The Conciliator

I've wanted to post some thoughts arising from Larissa MacFarquhar's article on Obama ever since it came out in the May 7 New Yorker. It offers some passages that I think are very important to share.


This to me is the key passage: "In the most widely quoted part of his Convention speech, Obama said, “The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States.” Seasoned observers of Washington tend to dismiss such talk of national unity and bipartisan coöperation as meaningless political boilerplate. Even Obama’s allies worry that it sounds a little flaccid. “So much of what he’s said he’ll do when he’s President is about being conciliatory and bipartisan and really listening,” a friend says. “All this process-oriented stuff that’s not exactly Churchillian rhetoric.” But, coming from Obama, the talk about unity isn’t boilerplate—he actually means it, and it’s substantive, which is to say that it has consequences that make people angry...


Obama is always disappointing people who feel that he gives too much respect or yields too much ground to the other side, rather than fighting aggressively for his principles. “In law school, we had a seminar together and Charles Fried, who is very conservative, was one of our speakers,” Cassandra Butts says. “The issue of the Second Amendment came up and Fried is pretty much a Second Amendment absolutist. One of our classmates was in favor of gun control—he’d come from an urban environment where guns were a big issue. And, while Barack agreed with our classmate, he was much more willing to hear Fried out—he was very moved by the fact that Fried grew up in the Soviet bloc, where they didn’t have those freedoms. After the class, our classmate was still challenging Fried and Barack was just not as passionate and I didn’t understand that.” Recently, Obama said that if Bush decided to veto a military spending bill on the ground that it included a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, he, Obama, would support removing the timetable in order to pass the bill. Liberal bloggers were irate at this capitulation, but the writer Samantha Power, who has worked for Obama on foreign policy, says, “Standing on one side of the room with his arms folded is just not his M.O."


This is, again, partly a matter of temperament. “By nature, I’m not somebody who gets real worked up about things,” Obama writes in his second book. “When I see Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity baying across the television screen, I find it hard to take them seriously.” He tends to think of his opponents as deluded and ridiculous, rather than as demons. “I’ve never been a conspiracy theorist,” he says. “I’ve never believed there are a bunch of people out there who are pulling all the strings and pressing all the buttons. And the reason is that the older I get, the more time I spend meeting people in government or in the corporate arena, the more human everybody becomes. What I do believe is that those with money, those with influence, those with control over how resources are allocated in our society, are very protective of their interests, and they can rationalize infinitely the reasons why they should have more money and power than anyone else, why that’s somehow good for the society as a whole.”


Obama’s drive to compromise goes beyond the call of political expediency—it’s instinctive, almost a tic. “Barack has an incredible ability to synthesize seemingly contradictory realities and make them coherent,” Cassandra Butts says. “It comes from going from a home where white people are nurturing you, and then you go out into the world and you’re seen as a black person. He had to figure out whether he was going to accept this contradiction and be just one of those things, or find a way to realize that these pieces make up the whole.” In the state senate, this skill served him well—he was unusually dexterous with opponents, and passed bills that at first were judged too liberal to have a chance, such as one that mandated the videotaping of police interviews with suspects arrested for capital crimes. “In our seminar, whether we were arguing about labor or religion or politics, he would sit back like a resource person and then he would say, I hear Jane saying such and such, and Tom seems to disagree on that, but then Tom and Jane both agree on this,” Robert Putnam says. (For a couple of years, Obama participated in a seminar about rebuilding community, inspired by Putnam’s article “Bowling Alone.”) “I don’t mean he makes all conflicts go away—that would be crazy. But his natural instinct is not dividing the baby in half—it’s looking for areas of convergence. This is part of who he is really deep down, and it’s an amazing skill. It’s not always the right skill: the truth doesn’t always lie somewhere in the middle. But I think at this moment America is in a situation where we agree much more than we think we do. I know this from polling data—we feel divided in racial terms, religious terms, class terms, all kinds of terms, but we exaggerate how much we disagree with each other. And that’s why I think he’s right for this time.” Even when he was very young, Obama was scornful of, as he puts it, “people who preferred the dream to the reality, impotence to compromise.”


Sometimes, of course, there is no possibility of convergence—a question must be answered yes or no. In such a case, Obama may stand up for what he believes in, or he may not. “If there’s a deep moral conviction that gay marriage is wrong, if a majority of Americans believe on principle that marriage is an institution for men and women, I’m not at all sure he shares that view, but he’s not an in-your-face type,” Cass Sunstein, a colleague of Obama’s at the University of Chicago, says. “To go in the face of people with religious convictions—that’s something he’d be very reluctant to do.” This is not, Sunstein believes, due only to pragmatism; it also stems from a sense that there is something worthy of respect in a strong and widespread moral feeling, even if it’s wrong. “Rawls talks about civic toleration as a modus vivendi, a way that we can live together, and some liberals think that way,” Sunstein says. “But I think with Obama it’s more like Learned Hand when he said, ‘The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.’ Obama takes that really seriously. I think the reason that conservatives are O.K. with him is both that he might agree with them on some issues and that even if he comes down on a different side, he knows he might be wrong. I can’t think of an American politician who has thought in that way, ever.”


Obama is, in fact, committed to respecting the opinions or cultures of others even when religious beliefs aren’t involved. “There are universal values that I will fight for,” he says. “I think there may have been a time and a place in which genital mutilation was culturally appropriate, but those times are over. I’m not somebody who believes that our foreign policy has to be driven by moral relativism. What I do believe is that we have to apply judgment and a sense of proportion to how change happens in any society—to promote our ideals and our values with some sense of humility.”

"Obama has staked his candidacy on union—on bringing together two halves of America that are profoundly divided, and by associating himself with Lincoln—and he knows what both of those things mean. He calls America’s founding a “grand compromise”: compromise, for him, is not an eroding of principle for the sake of getting something done but a principle in itself—the certainty of uncertainty, the fundament of union. “I would save the Union,” Lincoln wrote, in a letter to Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” “I like to believe that for Lincoln it was never a matter of abandoning conviction for the sake of expediency,” Obama writes. “Rather . . . that we must talk and reach for common understandings, precisely because all of us are imperfect and can never act with the certainty that God is on our side.”"


These quotes also are important: "There are three things that Democratic political candidates tend to do when talking with constituents: they display an impressive grasp of the minutiae of their constituents’ problems, particularly money problems; they rouse indignation by explaining how those problems are caused by powerful groups getting rich on the backs of ordinary people; and they present well-worked-out policy proposals that, if passed, would solve the problems and put the powerful groups in their place. Obama seldom does any of these things. He tends to underplay his knowledge, acting less informed than he is. He rarely accuses, preferring to talk about problems in the passive voice, as things that are amiss with us rather than as wrongs that have been perpetrated by them. And the solutions he offers generally sound small and local rather than deep-reaching and systemic."


"Despite the criticism he has received for being all inspiration and no policy, Obama has so far stuck to what appears to be an instinct that white papers belong on Web sites, not in speeches. It is surprising, given the recent electoral record of Democratic policy wonks, that he is not given more credit for the astuteness of this approach, but it’s true that it’s not just strategy—it’s who he is. “He doesn’t have the handicap that a lot of smart people have, which is that they come across as ‘You’re not smart enough to talk to me,’ ” George Haywood, a private investor and a friend of Obama’s, says. “Adlai Stevenson, another Illinois guy, had that—he came across as an egghead and it was off-putting to people. Barack is the opposite.” Probably one of the reasons for this is that Obama seems not to attach much value to cleverness as such. Even in law school, perhaps the place more than any other where sheer cleverness is prized and love of argument for its own sake is fundamental to the culture, he was not much interested in academic jousting."


"Obama’s calm is also a matter of temperament. The first thing almost everybody who knows Obama says about him is how extremely comfortable he is with himself. “He was almost freakishly self-possessed and centered,” Christopher Edley, Jr., one of Obama’s professors at Harvard Law School, who is now a dean at Berkeley, says. There is something freakish about Obama’s self-possession—it’s conspicuous, it draws attention to itself, like the unnatural stillness of someone able to lower his blood pressure at will. He doesn’t strive for an Everyman quality: he is relaxed but never chummy, gracious rather than familiar. His surface is so smooth, his movements so easy and fluid, his voice so consistent and well-pitched that he can seem like an actor playing a politician, too implausibly effortless to be doing it for real."


"When Obama, as a young man, went to Kenya for the first time and learned how his father’s life had turned out—how he had destroyed his career by imagining that old tribalisms were just pettiness, with the arrogant idea that he could rise above the past and change his society by sheer force of belief—Obama’s aunt told him that his father had never understood that, as she put it, “if everyone is family, no one is family.” Obama found this striking enough so that he repeated it later on, in italics: If everyone is family, no one is family. Universalism is a delusion. Freedom is really just abandonment. You might start by throwing off religion, then your parents, your town, your people and your way of life, and when, later on, you end up leaving your wife or husband and your child, too, it seems only a natural progression."


"In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good."


"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.”"


We in the dispute resolution field have long called for the election of politicians who understand conflict, and who have the skills necessary to manage it and move toward solutions and understanding. It seems to me, based on much of the content in this article, that Obama exhibits many of those traits.


Who knows where the campaign will go -- in the last few days we've seen our first taste of media manufactured conflict between the leading Democratic candidates. Can Obama keep his cool reserve, and his "above it all" demeanor, when confronted with "the freak show" in full swing? We'll see. But it seems to me he has the best chance of all the candidates.

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