Obama, collective redemption, and the slow churn for change

Good profile of Obama in the New Yorker magazine, published in May 2007 (thanks to Memex 1.1 for the link), titled ‘The Conciliator – Where is Barack Obama Coming From?’

“Some people who knew of my activism in the community asked me would I be interested in running for that office,” Obama said in Ames. “And so I did what every wise man does when confronted with such a decision: I prayed on it, and I asked my wife.” (Laughter.) It remains to be seen how well Obama adapts himself to campaigning. It doesn’t come altogether naturally to him. Late last year, when he was thinking about whether to run, friends asked him if he was ready for a fight, if the thought got his adrenaline going, and he would say, “Yes—but I don’t know if I want the hassle.” That’s not something you imagine somebody embarking on a Presidential campaign saying—not wanting the hassle. “But that’s why he’s so likable,” a friend says. “That’s the quality people are seeing in him, they’re seeing how campaigning could be a grind.” “Bill Clinton was far more into the tactics of politics,” David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign adviser, says. “He was a voracious consumer of polls. Of course, he was so indefatigable that he could do that and still read four books a week and be President of the United States. You wouldn’t hire Barack to run your campaign. You might hire Bill Clinton to run your campaign.”

This is not the only difference between Obama and Clinton. To compare them is to see that a political natural, as both of them are called, can mean very different things. “Bill Clinton has preternatural ability as a listener,” Robert Putnam says. “Everybody always walks away from him thinking, For the first time in my life someone has actually listened to me—that man Bill Clinton is the first person in the world to really understand me. It’s almost magical—even Newt Gingrich said something like, Every time I meet him I feel like I have to go rinse my mind out for an hour. Barack is not that good.” Putnam’s is a common reaction; it seems to be a response to Clinton’s passionate political drive, his hunger, the need he is said to have to make everybody love him. Some of this quality, in a more restrained, sublimated form, is present, too, in Hillary Clinton—in her intense desire to win people over, in her exhaustive preparation, in her willingness to give everything she is capable of for every single vote.

This is not Obama’s style at all. He doesn’t seem hungry. He seems to like people but not to need them. When most politicians speak to a crowd, they give the impression that that is what they live for; Obama at town-hall meetings appears engaged but not fervently so, as if there were several other things that he would be equally happy doing that day. He still has the speechmaking power that he displayed at the 2004 Convention, but for the most part he keeps it in reserve. Even at large rallies these days he doesn’t try to overwhelm—his eyes don’t flame, his hands remain unclenched and below his shoulders, he doesn’t go for a sudden conversion experience. (Sometimes his wife, Michelle, appears onstage with him, and this further dilutes the evangelical tone: the way Obama depicts Michelle in his books and speeches makes her sound like a sitcom wife, rolling her eyes at his excesses, affectionately taking him down a peg if he becomes pompous, humorously scolding him for not picking up his socks, and so her down-to-earth, TV presence undercuts his movie uplift.)

Obama is, obviously, running for President: it’s not that he isn’t hungry for converts but that his way of courting them is subtle. When his speechwriter, Jon Favreau, who in 2004 wrote speeches for John Kerry, was interviewed for the job, Obama asked him what his theory of speechwriting was. “I didn’t have a grand theory in my pocket,” Favreau says, “but I told him, When I saw you at the Convention what really struck me was that you told a story from the beginning to the end of that speech—a story about your life, about how it fit in with the larger American story—and it built to a point where people wanted to applaud, rather than using forced applause lines. Democrats just haven’t done that. And Barack said, That’s exactly what I try to do.” That is Obama’s theory of speeches, and it seems, also, to be his theory of campaigning: don’t try to score huge points at every moment, don’t kill yourself for every vote—a campaign is a long, slow story, and you don’t want to exhaust your audience or yourself. “One weekend I was with him they were making a big deal about his school in Indonesia being a madrassa,” Valerie Jarrett says. “I said, ‘How could they have even run with this story? It’s so completely inaccurate!’ He said, ‘You know, we’ve contacted the school and the principal’s gonna explain what kind of a school it is and we’re gonna refute it all. You need to just calm down. This is gonna be fun! Valerie, you’re not a guy but let me explain it to you in sport terms. It’s like we’re in a basketball game, and I’m gonna fumble the ball, and someone’s gonna steal the ball, and I’m gonna miss a free throw, but we’re gonna win the game. You can’t get yourself worked up over every little thing that somebody says about me or you’re gonna go crazy.’ ”

When Christopher Edley first met Obama, in law school, he decided that he would go far, because of his centeredness. Then when, later, he read Obama’s first book and saw how Obama had suspected and vivisected himself for so many years, he decided that he would go far because of that. “The capacity for self-reflection is in my experience invaluable for a candidate or a President,” he says. (Edley worked in the Carter and Clinton Administrations and for Dukakis’s campaign.) “It’s difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t been involved how tough a Presidential campaign is. When you spend day after day flying around the country in an aluminum tube at forty thousand feet, it’s the easiest thing in the world to lose yourself. And when every misstep becomes a thirty-six-hour media disaster there’s every reason to second-guess your instincts, so being sensitive to your strengths and weaknesses and having the courage to come to terms with them is helpful when you’re facing a crisis. I’ve seen candidates who, like a deer frozen in headlights, can’t find their way forward and have to be led around by staff. I’ve also seen candidates who, faced with adversity, turn into the stubbornest of mules and can’t adapt or adjust. Most candidates walk into the room asking everybody ‘How’m I doing? How’m I doing?,’ with no ability to look at themselves in the mirror. So the ability that Barack shows in the book to be brutally self-reflective—this is deep stuff.”

“When he’s exhausted on day forty of the campaign fund-raising drive, in the grind of it, can he keep it up?” a friend says. “I think sometimes he feels phony to himself. He’s going to struggle with being the candidate, being a regular guy who has become a persona named Barack Obama. The persona is going to get larger and larger, and more and more distant from him and the way he used to live his life. We have a real live human being running for President here. He doesn’t have much experience in this kind of campaigning, and this is both his strength and his vulnerability.”

Some people go into politics with an idea; Obama went in with an example. The only politician he discusses at any length in his first book is the black man who was mayor of Chicago when Obama first moved there, in 1985, Harold Washington. Obama doesn’t mention what platform Washington ran on, or what he accomplished in office (though he implies that it wasn’t much); he talks about the effect his election had on the black community. When he first arrived in the city, Obama noticed that, all over the South Side, people had hung Washington’s picture on their walls. “The night Harold won, let me tell you, people just ran the streets,” a barber Obama calls Smitty says. “It was like the day Joe Louis knocked out Schmeling. Same feeling. People weren’t just proud of Harold. They were proud of themselves.” Washington’s victory, Obama saw, had produced in people an almost religious feeling of deliverance. “Like my idea of organizing,” he concluded, Washington “held out an offer of collective redemption.” It is unlikely that Obama would speak of his own candidacy in these terms—that would be embarrassing. But his talk of unity, his avoidance of blame, and his promise to end the war all seem intended to gesture to a similar prospect of redemption: not only for black people but for white people (for voting for a black man), for Republicans (for embracing unity with a Democrat), and for Americans (for saying to the world that the war was a mistake).

But redemption is brittle. After Harold Washington died suddenly, in his second term, his achievement, such as it was, fell to pieces almost at once. “There was no political organization in place, no clearly defined principles to follow,” Obama writes. “The entire of black politics had centered around one man who radiated like a sun.” To a man less conservative, this failure might have been crushing—a demonstration of the impossibility of change—but to Obama it seemed only one more proof that charisma is misleading, that revolutions are illusory, that real change is slow. Now that he is running for office himself, it is likely he knows he can be as much harmed as lifted up by celestial expectations, so he tries, in small ways, to discourage them. Obama stands on the ground. If he thought his winning would take a revolution, he wouldn’t have run.

The point about his offering ‘collective redemption’ is Obama’s critical distinguishing feature. It contrasts him with Clinton – the divisive, steely, steady-as-she-goes female fighter with lots to prove and, dare I say, lots to disprove. And, it contrasts him with McCain – the Vietnam veteran who will project an aura of stability but will steady an agenda of agression-defense in increasingly volatile times. Readers of Sumptuous World will have come to know that the times are becoming too precarious to not roll the dice in Obama’s direction. For insight into why Obama is a better choice than Clinton in particular, read what the liberal conservative Times columnist Andrew Sullivan has to say.


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