Friday, January 25, 2008

The Case for Obama

A few years ago, I was speaking to an acquaintance who had recently moved to Austin, Texas. I asked her how she was liking it. She explained that Austin is tolerable because it’s “blue,” while everywhere outside of it in Texas is “totally red.” While I suppose there’s some kernel of truth in this description, it also struck me as one of the dumbest things I’d ever heard an otherwise intelligent person say. For a long time, I had found many of the divisions in this country to be exaggerated in their substance, overheated in their tone, and counterproductive in their results. But in that moment, I realized just how deeply nonsensical they are. Having lived in Texas for 12 years (entirely in those “red” areas), I had met many people who were politically conservative in ways I found distasteful. I also met many liberals, and several people who leaned conservative and remain among the smartest people I know. To hear them (not to mention some of the largest cities in the country) dismissed as “totally red” was offensive politically, personally, and intellectually.

I consider Barack Obama to have many strengths, but perhaps chief among them in 2008 is the fact that he seems temperamentally allergic to specious reductions. I’m not sure I can think of a more important baseline qualification for someone who will be governing 300 million people. And I don’t mean to imply that no other candidate has some amount of this quality, but it strikes me that Obama possesses it to the bone in a way that no one else does.

Some people claim that this quality -- along with his superlative rhetorical style and preternatural poise -- isn’t enough to be a deciding factor when his substantive policy ideas are not so different from his fellow Democrats, and especially Hillary Clinton. I disagree completely. William James wrote that, “There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen.” I believe that the difference in the way Obama carries himself, and in the way he approaches his opponents, would lead to tremendous concrete differences. Yes, on one level these differences would be in tone -- an elevation of the country’s political discourse from the ad hominem pit in which it currently resides to some plateau of logical, grown-up engagement -- but there may also be progress on a tangible level that has been stymied by the lack of a levelheaded, widely respected president who can talk to those who disagree in ways that they find palatable.

As for Obama's other qualifications, I find it truly baffling that media coverage has taken a turn toward portraying him, in the words of the New York Times, as “incandescent if still undefined.” Here’s some definition: He went to Harvard Law School, where he was the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. He took that prestigious degree and went to work in poverty-stricken areas of south Chicago. He taught Constitutional law at the University of Chicago. He served in the Illinois senate, where he gained a reputation for working well (and productively) with Republicans. He’s the fifth African-American in history to be a U.S. Senator. He’s written a book (Dreams from My Father) that one of my smartest friends called not just a good book by politicians’ standards but “a great memoir.”

I’d give anything to be that undefined.

He also delivered (and wrote), at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, maybe the most inspiring political speech of my lifetime. In that speech, he rousingly and convincingly argued:
The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
I think this country deserves -- and needs -- a president who thinks like that. The fact that Barack Obama thinks like that would be enough to get me excited about him. The fact that he possesses so many other admirable qualities besides earns him my unwavering support.

If this post didn't focus a lot on policy, it's for two reasons: 1. Obama doesn't seem to hope for any policies that I think are deal-breakers. This isn't to say I agree with him on everything. 2. In the absence of deal-breakers (like Huckabee's desire to rewrite the Constitution as a sequel to The Bible), what I want in a president is someone who seems reasonable and trustworthy. A president is not going to enter the White House and micromanage every detail of American life. That's not how the office works (thankfully). He or she is going to have to set a course and rally colleagues on the details. He or she, as well as the country itself, is also going to suffer inevitable trials and setbacks, and during those times it would be ideal if the president had political courage, believed in the transparency of American government, and addressed the people as adults. I trust Obama to do those things. I'm eager -- no, desperate -- for him to do them.


Blogger Soul-Fusion said...

I've been lurking on your blog for a bit and this post is the one to bring me out into the open and cheer a rousing AMEN! Eloquently stated. I tried to articulate this very quality recently and was completely dismissed for not focusing on the issues. But if you ask me, what this country needs is a leader who understands compromise and wants to focus on unifying this country instead of separating it out by reds and blues. Thanks for a really well-thought out post.

6:29 PM  
Anonymous lfw said...

Obama 2008!! Absolutely. I'm so excited--for the first time ever, I get to vote in a state that may actually matter in the general election.

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Dezmond said...

As one of those conservative leaning friends of yours in the red part of Texas (as well as one of those "smartest people" you've ever known, I'm sure), your analysis of Obama is right on. Because of what you said, there are many conservative leaning people I know who are seriously considering Obama.

We haven't seen a politician with this much charisma since Ronald Reagan. Remember in the 80's there was that large group of "Reagan democracts" out there? Those democratic voters who just could not resist Reagan's projected strength and vision? You could really have some Obama Republicans this election if he can just get by the Clinton Slime Machine in these primaries.

I vividly recall his 2004 convention speech as well. After the speech, I said out loud that he would be our first black president one day.

Now, on the issues, I am much more in line with John McCain than I am with Barack Obama. Obama and the Democrats Great Iraq Retreat policy will be a disaster. Whether you agree with the decision to go into Iraq or not, the decision to pull out at this stage is a completely different issue. It is really that issue that makes me hesitate to support Obama (or any other Democrat other than Joe Biden or Joe Lieberman, two Democrats with the wisdom and stones to disagree with the other Dems on Iraq Retreat).

Anyway, Obama would be a dynamic and mostly positive change for this country. F*ck Clinton.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Fox said...

While I agree with your assessment of Obama and no doubt will support him when the time comes I resist coming together. Coloring states red or blue is not nonsensical, it’s a struggle we can no longer loose. Red has, in the recent past, provided a platform for some of the most disastrous policy decisions in US history. I am not lovey dovey with my neighbor who was ignorant enough to vote for Bush twice. I don’t want to be united with him under the stars and stripes. I want to send him to Iraq, foreclose on his house--in celebration of the glories of an unregulated free market--and privatize his social security funds so I can watch the stock market swallow them whole. William James was right, a little difference is enough to matter. Some of the smartest people I know supported the invasion of Iraq. We differed, and although we may share many of the same ideas and opinions and hopes for America, that small ‘difference’ is manifesting itself in “concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact” daily on the skulls of hundreds of thousands. I will support Obama in the hopes that he is a Trojan Horse, that once he is in office he will not unite us as a people in a purple haze but that he will crush the right leaning mindset that is destroying this country. What I really mean to say is "go Obama!"

5:44 PM  
Blogger Duane said...

While I will support whichever Democrat wins the nomination, I currently lean toward Hillary. I do this because I need more than to be inspired, I need someone who's going to the job necessary. I'm not saying Obama isn't capable. I hope he is because he could very well win this thing. But I think Hillary is more so and I'd rest easier with her at the helm. And despite detractors I think having Bill along for the ride ain't too shabby for our nation.

My two cents and you're welcome to 'em.

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Tree said...

Great post. For those that believe they will be able to rest easier with Hill and Bill in the White House again, that is exactly why I want Obama there, he is for an active America, he doesn't want us to sit back and let him play daddy to solve the problems with as little impact on us as possible. He is going to ask us to work for it, and that takes inspiration. As a nation there is a lot of work to be done. He understands that no child left behind does not address the most influential factor in education - parents. He understands that we will be in the persian gulf for the forseeable future but that we need a clearly defined mission. He knows that to stabalize the economy and most importantly incomes of the majority of workers, we need to go green. Spreading existing technology and growing new technologies that make the US mroe energy efficient and energy independent. He understands that with a higher income you have a higher responsibility to the nation. Be clear people, unless you are making over $75K a year as a single indiviudal and $140K as a couple, you are getting NO TAX BREAKS. Allowing income over $97K to be taxed will get us closer to saving social security and medicare. Dropping the age restrictions and allowing people to pay a sliding scale premium and enrolling in medicare will provide the footstep toward Universal health care we need. I also don't agree with everything he wants, but he will work for the benefit of all Americans.

10:34 AM  
Anonymous largirl said...

Great, amazing post. I am actually excited about an election this year and even donated - multiple times - to a candidate for the first time. I truly believe that Obama would be an amazing, unifying president, and the only one who could get us back into good graces with the rest of the world. I have to laugh at everyone who claims that Obama is inexperienced - guess what? None of the candidates have been president before. And if you think having lived in the white house is any type of real experience...well, I respectfully disagree. Read this article on Slate, which details the "experience" fallacy nicely.

11:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's very trendy for people of our generation to be pro-obama and anti-hillary, when, in fact, she has all of the same credentials, is just as able to discern that not all red states are red, blue states are blue, violets are blue, etc. she's also written some pretty fine books as well.

1:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What we need is some inspiration as Americans. We need to reclaim our ideals as the greatest nation in the world who had an 8 year hiccup. We need to get excited.
We have a huge opportunity with Obama to regain the respect of the European, Asians and even Arabs that are shaking their heads at us!! We can rebuild the dollar and the economy quickly. Obama has the foresight to do this! Thanks!!

5:39 PM  

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