October 1, 2008

President as Teacher

This year’s Presidential election has me more passionate about politics than I’ve ever been. In part, this is because Obama’s campaign is more like a social movement than a political campaign: as Henry Jenkins explains in Obama and the “We” Generation, part of the reason that Obama’s message resonates so much with me and others in my generation is because of how participatory it is. His campaign isn’t about making him president and then having him magically repair our nation; it’s about working together, with his help, to make our country a better place. (That I’m drawn to Mozilla for similar reasons isn’t coincidental.)

To both learn more about this candidate and the problems facing our nation, I recently picked up a book called Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency by Robert Kuttner. I’m currently only two chapters into it, but it’s already been a thoroughly thought-provoking read, and one that heavily informs the rest of this post.

As educated citizens, we’re expected to know what the answers to many of our woes are. The world would be a much better place if only we’d have more government programs to help people in need—or alternatively, if only we’d remove more of those programs to ensure that people aren’t rewarded for laziness.

Are the answers to our problems really that cut-and-dry? Is deciding on a candidate really just a matter of looking at their voting history and their proposed platform and seeing how well it aligns with one’s own stances?

Certainly, that’s part of it, when it comes to issues that you’re truly informed on. The problem is, having a truly informed opinion across all the issues that face our nation is actually pretty hard. When I press myself for them, I’ve found that many of my stances come from simple arguments that are sometimes built on dubious premises. After following debates on important issues that face our world, I’ve found that most of them quickly become so mind-bogglingly intricate that they’re difficult to follow without a significant time investment. And investing that time becomes especially hard when one isn’t directly affected by the outcome of a problem, and even harder when one feels powerless to change it. Some issues, like the current financial crisis, are so complex that they still don’t make complete sense to people whose jobs it is to understand them.

This feeling of being simultaneously overwhelmed and powerless to change the situation isn’t comfortable, and as a result people often turn to other criteria to figure out who to vote for: criteria such as personality and character. It’s become conventional wisdom of late that using this as a basis for making a voting decision is fickle; liberals, for instance, laugh at conservatives who flock to Sarah Palin because she’s easy to relate to, or because she’s the kind of candidate that they could have a beer with or invite over for dinner.

I contend, though, that the instinct of such conservatives is appropriate. Abraham Lincoln once said the following:

With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.

It makes sense, then, that one should be attracted to the candidate that they’d love to have over for dinner; for if the public can’t relate to a candidate, and if the candidate isn’t effective at capturing both the hearts and minds of the people, how can he or she convince them of things that may be unpopular but are nonetheless the right thing to do? If you don’t trust a candidate at a gut level, how likely are you to believe in the promises they make?

Progressives often decry the concept of “truthiness” supposedly favored by conservatives—that is, the concept that you agree with an idea simply because it feels right—but ultimately it’s something that everyone, progressives included, fall prey to. And it makes perfect sense given how overwhelming the challenge of being a truly rational and informed human being is.

I believe that a great leader is someone who understands this concept enough to see it in themselves, and recognize that neither they nor anyone else has all the answers. They’re inquisitive enough to take advice from many conflicting perspectives, wise enough come to their own conclusion, and have the character to convince others that what they propose is the right thing to do.

In Obama’s Challenge, Robert Kuttner writes of Lincoln, drawing from the work of Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin:

First, Lincoln's great challenge as president was not just to preserve the Union, or even to free the slaves. It was to win over public sentiment among what today would be called opinion leaders and the people generally. Lincoln gradually transformed how different segments of society thought about the problem of slavery, the challenge of rebuilding the Union, and the role of government in reconstruction and economic development. Out of impossible disunity, he built something close to national consensus.

The idea of “transforming how different segments of society thought about the problem of slavery” is something that Kuttner contends is quite like teaching. The best teachers are the ones who have the capability of showing their students not merely how to perform tasks or remember facts, but how to perceive a problem in an entirely different way than they did before.

For me personally, Obama’s capacity to do this is most convincingly evidenced by his A More Perfect Union speech, in which he responded to criticisms about his affiliation with a prejudiced pastor by making a profoundly compelling statement about racism in America that any side of the racial divide can relate to.

As Kuttner writes about Lincoln, such consensus-building takes character:

What made people his allies and admirers was not just his keen intellect and good humor. More importantly, it was his kindness, decency, idealism, and honor. He went out of his way to let people know that they were valued when he might have chosen to humiliate them.

That is to say, a great leader takes the high road. And while the Obama campaign’s advertisements and a few of Obama’s own actions have raised some questions about this, I believe that his character and the way he’s conducted his campaign is generally consistent with the qualities I’ve described so far. Even though I don’t necessarily agree with everything on his platform, I also don’t deny that my mind can’t be changed. Because just as I treasure my teachers for giving me new ways to perceive the world, so too do I long for a transformative national leader who can do the same for the American people.

Believing that Barack Obama has the ability to do this may sound a little far-reaching even to some of his supporters. Perhaps this is something I’ll look back on years from now and wonder how I could’ve been so naive, and the reality of politics certainly encourages such thinking. But at the same time, I wonder: if Franklin Roosevelt or Lincoln were running for president today, would we be able to tell? Or would we be so detached from the candidate’s character, so desensitized by cynicism, that we wouldn’t ever notice?

© Atul Varma 2020