By Joe Campbell
November 4th, 2008
When Barack Obama first announced he was going to run for president I was very skeptical – both about whether he was seasoned enough or whether this was his moment. It took me six months of reading, researching, and reflecting to finally come to decide that Obama was my choice.
I doubt anyone reading this blog over the past year would consider me to be a skeptic of Obama. But I did start out as one – and despite my strong support for Obama, I still remain one. Electing anyone as president is a risk – and those of us who are skeptical, who are less than completely taken with a candidate, who can sees the flaws along with the great opportunity – can be tempted to throw up our hands in despair and suggest – as many do – that each election is merely a choice between the lesser of two evils. But by giving up our place in politics, we cede power to those whose secular or religious convictions are certain – allowing them to drag us from one extreme to another.
There are serious issues we need to deal with as a nation in the next four years, issues which have been festering for far too long untended – global warming, terrorism, islamist extremism, the challenges of globalization, the fiscal instability, our deteriorating infrastructure, growing executive power. We need a president who can focus the country on these tasks and finally set us on the right path again.
Here are the reasons why I believe Barack Obama is the leader we need to set us on that path:
- Ideological Agnosticism.
Despite the recent claims of Obama’s secret Marxist tendencies, his secret socialist tendencies, his secret terrorist sympathies, and the other extreme ideologies he is imputed to secretly profess, he is in fact a pragmatist – describing himself at one point as ideologically agnostic:
I’m a Democrat. I’m considered a progressive Democrat. But if a Republican or a Conservative or a libertarian or a free-marketer has a better idea, I am happy to steal ideas from anybody and in that sense I’m agnostic.
You can see this in Obama’s clear appreciation for Ronald Reagan and his belief in the power of markets (as you can see in his health care proposal [PDF] and his cap-and-trade proposal to combat global warming [PDF].) You can also see it in how he was able to find common cause and team up with one of the most conservative members of the Senate, Tom Coburn, on a bill to promote transparency in earmark spending.
It’s a buzz word that most people have a sense of but not a clear understanding of. For Obama, post-partisanship is a campaign and governing strategy that focuses on long-term challenges, especially those with technocratic answers – such as global warming, health care, the financial crisis, and infrastructure development – while striving to minimize and find common ground on divisive social issues – such as abortion, gun rights, and gay marriage. Notice that in Obama’s convention speech he does not use the standard rhetoric about abortion or guns – but instead strives to move past these issues:
The challenges we face require tough choices. And Democrats, as well as Republicans, will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past, for part of what has been lost these past eight years can’t just be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits. What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose, and that’s what we have to restore.
We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.
The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.
At the same time, Obama’s post-partisanship can be seen in his many attempts to encourage dialogue with and respect for ideological conservatives – and his reluctance to criticize the Republican party as a whole.
- Process Revolution.
Lawrence Lessig, a Constitutional law professor, suggests that throughout American history there have been a number of unusual “revolutions whose purpose was not to tear down the existing social and governmental structures, but to amend them in discrete ways.” He cites the Second Constitional Convention and the post-Watergate reforms as clear examples – and he suggests as a result of Bush’s legacy, we may be on the verge of another “process revolution.” Many of Obama’s proposals focus on reforming processes rather than achieving certain ends. For example, he proposes to increase transparency for all aspects of government and to allow citizens a more active role in responding to and shaping government policy. Neither of these changes in process necessarily further liberal goals – but they both help reform government in general.
- His Campaign.
As Peter Beinart wrote earlier this year:
It is this remarkable hybrid campaign, far more than Obama’s thin legislative resume, that should reassure voters that he can run the government.
The almost flawless manner in which Obama has run his campaign has helped assuage any doubts I had about Obama’s executive leadership capability. Add to that the fact that his opponent also has no relevant executive experience, and for me, the choice became more clear. Obama proved that he could win, that he was willing to fight hard, and if necessary dirty, but that he preferred the high road – and managed to – in Peggy Noonan’s phrase – take “down a political machine without raising his voice.”
The term sounds hokey – but it refers to the Democratic consensus about the economic steps that need to be taken to get America on the right track economically – especially to reduce the middle class squeeze and to deal with the root causes of the financial crisis. The steps Obama proposes are not radical – they are moderate. You might almost call them “tinkering.”
- The Right Temperament.
Conservative columnist and curmudgeon George F. Will clearly sees that one of the candidates has the wrong temperament – as he described McCain’s reaction to the current financial crisis:
Under the pressure of the financial crisis, one presidential candidate is behaving like a flustered rookie playing in a league too high. It is not Barack Obama…[The more one sees of McCain’s] impulsive, intensely personal reactions to people and events the less confidence one has [in him] …It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?
Another conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer admitted, while endorsing McCain, that Obama has “both a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament.” It is noteworthy that even these conservative stalwarts cannot avoid noticing that Obama’s steady, patient, consistent, even temperament.
- A Commander-in-Chief.
The War on Terrorism, against international islamist extremism, is one of the core issues this election is about. It is impossible to project who will be able to handle the pressure of the commander-in-chief role well – except perhaps for those with relevant experience, such as high-level generals. But even that is no guarantee (see Grant, Ulysses.) Temperament is very important when choosing a commander-in-chief – but so is judgment. Obama has consistently shown good judgment regarding the War on Terrorism – most especially by opposing the War on Terrorism as a “dumb war” and by focusing on Pakistan and Afghanistan. And unlike either John McCain or George Bush, Obama has made it clear that he will not be outsourcing his responsibilities to a Secretary of Defense or to generals. As he told General Petreaus in Iraq: “My job as a potential Commander in Chief is to view your counsel and interests through the prism of our overall national security.” As a reader on Andrew Sullivan’s blog wrote:
We can’t let it be assumed that McCain is stronger on national defense (including counter terrorism) just because he talks with more bluster than Obama. Seven years ago the world was shocked but united by 9/11. It was an environment in which the US could have led the world not just in acting militarily against terrorists, but actually eliminated terrorism by making it too politically costly. But then Bush muddied up the waters. We need a president who understands that mistake.
A victory by John McCain will make Al Qaeda’s job easier. A victory by Obama will make it harder.
After September 11, 2001, the Bush administration began a systematic attempt – perhaps initially begun in good faith – to consolidate power in the executive branch, to ignore the rule of law and the Constitution, to torture American-held prisoners, and even to commit war crimes – while in the meantime undermining the entire international system created mainly by America and playing into Al Qaeda’s plans to draw us into conflicts in the Middle East. John McCain was one of the heroes who stood up to the Bush administration and against some of it’s worst excesses. He eloquently stated:
The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away.
And he’s exactly right. We must fight the War on Terror in a way consistent with our values – as Israel learned during the intifada and England learned during The Troubles, it is easy to let fear become the rationale behind policy (which is precisely what the “One Percent Doctrine” entails) – but in the end, you end up losing both your values and making the situation worse. McCain, despite some fine rhetoric, is not the candidate to restore American values – as he balked at preventing the CIA from torturing and called the Supreme Court decision supporting the ancient and basic right of habeas corpus the worst decision in the Court’s history. Obama does not have a perfect record on these issues – but he has made it a major theme of his campaign to restore our American values and the rule of law. Andrew Sullivan explained how he had watched America turn away from it’s values and that:
until this unlikely fellow with the funny ears and strange name and exotic biography emerged on the scene, I had begun to wonder if it was possible at all. I had almost given up hope, and he helped restore it.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an author, former Wall Street trader, economist, and philosopher who predicted the current financial crisis believes the best approach to action is something he calls “tinkering”:
Taleb believes in tinkering – it was to be the title of his next book. Trial and error will save us from ourselves because they capture benign black swans. Look at the three big inventions of our time: lasers, computers and the internet. They were all produced by tinkering and none of them ended up doing what their inventors intended them to do. All were black swans. The big hope for the world is that, as we tinker, we have a capacity for choosing the best outcomes.
“We have the ability to identify our mistakes eventually better than average; that’s what saves us.” We choose the iPod over the Walkman. Medicine improved exponentially when the tinkering barber surgeons took over from the high theorists. They just went with what worked, irrespective of why it worked. Our sense of the good tinker is not infallible, but it might be just enough to turn away from the apocalypse that now threatens Extremistan.
Tinkering is the best we can do in a world we only imperfectly understand. Anyone looking at Obama’s policy proposals can see that he is a tinkerer rather than a revolutionary. For example, he seeks to build upon our current health care system rather than demolish it as McCain does in one manner and socialists do in another.
As I wrote before: Obama is a liberal pragmatist, with a conservative temperament, who seeks to understand the world as it is, to identify our long-term challenges, and to push (to nudge it) in a positive direction by tinkering with processes and institutions and creating tools to get people more involved in the government.
These are my reasons, as an initial skeptic, that I support Obama.
These are not reasons to be complacent if he does, in fact, win. But they are reasons to be satisfied – if only for one night – that our country is moving in the right direction again.
Tags: Andrew Sullivan, Charles Krauthammer, Commander-in-Chief, George Will, Ideological agnosticism, Joe Klein, Obamanomics, Peggy Noonan, Post-partisanship, Process Revolution, Restoration, Temperament, Tinkering