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September 1, 2012

Election Time

Books by the presidential candidates, and how they might sway the electorate.

The Audacity of Hope
by Barack Obama. Crown Publishing Group. 2006

When President Barack Obama wrote this book, his second, he was not running for president—but he was already the golden boy of the national Democratic Party.

After his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, where he stepped out of nowhere onto the national stage, his run to the White House looked too far-fetched and improbable to even consider.

Six years later, we are coming to the end of his first term—and so this still stands as the statement of his political philosophy.

The first thing you notice is how extremely well-written it is. The same eloquence and warm personality that come through in the president's speeches appear on the page. You feel you know who he is, not that he's spouting rhetoric, and you have a real sense that he believes what he says. You also feel the political animal in him, the ambition, the commitment, the ability to endure the rough stuff and enjoy the smooth.

The second thing you notice, which is extremely discomfiting, is that very little has changed from when he wrote this book. In fact, if anything, things are worse. Obama came to Congress following the Clinton-Gingrich wars, the Iran-Contra scandal, Whitewater and the disputed Bush-Gore election. Washington was in gridlock and permanently in campaign mode. “What's troubling,” he wrote, “is the gap between

the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics.” He is blunt in his assessment of the then-Republican majority in Congress. “If the Democrats have had trouble winning, it appears that the Republicans . cannot govern.”

These are themes he has and will return to on the campaign trail this time. The substance of the book is also a perfect roadmap of what he has tried to accomplish as president: health care reform, raising the minimum wage, updating unemployment insurance and trade adjustment assistance, etc.

Another telling aspect of the book, and of the president's last campaign, is that he doesn't shy away from the difficult topics. He talks about faith and race, about abortion and debt, about the things that make him a Democrat. He was also intensely aware, even six years ago, that he was doomed to disappoint, that the enormity of what he would like to do would be impossible.

The president has many faults, as do we all, but bad intentions are not one of them. He credits his opponents and most of the people he has met in politics with wanting what's best for the country. And it is obvious from reading this book how much he loves the country and the people in it.

“More than anything, it is that sense—that despite great differences in wealth, we rise and fall together—that we can't afford to lose,” he writes. Whether or not you vote for him, it's hard to disagree with that.

No Apology

by Mitt Romney. St. Martin's Press. 2011.

This book came out two years after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lost his last bid for the Republican presidential nomination (in 2008) and felt he wanted to say more than a campaign allowed. Like the now-six-year-old Obama book, there is little in here we haven't heard before—the agenda, the straight-arrow conservatism and the 50s-era notion of patriotism. There is also the sense that Romney is a “what you see is what you get” sort of guy. The poll numbers and sharp elbows of a presidential campaign might have made him more judicious about what he says, but he is a confident, experienced, successful man with very clear ideas about what is wrong and how he thinks it could and should be fixed.

The book also gives him the opportunity to contrast himself with a sitting president, so although the campaign platform is largely the same, the full-frontal attack on the president in this revised edition is new. There is plenty of what Romney would do if elected, but the overarching theme of the book is what President Obama is doing wrong. Romney's greatest fear is “the United States will become the France of the 21st century—still a great country, but no longer the world's leading nation.” In order to paint the president as a man who can do no right, Romney compares the United States of the last few years to Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela, and calls the president a socialist.

So much for the idea of mutual respect.

The book is written in the same Manichean language of what calls itself politics these days. There is an un-nuanced approach that does the candidate no favors. The reader never doubts the author's intellect and grasp of the size and complexity of the problem, but must question whether his fairly simplistic solutions are up to the task. He doesn't provide many newideas, but falls back on solutions of old, sometimes 50 years old, as workable now if provided with the right leadership. Romney mentions a 2007 poll in which European citizens say that the United States poses the greatest threat to international peace. Instead of making any attempt to understand what might make them think that and refuting those reasons, he dismisses them as wrong and moves on.

Not surprisingly, Romney is stronger in the chapter on the economy. It is, in fact, the longest chapter and, when combined with the following chapters on entitlements, forms the centerpiece of this book and of candidate Romney's platform. Here, the writing and the message become more nuanced. He applauds

the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) as necessary while decrying U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's management of it. He criticizes both parties for their acceptance of deficits as a way to run the country. And he freely admits that any candidate who says no to the electorate when they want more from government (in the way of entitlements, for instance) will be defeated. In the primary campaign, Texas Gov. Rick Perry slammed Romney for changes to the original version of this book. Touting his Massachusetts health care plan as a national model, for instance, is missing from this version—although he still sees it as a success. If a man this smart did not evolve his ideas over time and adapt them to ever-changing circumstances, however, he would be poor presidential material indeed. If you are considering voting for Romney, this book will tell you exactly what you can expect.