Friday, November 7, 2008

The Case for Obama (Seriously)

King Lear: Dost thou know me, fellow?

Kent: No, sir; but you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.

King Lear: What's that?

Kent: Authority.

Why have we hired Barack Obama for what The Onion called, half-seriously perhaps, "the worst job in the world?" We obviously did not hire him for his executive experience; rather, his appeal depends on leadership qualities, judgment, and temperament.

Obama inspires without having to rely on empty demagoguery or the "cult of personality." People are tired of the extreme partisan rancor that has taken over national politics for the past 15 years or so (I'm happy to admit that Democrats have contributed to this as well, but in my opinion less than Republicans). Obama has charisma and obviously uses it to achieve his aims (and he needed it to help win the election), but if anything he constantly downplays this characteristic. Recall that a year ago he was often criticized for being dry, aloof, and "professorial." As I've written before, unlike most politicians, Obama does not seem to need the adulation of the masses, but rather views it as a necessary means to political ends.

Obama is like Bill Clinton in that he is both charismatic and wonkish--he really does have a meticulous interest in getting things done; he is more pragmatist than ideologue. Unlike Clinton, he is also highly disciplined. He is a leader who inspires people to work their butts off for him, and as his flawlessly run campaign suggests, he is good at spotting talent. But he panders less than most politicians (it's probably impossible to get elected without pandering at all). After all, in his speeches he has spoken of personal sacrifice and "tightening our belts"--how long has it been since we heard that?

In terms of judgment, it is hard to overstate the significance of Obama's early opposition to the Iraq war in 2002, at a time when this was a minority opinion and a politically risky one. The war is finally wrapping up, and it has been overshadowed by the economy as has everything else, but it is good to remember that, despite the final "success" of "the surge," the war overall was the greatest tragic blunder of the Bush presidency. From the vantage point of 2002, Obama could have been disastrously (for his political prospects) wrong, but he wasn't.

In terms of general administrative skills, Obama endured, with remarkable grace and resilience, what may have been the longest (22 months) and most grueling single political campaign in American history. His operation was huge, involving all fifty states and, of course, hundreds of millions of dollars. The people he chose to run it did so with admirable unity and efficiency. Can even this huge campaign operation automatically be extrapolated to the massive extent of the federal government? Of course not, but it is a promising sign. Part of what we're after is sheer competence; after all, the Bush administration was so dismaying not merely because of ideology but also because of ineptitude (see Iraq War, Katrina response, etc.). And sure enough, in his first days Obama is not staffing his White House with eager but green 20-somethings; rather, he is looking to experienced political figures for wisdom. Also, how much foreign policy experience did Governors Clinton and Bush have when they took over?

I was slow to warm to Obama. A year ago I was saying that Hillary Clinton would make a better acting President (although I never did think she could win the general election--too much baggage). And until recently I had always had some admiration for John McCain (the last eight years would have been much different, and in a good way, if he could have bested George W. Bush in 2000). Indeed, as recently as a few months ago I was fairly complacent about the election because I figured we would get a decent administration regardless of the outcome.

But McCain's erratic behavior in the closing months, and his willingness to take the low road with negative campaigning (even if it wasn't as negative as it could have been), was alarming to me. It is good to remember that there really was no truly conservative choice this election season. Indeed, the Bush administration has been so objectionable because it hasn't been conservative; it has been radical, in its unilateralism, its extreme economic policy, and its disregard for consensus. McCain's increasing coziness with these Bush trends over the past couple of years, coupled with his "maverick" status, made me wonder what the heck he might do if given the most powerful position on earth? Palin was the last straw--not a "maverick" choice but rather a radical and reckless one--and showed me that McCain had finally gone around the bend. In fact, I try to avoid ageism, but his erratic behavior overall made me wonder, in a neurobiological sort of way, what exactly was going on in that 72-year-old brain.

In terms of experience, one can always revisit the example of Lincoln, who technically had less experience than Obama when elected. Lincoln probably was a risky choice at the time and could have turned out to be a disaster (why not just let the South go and leave slavery for the next generation?). But people clearly saw qualities in him that promised exceptional leadership and judgment. I'm definitely not saying Obama is another Lincoln, and he could certainly fail, or be a very qualified success like Bill Clinton. But I would argue that from the vantage point of the current time, he is overall the least risky, and the most favorable, choice we have.


vanderleun said...

Well argued and felt.

Two points: From a national viewpoint it may seem as if the vaunted 2002 opposition to the war was risky, but in the district in which Obama was serving as a state legislator it was anything but. Useful later, to be sure, but not for a state legislator from that Chicago district, daring in any way. Just the opposite in fact.

Second, although technically "technically" might let you off the hook about the comparable experience of Obama vs. Lincoln, it doesn't hold up. Lincoln, in so many ways, had vastly more experience than Obama by the time of his election. Among other things he was involved in actually building a political party pretty much through the 1850s, not just using an already built machine. Why not just let the South go? I'd suggest looking deeper into the insane argument that was going full force before the 1860 election. It had a lot more rancor behind it than our petty squabbles of today.

Not that we can't get there.

Novalis said...

On a less elevated note, I came across a "Why didn't I think of that" neologism at Slate:

barackstar: a political celebrity

Anonymous said...

Novalis I could listen to you talk for days without tiring. Obama's breaking ranks with his peers going into IRAQ was total rock star, "Barackstar" is the relevant political reality, a truly badass president, unlikely as that seems. I never thought I'd listen to Sonic Youth's Teenage Riot as I did earlier today, hear my favorite line and think instantly of a politician:

Looking for a man with a focus and a temper who can open up a map

And see between one and two.

In undeveloped people temper cancels out focus, but Barack can do both; he's psychologically integrated, and I think we find that reassuring, however people talk about it.

Anonymous said...

I think he's one of the few great leaders we seem to be graced with only once per generation or so.

I only hope he isn't assassinated, like other true visionaries have been.