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01.14.09

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Phaedra

The Natural

This Tuesday the nation finally gets a leader worth following.

By Stephen Kessler


For all his charisma, Barack Obama won't be able to stop global warming just by being cool. For all his declared intent to end the war in Iraq, it will be years before he's able to get us out of there. His commitment to increase U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan promises only to make matters worse for everyone. Many of the people he's selected for his Cabinet are less liberal or progressive than I might have preferred. His choices of a gay-baiting pastor and a so-so poet to speak at his inauguration are disappointing. And as far as the first dog goes, well, I'm a cat person.

But no new president since John F. Kennedy, who was elected during my freshman year in high school, when puberty felt much more urgent to me than politics, has truly inspired my admiration. Lyndon Johnson was a crude power manipulator, Richard Nixon was a sinister sleazebag, Gerald Ford was a joke, Jimmy Carter was a feckless goody-goody, Ronald Reagan was a reactionary know-nothing, George Bush Sr. was a righteous bore, Bill Clinton was a narcissist with out-of-control appetites, and the political defects and character flaws of Bush Jr. are too painfully well known by now to bother enumerating. Obama, astonishingly, actually appears to be the best person available for the job, which in itself feels like a small miracle. On top of that, his personal qualities seem to me unprecedented in any political figure of my lifetime.

Unlike Bush, and even, for that matter, Hillary Clinton, Obama is not an us-against-them politician. Like Lincoln, his role model, he doesn't demonize the opposition but rather attempts to engage it in rational, compassionate dialogue. In his first inaugural address, on the brink of the Civil War, Lincoln did not condemn the slaveholding states for their moral turpitude or tell them to "bring it on." He appealed instead to their better nature by invoking unity and cooperation for the good of the nation as a whole. Obama's instincts are similar in his strategy of bringing opposing sides together in the effort to solve common problems.

No sane person can have any illusions about the gravity and complexity of the global crisis the new president inherits. There is no easy or certain way out of the economic, environmental and national security labyrinths that surround us. But if anyone shows potential for the kind of levelheaded leadership the moment demands, it's That One. Obama, for now, has occasioned a rebirth of optimism, a dip in political cynicism and a new enthusiasm for intelligence. Whether his attributes and what he inspires in the citizenry will be enough to change the game is another question. The presidency is an office so systemically compromised as to potentially diminish its inhabitant, and governing is always far more tricky than winning. But the degree of difficulty could well call forth Obama's latent greatness.

The three most revered American presidents have been the ones who served at the most critical times in our history: Washington after the Revolution, Lincoln during the Civil War and Roosevelt during the Depression and World War II. Now, between apocalyptic weather, lost homes, lost jobs, lost savings, unaffordable health care, endless wars, general economic collapse and the threat of random terror, Obama and the rest of us face an unprecedented combination of crises. But from what we've seen over the long campaign and can gather from reading his excellent books--the memoir Dreams From My Father and the political essay The Audacity of Hope--Obama may just have what it takes to start to turn things around.

The Listener
Throughout the primaries and the general election Hillary Clinton and John McCain and the wonderfully entertaining but politically terrifying Sarah Palin all took turns trying to badmouth their smooth-talking opponent's way with words. Obama, according to this criticism, could give a good speech but he'd never really done anything. But even this charge proved the cluelessness of the notion that language and its use is somehow of secondary importance in politics. Politics, in a democracy, is language: it's the art of persuasion, the power of discourse, whether in the inflammatory demagoguery of a Rush Limbaugh or the Enlightenment reason of a Thomas Jefferson. Both Kennedy and Reagan were admired and respected for their communication skills, and Roosevelt's radio talks helped encourage public confidence through dark times.

It takes language to tell people what you want to do and why. If you can't speak a coherent sentence without a TelePrompTer, chances are you can't think a clear thought. Obama's ability to say what he means in a way that people can understand is essential to his appeal as a politician. His intellectual clarity, understanding of ambiguity, appreciation for nuance, thoughtful reflectiveness and respect for the intelligence of the citizenry--his relation to the public as adults--are among his greatest strengths.

He is also a good listener, a skill mastered during his years in Chicago as a community organizer. "Community organizer," you'll recall, was the sneering put-down deployed by Rudy Giuliani and Palin at the Republican convention to suggest that Obama had no executive experience. Boy, were they in for a surprise. One of the election's sweetest ironies was in the way the rigor and discipline of Obama's organization, the depth and coordination of his teamwork, made his opponents' people look like amateurs. It was the community organizer, trained on the streets and in the housing projects of South Side Chicago, who used his expertise to put together a network of leaders and field workers that ran circles around the competition.

Community organizing, as revealed in the center section of Dreams From My Father, meant for Obama in his mid-20s interviewing people, asking about their problems, listening to their stories, identifying and recruiting potential leaders, calling meetings, lobbying city officials, mobilizing volunteers and proposing solutions to everything from asbestos in their buildings and crime on their blocks to problems in their schools and the development of jobs. It meant persevering through disheartening circumstances, believing that even the most downtrodden people had the power to help themselves and giving them the tools to do it. The hopelessness that had to be overcome, the discouragement from the powers that be, the exhaustion of often-fruitless efforts to stir people out of their apathy--the endurance of these difficulties and aggravations in order to change the status quo reveals the quality of Obama's character and the depth of his commitment to improving people's lives.

'A Little Too Awesome'
Before he connected with his Christian faith, he had what he calls "a faith in other people." This faith in others, combined with his serene self-confidence, is what makes Obama such a natural leader. While I distrust the Great Man theory of history, and favor in principle a horizontal form of egalitarian social organization, I also recognize that people need leaders to help them get organized and move them to do things for the common good. One can dismiss the idea of charismatic leadership as the "cult of personality," but the fact is personality matters. Obama's personality--his relaxed demeanor, his physical grace, his optimistic yet realistic attitude, his good looks, his dignity, his smile--all contribute to his political magnetism.

Face it, the guy has it all, including the ironic wit to recognize that his "greatest weakness," as he declared in a self-roast at a Catholic charity dinner in New York last October, is that "I'm a little too awesome." Awesome? What's so awesome about a combination of Sidney Poitier, Robert Kennedy, Michael Jordan, Miles Davis, Martin Luther King and Harry Belafonte? Obama is the kind of man that women want to sleep with, and men want to be. He has a beautiful, powerful wife and adorable daughters. He likes to bodysurf, play golf and poker, has a good outside jump shot and can enjoy a drink or two without fear of stumbling into drunkenness. He's someone you can imagine not just having a beer or shooting some hoops with but also engaging in an interesting conversation. He reads fiction, and from the descriptive writing in his books it's clear he sees with an artist's eye.

At the same time, he's a buttoned-up lawyer, an Ivy League intellectual, a constitutional scholar, a gentleman--the kind of guy who gives up his seat to old ladies on the bus or helps them across a busy intersection. He's both a bad dude and a good boy.

Multitudes Contained
This capacity to be more than one thing at a time begins in Obama's multiracial, multicultural, multigeographical background--his exotic blend of Kansan, Kenyan, Hawaiian and Indonesian ingredients filtered through a Southern California and New York City undergraduate education, shaken with a strong shot of Chicago streets and refined in the exalted halls of Harvard Law. His "otherness" was something Republicans tried to use as a scare tactic during the campaign, and something some Democrats tried to deny, but it's precisely his unusual (though increasingly common in our globalized world) mix of identities that contributes to his gifts as a world leader.

The man is a hybrid. He's not "post-racial," he's black. But he is trans-racial, his roots reaching across and through different cultures and colors, creating an integrated disposition. Obama is able to understand others because he's so many people himself. He recognizes how attachment to any one "pure" thing, whether that be identity or ideology, is a potentially paralyzing limitation. He is open to multiplicity because he sees the world in all its variousness.

"Pragmatist" is the word most often used to describe his nonideological orientation, but I would call him more precisely a synthesizer and a problem solver. That's why anyone who's read his books shouldn't be surprised at his rather conservative Cabinet choices. He's not playing to his base but is attempting to seduce the center and, through the functional political instruments of compromise, persuasion and patience with opposing points of view, maybe actually steer a course to accomplishment that reasonable people can agree on. Fundamentalism of any kind is not his thing; he's a negotiator, a shape-shifter, yet he's also anchored in core beliefs and principles--honesty, decency, discipline, kindness--that he is unlikely to abandon.

But because of his own inner diversity, he is also someone on whom other people project their values and desires. (This essay, I admit, might be an example of that.) His former colleagues at the Harvard Law Review remember him as the person who'd listen to all sides of an argument, offer his opinion and leave everyone with the impression that he agreed with them. His writing reveals a novelist's sense of empathy; he imagines his way into the minds of his real-life characters, seeing things from their perspectives and catching their styles of speech in dead-on dialogue. Again, his listening skills, his ear for others' voices and his ability to re-create them on the page show great compassion.

It has been interesting to observe how the right thus far appears more pleased than the left by Obama's Cabinet appointments. Instead of alienating or provoking them, he has reassured conservatives, thus engaging their cooperation (i.e., co-opting them) for the purpose of enacting his agenda. Everyone who's ever worked in any organization knows that a new boss brings his or her own style and program to the table. He or she assumes authority and sets a tone, and the staffers, if they are true professionals, take their signals from management. Obama learned in Chicago how to recruit talent, give direction and delegate tasks, and this is what he'll surely do in the White House.

If at first this strategy of cultivating the center instead of making the left happy tends to freak out some of his supporters, I imagine they'll come around if and when it proves effective in achieving the president's goals. The economic catastrophe, climate change, terrorism, health-care dysfunction and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will not end anytime soon no matter how successful Obama turns out to be at correcting them, but I don't see anyone else in American politics who'd have a better chance. Political orthodoxy is so 20th century, and ideological rigidity is a failure of imagination. Obama, not completely unlike Bill Clinton before him--only with a much more disciplined and less egomaniacal modus operandi--proposes a path neither left nor right but straight ahead.

Storyteller-in-Chief
Though insulated by the Secret Service and all the bureaucratic and ceremonial trappings of the office, Obama and his family will be scrutinized obsessively by a public smitten with their wholesome newness and youth. While still connected to his far-flung kin all over the map--he has a slew of Kenyan relatives in Africa and elsewhere--his Chicago clan on his wife's side and especially she and their daughters form the heart and soul of the new president's familial and social cosmos. You can tell by their comportment during the campaign that as far as "family values" go, Obama's credentials are impeccable. Their love and loyalty are real in a way that requires no sentimental exaggeration.

That phony smarminess, that pious flaunting of familial harmony so typical of American politicians, the chest-thumping defense of monogamy and morality, frequently proves to be a mask for just the opposite. Obama doesn't play the righteousness card, in the name of religion or anything else, and he knows that if he ever tried to pull a John Edwards on Michelle she would whip his skinny ass. No, entertaining as it was in the Clinton/Gingrich era, we can't look forward to much soap-operatic drama in the Obama White House.

But his writing and speaking styles indicate he will continue to relish his role as explainer and storyteller in chief. Stories, as well as clearly spelled-out policy ideas, are among his favorite means of getting his message across. On the eve of the election, at a rally in Virginia, Obama, a little punchy from the marathon campaign and maybe a little giddy from his promising poll numbers, gave a remarkable extemporaneous extended riff that displayed his genius as a narrator. It was about an older woman activist in some small town in South Carolina and how he had promised to return to her community, and his fatigue and physical discomfort getting there (he had a cold and had to get up early for a long drive), and how when he arrived there was a tiny turnout, but this woman did a call-and-response with the few people present--"Are you fired up?" and they'd say, "Fired up!" and she'd say, "Are you ready to go?" and they'd say, "Ready to go!"--and Obama used this highly digressive anecdote to illustrate the way one person can change a small circle of people, and then a community, and how the ripples from that community can spread and create change throughout a state and a country and the world. The story was funny and poignant and absurd and inspiring, and it concluded with Obama rhetorically asking this large late-night rally, "Are you fired up?" They were. "Are you ready to go?" He won Virginia.

Hero's Journey
Obama's own story, as told in Dreams From My Father and as lived in the years since, is a variation on the archetype of the hero's journey: the tale of someone who grows up both protected and disadvantaged (in this case with a warm and loving mother and maternal grandparents and a brilliant but cold father who abandoned him), leaves home and goes through a series of trials, travels to far and unfamiliar lands (in his case his father's Africa), is disillusioned and/or enlightened by the discovery of revelatory truths, finds his own core strength and returns to his community with hard-earned wisdom to make a vital contribution. Obama's community turned out to be Chicago, but his heterogeneous range of homes and cultures was too great to be contained in a single city. He comes to Washington as a truly different kind of American president, but with a biography that faithfully reflects the hybridity of our country and the world in the new century.

Like Jack Kennedy's, Obama's fresh energy has already injected a good deal of juice into the body politic. But Kennedy took over from President Eisenhower, himself practically liberal by today's standards, at a time of unprecedented prosperity. The contrast between Obama and the failed government he replaces--alongside the more moderate transfer of power in 1961--could hardly be more stark, and the challenges he faces are far more daunting than Kennedy's. Contrary to the dreams of his most ardent admirers, the man is no messiah. And yet, the affirmative engagement he has inspired among millions previously indifferent to or disenchanted with politics, his call to activism and service, is an invigorating departure from everything we've suffered and witnessed over the last 40 years.

Optimism may be too cheerful a word for the worried yet somehow buoyant atmosphere surrounding the Obama inauguration. I never understood the Camelot myth of the early 1960s, and have no illusions about Obamalot as a cure for everything that's wrong with our grievously damaged Republic. When I start to emulate the president by sporting a flag pin in my lapel, you'll know it's time to cart me off to the home for deranged poets. But the dread-haunted promise of this strangely hopeful historic moment is a feeling I'm going to savor while it lasts.

Stephen Kessler's most recent book is 'Moving Targets: On Poets, Poetry & Translation.' He is the editor of 'The Redwood Coast Review.'


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