that kind of condescension has to be purged from our vocabulary.”
~ Barack Obama
The quotes I pulled from this long NY Times magazine article show me some of what I think is Obama’s deep wisdom – he is not playing divides against each other, but trying to find the places where opposite sides can connect. It is this ability to see through to the worth of values, and find ways to honor and respect the differences in values that make up all of American culture, that attracted me to him in the beginning. He understands “diversity” from the inside.
What are the “cultural issues” he’s talking about?
There is a
…need to stop thinking that issues like religion or guns are somehow wrong . . .Because, in fact, if you’ve grown up and your dad went out and took you hunting, and that is part of your self-identity and provides you a sense of continuity and stability that is unavailable in your economic life, then that’s going to be pretty important, and rightfully so. And if you’re watching your community lose population and collapse but your church is still strong and the life of the community is centered around that, well then, you know, we’d better be paying attention to that.
The article (also published by the International Tribune), is interesting and informative). The reporter harks back to Obama’s emergence on the national political scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. At that time and place, Obama spoke about a broad politics comfortable with “worshiping an awesome God in the blue states” and having “gay friends in the red states.” He elaborated to the NY Times reporter (Matt Bai),
“…that Washington’s us-versus-them divisions had made it impossible for any president to find solutions to a series of generational challenges, from Iraq to global climate change. ‘If voters are similarly polarized and if they’re seeing two different realities, a Sean Hannity reality and a Keith Olbermann reality, then we’re not going to be able to get done the work we need to get done.'”
Some of the insights I appreciate from the reporter include describing George W. as “more of a uniter [of the American public] than he ever intended” because of the vast disapproval with his policies, and, although not naming Hillary, the evidence of how her protracted fight for the nomination has helped Obama’s organizing in the long run. “In three states — Texas, Indiana and North Carolina — more people voted in Democratic primaries this year than voted for Kerry on Election Day in 2004.”
Of course the economy is crucial – it always was, even before this crisis – but Obama recognizes and keeps talking about the fact that “cultural issues matter far more in the rural areas than they do in the exurbs, because voters see those issues as a test of whether politicians respect their values or mock them.” (Emphasis added.)
This next is a longer quote, because it might be part of what unnerves some people about him – his lack of need for public adoration. Perhaps what is unsettling about this aspect of Obama’s character (his “organized unconscious” as David Brooks recently described it) is that the absence of a need for acceptance reduces public leverage on his decisions, which subsequently ups the ante of trust. Obama will surround himself with the best and brightest of varying points of view, and then he will decide based on the calculations of his own wisdom. What will do with a President not subject to manipulation? What I hope is that this quality of self-determination applies equally to the elites.
“It is often said in politics that a candidate’s strength is also his weakness. Obama’s greatest asset as a candidate, the trait that has enabled him to overcome both a thin résumé and the resistance of his own party’s establishment, is his placidity. Even more than through his ability to give a rousing speech (plenty of other candidates, from Ted Kennedy to Howard Dean, could do that), Obama has differentiated himself from recent Democrats by conveying a sense of inner security that is highly unusual in a business of people who have chosen to spend every day asking people to love them. He does not seem like a candidate who’s going to switch to earth tones in his middle age or who’s going to start dressing up in camouflage to rediscover his inner Rambo.
Obama is content to meet the world on his terms, and something about that inspires confidence.And yet that same lack of pathetic neediness may in fact be a detriment when it comes to persuading voters who, culturally or ideologically, just aren’t predisposed to like him. I once heard a friend of Obama’s compare him with Bill Clinton this way: if Clinton sees you walking down the other side of the street, he immediately crosses over to shake your hand; if Obama sees you coming, he nods and waits for you to cross. That image returned to me as I watched Obama campaign in Lebanon. Clinton wouldn’t have wanted to leave that gym until every last voter had been converted, even if that meant he had to memorize the scheduled sewer installation for every home in Russell County. Mark Warner, a similarly tenacious glad-hander, went to rural Virginia again and again because, deep down, he needed to change people’s perceptions of who he was. Obama doesn’t connect to the world that way, which is probably why his campaign has always preferred big rallies to hand-to-hand venues. Obama gives the impression that he’s going to show up and make his case, and if you don’t fall in love with him, well, he’ll just have to pick up the pieces and go on.”
Then, there is the matter of race/racism and whether the latent prejudice of whites will adversely affect Obama’s chances. I like the reporter’s critique: “The more important question is not whether race is a factor in people’s votes but whether it is a determinative factor — that is, whether Obama’s being black is the disqualifying fact for white voters that it might have been 20 years ago or whether it has now been reduced to one of those surmountable obstacles that any candidate has to overcome.” This merely calls for scathing honesty: is Obama’s mixed heritage the ONE reason to vote for/against him? Although there is, no doubt, a small subset of the population who would say this matters the most, this is obviously the wrong basis of evaluation. I am in agreement with the reporter’s conclusion: “it may be possible for racial prejudice to exist, as all the polls suggest it does, but for it to be only one significant influence among many, including voters’ views on the economy and on McCain as an alternative.”
Finally, I appreciate Obama’s candor.
“I’m not a familiar type.” He laughed. “Which means it would be easier for me to deliver this message if I was from one of these places, right? I’ve got to deliver that message as a black guy from Hawaii named Barack Obama. So, admittedly, it’s just unfamiliar . . . I’m different in all kinds of ways. I’m different even for black people.” (Emphasis added.)
In the end, I think this is what it comes down to: can you vote for someone unfamiliar? Of course you will feel the riskiness of it, but the only rational explanation for that sense of risk is fear. Not necessarily deep dread or panic, but uneasiness with the inability to predict what will happen. We never can, of course, but the uncertainty of tomorrow (even of later today) seems more manageable when you are working with the familiar. This is change at its essence: from something known to something new. The big changes that Obama might generate will be possible because of the small changes in the hearts and minds of people like us.