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Authors: Barack Obama

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BOOK: The Audacity of Hope
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The gap between what we deem appropriate behavior in everyday life and what it takes to win a campaign is just one of the ways in which a politician’s values are tested. In few other professions are you required, each and every day, to weigh so many competing claims—between different sets of constituents, between the interests of your state and the interests of the nation, between party loyalty and your own sense of independence, between the value of service and obligations to your family. There is a constant danger, in the cacophony of voices, that a politician loses his moral bearings and finds himself entirely steered by the winds of public opinion.
Perhaps this explains why we long for that most elusive quality in our leaders—the quality of authenticity, of being who you say you are, of possessing a truthfulness that goes beyond words. My friend the late U.S. senator Paul Simon had that quality. For most of his career, he baffled the pundits by garnering support from people who disagreed, sometimes vigorously, with his liberal politics. It helped that he looked so trustworthy, like a small-town doctor, with his glasses and bow tie and basset-hound face. But people also sensed that he lived out his values: that he was honest, and that he stood up for what he believed in, and perhaps most of all that he cared about them and what they were going through.
That last aspect of Paul’s character—a sense of empathy—is one that I find myself appreciating more and more as I get older. It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule—not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.
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 behavior 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 internalized 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 sixteen 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 realized that abiding by his rules would cost me little, but to him it would mean a lot. I recognized 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 chronically underfunded and understaffed and underinspired, if we thought that the children in them were like our children. It’s hard to imagine the CEO of a company giving himself a multimillion-dollar bonus while cutting health-care 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 favor 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.
But that does not mean that those who are struggling—or those of us who claim to speak for those who are struggling—are thereby freed from trying to understand the perspectives of those who are better off. Black leaders need to appreciate the legitimate fears that may cause some whites to resist affirmative action. Union representatives can’t afford not to understand the competitive pressures their employers may be under. I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor. We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision.
No one is exempt from the call to find common ground.
Of course, in the end a sense of mutual understanding isn’t enough. After all, talk is cheap; like any value, empathy must be acted upon. When I was a community organizer
back in the eighties, I would often challenge neighborhood leaders by asking them where they put their time, energy, and money. Those are the true tests of what we value, I’d tell them, regardless of what we like to tell ourselves. If we aren’t willing to pay a price for our values, if we aren’t willing to make some sacrifices in order to realize them, then we should ask ourselves whether we truly believe in them at all.
By these standards at least, it sometimes appears that Americans today value nothing so much as being rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. We say we value the legacy we leave the next generation and then saddle that generation with mountains of debt. We say we believe in equal opportunity but then stand idle while millions of American children languish in poverty. We insist that we value family, but then structure our economy and organize our lives so as to ensure that our families get less and less of our time.
And yet a part of us knows better. We hang on to our values, even if they seem at times tarnished and worn; even if, as a nation and in our own lives, we have betrayed them more often than we care to remember. What else is there to guide us? Those values are our inheritance, what makes us who we are as a people. And although we recognize that they are subject to challenge, can be poked and prodded and debunked and turned inside out by intellectuals and cultural critics, they have proven to be both surprisingly durable and surprisingly constant across classes, and races, and faiths, and generations. We can make claims on their behalf, so long as we understand that our values must be tested against fact and experience, so long as we recall that they demand deeds and not just words.
To do otherwise would be to relinquish our best selves.
The Audacity of Hope

Chapter Three

Our Constitution
THERE’S A SAYING that senators frequently use when asked to describe their first year on Capitol Hill: “It’s like drinking from a fire hose.”
The description is apt, for during my first few months in the Senate everything seemed to come at me at once. I had to hire staff and set up offices in Washington and Illinois. I had to negotiate committee assignments and get up to speed on the issues pending before the committees. There was the backlog of ten thousand constituent letters that had accumulated since Election Day, and the three hundred speaking invitations that were arriving every week. In half-hour blocks, I was shuttled from the Senate floor to committee rooms to hotel lobbies to radio stations, entirely dependent on an assortment of recently hired staffers in their twenties and thirties to keep me on schedule, hand me the right briefing book, remind me whom I was meeting with, or steer me to the nearest restroom.
Then, at night, there was the adjustment of living alone. Michelle and I had decided to keep the family in Chicago, in part because we liked the idea of raising the girls outside the hothouse environment of Washington, but also because the arrangement gave Michelle a circle of support—from her mother, brother, other family, and friends—that could help her manage the prolonged absences my job would require. So for the three nights a week that I spent in Washington, I rented a small one-bedroom apartment near Georgetown Law School, in a high-rise between Capitol Hill and downtown.
At first, I tried to embrace my newfound solitude, forcing myself to remember the pleasures of bachelorhood—gathering take-out menus from every restaurant in the neighborhood, watching basketball or reading late into the night, hitting the gym for a midnight workout, leaving dishes in the sink and not making my bed. But it was no use; after thirteen years of marriage, I found myself to be fully domesticated, soft and helpless. My first morning in Washington, I realized I’d forgotten to buy a shower curtain and had to scrunch up against the shower wall in order to avoid flooding the bathroom floor. The next night, watching the game and having a beer, I fell asleep at halftime, and woke up on the couch two hours later with a bad crick in my neck. Take- out food didn’t taste so good anymore; the silence irked me. I found myself calling home repeatedly, just to listen to my daughters’ voices, aching for the warmth of their hugs and the sweet smell of their skin.
“Hey, sweetie!”
“Hey, Daddy.”
“What’s happening?”
“Since you called before?”
“Yeah.”
“Nothing. You wanna talk to Mommy?”
There were a handful of senators who also had young families, and whenever we met we would compare notes on the pros and cons of moving to Washington, as well as the difficulty in protecting family time from overzealous staff. But most of my new colleagues were considerably older—the average age was sixty—and so as I made the rounds to their offices, their advice usually related to the business of the Senate. They explained to me the advantages of various committee assignments and the temperaments of various committee chairmen. They offered suggestions on how to organize staff, whom to talk to for extra office space, and how to manage constituent requests. Most of the advice I found useful; occasionally it was contradictory. But among Democrats at least, my meetings would end with one consistent recommendation: As soon as possible, they said, I should schedule a meeting with Senator Byrd—not only as a matter of senatorial courtesy, but also because Senator Byrd’s senior position on the Appropriations Committee and general stature in the Senate gave him considerable clout.
At eighty-seven years old, Senator Robert C. Byrd was not simply the dean of the Senate; he had come to be seen as the very embodiment of the Senate, a living, breathing fragment of history. Raised by his aunt and uncle in the hardscrabble coal- mining towns of West Virginia, he possessed a native talent that allowed him to recite long passages of poetry from memory and play the fiddle with impressive skill. Unable to afford college tuition, he worked as a meat cutter, a produce salesman, and a welder on battleships during World War II. When he returned to West Virginia after the war, he won a seat in the state legislature, and he was elected to Congress in 1952.
In 1958, he made the jump to the Senate, and during the course of forty-seven years he had held just about every office available—including six years as majority leader and six years as minority leader. All the while he maintained the populist impulse that led him to focus on delivering tangible benefits to the men and women back home: black lung benefits and union protections for miners; roads and buildings and electrification projects for desperately poor communities. In ten years of night courses while serving in Congress he had earned his law degree, and his grasp of Senate rules was legendary. Eventually, he had written a four-volume history of the Senate that reflected not just scholarship and discipline but also an unsurpassed love of the institution that had shaped his life’s work. Indeed, it was said that Senator Byrd’s passion for the Senate was exceeded only by the tenderness he felt toward his ailing wife of sixty-eight years (who has since passed away)—and perhaps by his reverence for the Constitution, a pocket- sized copy of which he carried with him wherever he went and often pulled out to wave in the midst of debate.
I had already left a message with Senator Byrd’s office requesting a meeting when I first had an opportunity to see him in person. It was the day of our swearing in, and we had been in the Old Senate Chamber, a dark, ornate place dominated by a large, gargoyle-like eagle that stretched out over the presiding officer’s chair from an awning of dark, bloodred velvet. The somber setting matched the occasion, as the Democratic Caucus was meeting to organize itself after the difficult election and the loss of its leader. After the new leadership team was installed, Minority Leader Harry Reid asked Senator Byrd if he would say a few words. Slowly, the senior senator rose from his seat, a slender man with a still-thick snowy mane, watery blue eyes, and a sharp, prominent
nose. For a moment he stood in silence, steadying himself with his cane, his head turned upward, eyes fixed on the ceiling. Then he began to speak, in somber, measured tones, a hint of the Appalachians like a knotty grain of wood beneath polished veneer.
I don’t recall the specifics of his speech, but I remember the broad themes, cascading out from the well of the Old Senate Chamber in a rising, Shakespearean rhythm—the clockwork design of the Constitution and the Senate as the essence of that charter’s promise; the dangerous encroachment, year after year, of the Executive Branch on the Senate’s precious independence; the need for every senator to reread our founding documents, so that we might remain steadfast and faithful and true to the meaning of the Republic. As he spoke, his voice grew more forceful; his forefinger stabbed the air; the dark room seemed to close in on him, until he seemed almost a specter, the spirit of Senates past, his almost fifty years in these chambers reaching back to touch the previous fifty years, and the fifty years before that, and the fifty years before that; back to the time when Jefferson, Adams, and Madison roamed through the halls of the Capitol, and the city itself was still wilderness and farmland and swamp.
Back to a time when neither I nor those who looked like me could have sat within these walls.
Listening to Senator Byrd speak, I felt with full force all the essential contradictions of me in this new place, with its marble busts, its arcane traditions, its memories and its ghosts. I pondered the fact that, according to his own autobiography, Senator Byrd had received his first taste of leadership in his early twenties, as a member of the Raleigh County Ku Klux Klan, an association that he had long disavowed, an error he attributed—no doubt correctly—to the time and place in which he’d been raised, but which continued to surface as an issue throughout his career. I thought about how he had joined other giants of the Senate, like J. William Fulbright of Arkansas and Richard Russell of Georgia, in Southern resistance to civil rights legislation. I wondered if this would matter to the liberals who now lionized Senator Byrd for his principled opposition to the Iraq War resolution—the MoveOn.org crowd, the heirs of the political counterculture the senator had spent much of his career disdaining.
I wondered if it should matter. Senator Byrd’s life—like most of ours—has been the struggle of warring impulses, a twining of darkness and light. And in that sense I realized that he really was a proper emblem for the Senate, whose rules and design reflect the grand compromise of America’s founding: the bargain between Northern states and Southern states, the Senate’s role as a guardian against the passions of the moment, a defender of minority rights and state sovereignty, but also a tool to protect the wealthy from the rabble, and assure slaveholders of noninterference with their peculiar institution. Stamped into the very fiber of the Senate, within its genetic code, was the same contest between power and principle that characterized America as a whole, a lasting expression of that great debate among a few brilliant, flawed men that had concluded with the creation of a form of government unique in its genius—yet blind to the whip and the chain.
The speech ended; fellow senators clapped and congratulated Senator Byrd for his magnificent oratory. I went over to introduce myself and he grasped my hand warmly, saying how much he looked forward to sitting down for a visit. Walking back to my office, I decided I would unpack my old constitutional law books that night and reread
the document itself. For Senator Byrd was right: To understand what was happening in Washington in 2005, to understand my new job and to understand Senator Byrd, I needed to circle back to the start, to America’s earliest debates and founding documents, to trace how they had played out over time, and make judgments in light of subsequent history.
IF YOU ASK my eight-year-old what I do for a living, she might say I make laws. And yet one of the surprising things about Washington is the amount of time spent arguing not about what the law should be, but rather what the law is. The simplest statute—a requirement, say, that companies provide bathroom breaks to their hourly workers—can become the subject of wildly different interpretations, depending on whom you are talking to: the congressman who sponsored the provision, the staffer who drafted it, the department head whose job it is to enforce it, the lawyer whose client finds it inconvenient, or the judge who may be called upon to apply it.
Some of this is by design, a result of the complex machinery of checks and balances. The diffusion of power between the branches, as well as between federal and state governments, means that no law is ever final, no battle truly finished; there is always the opportunity to strengthen or weaken what appears to be done, to water down a regulation or block its implementation, to contract an agency’s power with a cut in its budget, or to seize control of an issue where a vacuum has been left.
Partly it’s the nature of the law itself. Much of the time, the law is settled and plain. But life turns up new problems, and lawyers, officials, and citizens debate the meaning of terms that seemed clear years or even months before. For in the end laws are just words on a page—words that are sometimes malleable, opaque, as dependent on context and trust as they are in a story or poem or promise to someone, words whose meanings are subject to erosion, sometimes collapsing in the blink of an eye.
The legal controversies that were stirring Washington in 2005 went beyond the standard problems of legal interpretation, however. Instead, they involved the question of whether those in power were bound by any rules of law at all.
When it came to questions of national security in the post–9/11 era, for example, the White House stood fast against any suggestion that it was answerable to Congress or the courts. During the hearings to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, arguments flared over everything from the scope of Congress’s resolution authorizing the war in Iraq to the willingness of executive branch members to testify under oath. During the debate surrounding the confirmation of Alberto Gonzalez, I reviewed memos drafted in the attorney general’s office suggesting that techniques like sleep deprivation or repeated suffocation did not constitute torture so long as they did not cause “severe pain” of the sort “accompanying organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”; transcripts that suggested the Geneva Conventions did not apply to “enemy combatants” captured in a war in Afghanistan; opinions that the Fourth Amendment did not apply to U.S. citizens labeled “enemy combatants” and captured on U.S. soil.
This attitude was by no means confined to the White House. I remember heading toward the Senate floor one day in early March and being stopped briefly by a dark-
haired young man. He led me over to his parents, and explained that they had traveled from Florida in a last-ditch effort to save a young woman—Terri Schiavo—who had fallen into a deep coma, and whose husband was now planning to remove her from life support. It was a heartbreaking story, but I told them there was little precedent for Congress intervening in such cases—not realizing at the time that Tom DeLay and Bill Frist made their own precedent.
The scope of presidential power during wartime. The ethics surrounding end-of-life decisions. These weren’t easy issues; as much as I disagreed with Republican policies, I believed they were worthy of serious debate. No, what troubled me was the process—or lack of process—by which the White House and its congressional allies disposed of opposing views; the sense that the rules of governing no longer applied, and that there were no fixed meanings or standards to which we could appeal. It was as if those in power had decided that habeas corpus and separation of powers were niceties that only got in the way, that they complicated what was obvious (the need to stop terrorists) or impeded what was right (the sanctity of life) and could therefore be disregarded, or at least bent to strong wills.
BOOK: The Audacity of Hope
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