endless series of petty and arbitrary rules – filling up the gas tank whenever I borrowed his car, say, or making sure that I rinsed out the milk carton before I put it in the garbage.

With a certain talent for rhetoric, as well as an absolute certainty about the merits of my own views, I found that I could generally win these arguments, in the narrow sense of leaving my grandfather flustered, angry, and sounding unreasonable. But at some point, perhaps in my senior year, such victories started to feel less satisfying. I started thinking about the struggles and disappointments he had seen in his life. I started to appreciate his need to feel respected in his own home. I realised that abiding by his rules would cost me little, but to him it would mean a lot.

I recognised that sometimes he really did have a point, and that in insisting on getting my own way all the time, without regard to his feelings or needs, I was in some way diminishing myself.

There's nothing extraordinary about such an awakening, of course; in one form or another it is what we all must go through if we are to grow up. And yet I find myself returning again and again to my mother's simple principle – "How would that make you feel?" – as a guidepost for my politics.

It's not a question we ask ourselves enough, I think; as a country, we seem to be suffering from an empathy deficit. We wouldn't tolerate schools that don't teach, that are underfunded and understaffed and underinspired, if we thought the children in them were like our children. It's hard to imagine a CEO giving himself a multimillion-dollar bonus while cutting healthcare coverage for his workers if he thought they were in some sense his equals. And it's safe to assume that those in power would think longer and harder about launching a war if they envisioned their own sons and daughters in harm's way.

I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favour of those people who are struggling in this society. After all, if they are like us, then their struggles are our own. If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves.

Copyright Barack Obama. Extracted from The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Barack Obama (£8.99), published in paperback by Canongate Books on 7 February. To order a copy (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897 or visit .