Here is Barack Obama’s gift. He is comfortable in this new world of complexity (to which I referred in my last post) as many of us fellow Americans are not. I have coined the word complexifier to describe this essential part of him in order to characterize his core vision: bringing together the disparate—people and things some of which are already difficult, multi-faceted and therefore not easily and accurately defined—in order to create the intricate organism that, by the very nature of the way the world works today, is the necessary vehicle of an American legacy for future generations.
Complex thought is a disadvantage in the political sphere. For this reason, among others, President Obama has been losing our confidence. His fellow Democrats, Washington pundits and voters alike have placed the blame here solely upon the president himself, whereas most of the burden is ours. Why? Because all of us—with just the few exceptions to prove the rule—are refusing to lift our chins to that bar of higher complexity.
We are having a much harder time adapting to the world’s new requirements than poorer nations are. I will speak to this irony in time, but first I want to consider our civilization and its roots from a large perspective. Then I will be taking the lion’s share of this essay to talk about the new global demand for mastery of complexity versus the pervasive American desire for simplicity. Our future prosperity hinges upon our making the shift to twenty-first century thinking. A successful Obama presidency must, at minimum, lay the groundwork for this change.
Where have we come from? Where are we going?
Always western civilization has mastered a shift in thinking with great difficulty and upheaval, because mental reset is damn hard. Here are a few of the changes to which we have, nevertheless, adapted. Note that each has been more demanding than the previous one.
The Pre-Christian Mediterranean: Don’t kill outsiders right off the bat. Deal with these vaguely displeasing and threatening creatures. Because we can trade with them!
Protestant Christian Europe: Asking a priest for absolution and giving money to the church do not take the place of personal responsibility for your actions. To lead a moral, Christian life, you cannot rely on somebody else to tell you right from wrong. You must know the Bible, and to do that you must learn to read.
Age of Exploration: The world is so much bigger than we thought. Those other civilizations we have encountered—sophisticated, worthy of our interest and investment, although, of course, inferior to our Judaeo-Christian one.
Age of Science: The way the world is made, the way we humans have developed as a species, is so much more complicated than we thought. Unsettling. But we can deal, because we are harvesting so many good things from this new river of knowledge.
Age of Globalism: Hyper-connected! This close contact with other peoples is enlightening, entertaining, exciting, teeming with possibilities for wealth. . . . Exhausting. We are not used to so many disparate things quick in mind and at hand at once. . . . This river of knowledge has become a torrent. Maybe we should step back from it. Rivers can be dangerous. And this one is threatening our sense of self. . . . These other cultures are not as inferior as we once assumed. What does that mean for ours? What if Judaeo-Christian western civilization is not the center of the world’s moral geography? Too disturbing a thought. One we cannot deal with, especially now, with this increased competitiveness forcing us to work harder, learn faster, learn more.
Although this summary of western life does not take into account, for example, the influences of Islamic thought and culture on what we call the Middle Ages, nevertheless, we recognize these few stages among the many I do not have time and space here to mention.
Recorded time is a series of enlightenments, as if homo sapiens were moving, ever so painfully, slowly and with many regressions, towards some full knowledge. Once again we humans have to up our game. The process is awkward and messy. Not everyone travels at the same pace. Parts of American culture, for example, have yet to understand the import of evidence-based research and therefore to embrace scientific thinking. Some of us are still struggling to deal with the Age of Science.
In this age of globalism, hyper-connectedness means that all urban-dwelling humans everywhere have to rise to this new challenge of grasping complexity. Americans (and other Westerners) would seem to have the advantage. Ironically, however, we have not adapted as well to the new geography as the hungry and the recently-hungry, who have a visceral appreciation of what happens if they do not. We are disoriented, furthermore, by the realization to which some (although not all) countries and cultures have already adjusted: a particular heritage—in other words, one’s own—may not necessarily point towards the best path in the here and now of this much more complicated world.
Recalling the rich harvests from the earlier shifts in thinking makes adaptation to the new no less onerous. With the plethora of information available, we might infer that it should be easy for Americans to see that an assertion like “we are the greatest nation on earth” is not an objective statement. But we should not so infer. For we cling to a Ptolemaic view in which the United States is the center of the world’s moral and political geography.
Here we are stuck, unable to move in the new alignment of spheres. We are trapped in a limbo of perception that prevents us from rising to meet the exigent challenges of education, money, science and trade. What is this limbo of perception? Its name is Entitlement.
We Americans, in all walks of life, of all political persuasions, have come to believe that we are entitled to certain things. What these things are vary from person to person, group to group. Together, however, our sense of entitlement is enormous. It is an illusion, of course. Human beings are entitled to nothing, except, perhaps, death. Everything else is either a gift or must be paid for, usually with hard work.
This illusion of entitlement has become the dark companion to our past prosperity. It is now a heavy burden, and we must lighten ourselves of it in order to move forward. If Barack Obama fulfills his promise of leadership, it will be here, in moving us into the twenty-first century Copernican universe.
In the new Copernican universe the United States is not the center. Nations and historical forces do not move in response to our own movement. We Americans are but one body—however large and central a body—among many, all of us trying to figure fully, usually by trial and error, this century’s dynamics . The constellation is so large and close-orbited that necessarily every body is affected in staccato rhythms by all the rest. None of us have yet found a modern music of the spheres. But we do have a starting point: there is no alpha nation here. Willingly, wisely, blindly, grudgingly, coerced—we all will work together because “in harness” “yoked” “necessarily connected”—however we name it—is globalism’s first law of dynamics.
Now let’s leave the macro level for the micro. The new Copernicanism is the only way the United States can work now internally, as well. But here, unlike internationally, we have made no progress. Why? Of course, there are many reasons. Decision-making in foreign affairs is concentrated in the hands of a few. One man, in this instance President Obama, can decide to “lead from behind” on the civil war in Libya. One woman, in this instance Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, can realize that conflict and resolution in the South China Sea are actions to which the United States is only one among several contributors, and she can shape policy according to the reality that the sea lanes there are no longer in our control alone.
Domestically, however, we are a democracy, and many of us must come together to shape policy and direction. But our sense of entitlement immures us in stasis. Tea Partiers feel that they are the final arbiters of the Republican pick for presidential nominee. Progressives feel that Barack Obama has betrayed them because he has not enacted their full agenda. Younger Americans, not much interested in foreign affairs, want their country similarly dis-involved. Older people feel entitled to Social Security and Medicare. Take almost any hot-button item—abortion, fully automatic weapons, government/employer-paid health care, low taxes, income equality—we are entitled to none of these things. But entitlement is the delusion to which individualism, increasingly dominant in our culture, has brought us.
Make no mistake. We soon will no longer matter much to the world at large unless we figure out how to work together towards a few common goals. More importantly, we will become increasingly marginalized even within our own country because change is inexorable and will carry us along, with or without any direction or shaping vision from us. Within another generation, for example, Hispanic voters will be determining the dialogue in the United States, with or without the example of “the now,” which is our mainstream Anglo culture.
Most important of all, we will have betrayed our heritage if we cannot work this out. We will lose—worse than lose—squander, defile—that more perfect union dearly purchased at Gettysburg. And make no mistake about the Obama Presidency. Obama himself set the terms for his success: bridging the red state blue state divide, which, as Obama’s early speeches make clear, he has always seen predominantly in cultural rather than political terms. Either he finds his way here, or he will not be the seminal president a few writers (myself included) have always thought he would be.
Where can we as individuals begin? By realizing that each of us is not a little Ptolemy.
With the relinquishing of alpha dog assumptions comes humility. With humility comes the realization that answers today often come about through the process of give-and-take. With humility comes forbearance with fellow Americans who, for example, do not accept the evolution of species. After all, I (or we or you) could be blinkered on a thing or two, as well. This awareness and acceptance of individual limitation leads to a larger perspective.
Scanning the horizon for the larger perspective leads to, first, genuine and not gamed speculation about, and then, second, consideration for, the Other. After all, the larger perspective is the territory of different points of view, as well as my (our/your) own. The binding of consideration for others to personal humility (I do not know it all) is the essential step to passing through the limbo in which entitlement has trapped us.
But this is not the direction in which most Americans—and we think we are so true-thinking, whether in the heartland or on the coasts!—are headed. We have retreated into cocoons of dogma and that yearning for simplicity I mentioned earlier. But larger perspectives require an embrace of the difficult, an ability to handle uncertainty, a tolerance for the nuanced moment. Bridging the cultural/political chasm in our country requires this. Globalism requires this. Only the societies that can work with complexity, and the complexity-embracing individuals in the other societies that cannot, will prosper in this new age of globalism.
Leadership comes into play here. A leader can do for a group what they cannot as individuals always do for themselves. And the key here for Barack Obama, among all his essential traits, is his comfort with complexity. It is a Janus key, for it has laid him open to the nearer harsh political winds even as it has helped him locate the farther distance. If he can move us as a nation from our comfort zone of easy simplicities, which are ever more appealing in this the Great Recession, then he will have fulfilled his potential to be one of our greatest presidents.
This is a strange moment to be writing about Obama’s defining quality and greatest strength, because his political and presidential fortunes have sunk low.
Where are we now? Where is Obama?
What we see, both for ourselves and for the President, is a depressing landscape. Because perception and reality are not the same, I emphasize the verb see. Remember our enormous sense of entitlement, versus what is due us? Our situation, and Obama’s, could get so much worse. Nevertheless, it has been a hard summer and fall in 2011.
Here is a partial litany. House prices are expected to fall another 2.5% this year. Household net worth fell 0.3% in the spring. The base unemployment rate remains stuck around 9 %. The gap between rich and poor in this country has not been as great for a century.
President Obama has been out and about flogging another jobs bill, less than well-received by Democrats and Republicans alike. This is the man who only a year ago was touting 2010 “the recovery summer.” Not surprisingly, his approval rating has slipped below 50% and he is fast losing much of his base.
The timing for Obama’s renewed assault on joblessness could hardly have been worse. Competing with the speech to Congress that launched his proposal was the possibility of a new terrorist attack and the worsening fiscal crisis in the EU. Fresh in mind was the recent debt ceiling debate/debacle. Furthermore, Obama no longer wields speech power as he once did. We are all a little tired of The Obama Speech. The stock market has responded with a few worst weeks since 2008. The collapse of Solyndra, with taxpayers on the hook for another half a billion—has been the coup de gras.
This month saw the publication of Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men, a devastating portrait of administration infighting, confused decision-making and an economics-uncertain president. Suskind captures the ongoing cronyism, influence-peddling and lack of transparency in the dealings between Washington and Wall Street, even as Obama has been continuing to promise change. In Suskind’s view, Obama, with a Democratic House and Senate in 2009, had a golden opportunity to enact much-needed banking and finance reform and yet blew his opportunity to be a second FDR.
With the exception of Mark Ambinder, Obama has lost (by my tally) the respect of every influential political pundit. Democrats brace themselves for a one-term presidency. Conservative commentator David Brooks, in a New York Times column called “Obama Rejects Obamaism,” has rejected Obama in turn, lamenting, “the White House gives moderates little morsels of hope, and then rips them from our mouths. To be an Obama admirer is to toggle from being uplifted to feeling used.”
It would be hard to overstate the influence of Suskind’s book and once-sympatico Brooks’s loss of faith on the journalist herd mentality du jour. Obama has always complained about the press. But now he actually has something to complain about. Desertion is not a pleasant experience.
Overlooked, for the most part, in the bad news torrent is the collapse of Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia. Even as he wrestles with intractable domestic problems, nevertheless, Obama is most at risk, at this moment, of being remembered as America’s Anthony Eden, of failing to steer our ship of state into a new berth in that changing world order I have been describing. Caught between a rock and a hard place with Israel, damned if does and damned if he doesn’t politically here at home with pro-Israel voters, Obama is nevertheless stranding us on the wrong side of Palestinian history. As the Palestinian push for recognition at the U.N., despite our efforts to the contrary, dramatized, the United States has lost the role of Middle East powerbroker that we have held since the Suez Crisis. Turkey and Iran, among other nations, are jockeying to take our place.
This diminution of American influence has accelerated on Obama’s watch. Meanwhile we are losing Pakistan (despite a huge courtship on our part during Obama’s first two years in office), leaving Iraq (to Iran and its nemesis Saudi Arabia) and Afghanistan (to Pakistan, Iran, China and India) and lessening the force of pax americana in the South and East China Seas. Where was the Obama Administration when Vietnam and the Philippines concluded their anti-China pact last month? The possibility for war in South Asia has just ratcheted up a notch.
This is the Copernican universe of nations. President Obama, however, has yet to explain to the American people the first thing about it. In my observation, Obama—precisely because he understands through complexity and nuance—hesitates to share with his fellow citizens what he sees. This is a sad irony, potentially tragic. Sad because ordinary Americans have what it takes to grasp a bigger picture. Ironic because Obama, the great speech-maker, is a terrible communicator. Potentially tragic because Obama has what it takes to help us accept the reality that “it’s complicated.” And yet he continues to dumb down what he conveys to the American people.
Why is this a time of such yearning for simplicity?
Trying to set a good example here, I am not going to settle for the obvious suspects on which to pin my point. Yes, the Tea Party’s suspicion of government is simple-minded. So is Ron Paul’s. Ditto the inchoate anger of the Occupy Movement against banks and the rich.
Leafing through recent back issues of The New Yorker, I came upon “The Answer Man,” an essay by Stephen Greenblatt, a preeminent Shakespearean scholar whose work I have followed over the years. In “Answer Man,” Greenblatt begins with a charming anecdote about his discovery as a student of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, a foundational text (in Latin verse, no less) for anybody contemplating medieval and Renaissance western literature. Immediately, I was taken back to my days as a graduate student, so long ago, when I, too, read Lucretius.
For those of you whose eyes are glazing at the mere mention of a Roman poet, let me get to the point. I offer Greenblatt’s New Yorker essay as an example of the meretricious simplicity infecting our culture, at all levels, and not just that, say, of a conservative state school board. For Greenblatt goes on to describe the importance of Lucretius for Renaissance thought (true) in terms decidedly untrue.
Lucretius “enabled people [in the Renaissance] to turn away from a preoccupation with angels and demons and to focus instead on things in this world . . . to contemplate without terror the death of the soul,” Greenblatt writes.
Why is this untrue? Because Renaissance thought is complicated. Just because the intelligentsia rediscovered the pagan Ancients does not mean that they abandoned Judaeo-Christian faith. If anything, liberal arts scholarship over the last two centuries has created a body of knowledge, not only about the Renaissance but the Middle Ages, of ever-greater nuance, nourished by contradictory evidence. The easy verities I learned in the 1960s (angels and demons = medievalism) have long since collapsed. In the last two decades, for example, scholars have discovered that there was much more influence of Muslim music, poetry and science upon medieval European culture than previously determined.
How then to account for Greenblatt’s simplistic characterization of Lucretius’ influence on the Renaissance? First of all, he could do it. In other words, he has a reputation of great enough stature to survive his promulgation of a simplistic account. But why did he do it? Why? Here’s the crux.
In one of those serendipities that often characterize New Yorker pieces, Greenblatt links Lucretius’ celebration of pleasure in the here and now to his own mother, whose “fear of death” dominated his early years. The thrust of his essay, therefore, is not a recounting of Lucretius’ place in history but closure to his own blighted childhood. However interesting and charming Greenblatt’s account of Lucretius—and it is—the heart of the essay is personal. In short, Greenblatt mis-characterizes cultural history in pursuit of a moment of self-indulgence.
Why is this particular bit of simplicity revealing? And, to my mind, appalling? Because the world of scholarship is a group project in which individual researchers and thinkers build upon a body of knowledge painstakingly created by previous generations of scholars. Even though this body of knowledge (Lucretius, for example) may offer little interest for the general population, scholars hold it in trust, as it were, for all of us. Greenblatt has betrayed his role as trustee. He has put himself, the “I,” before the group. However stellar his reputation, however great his remuneration compared to other academics, however olympian his position in the academic hierarchy, nevertheless he is but one among many who have compiled and continue to compile our knowledge of the Renaissance. With the New Yorker article, he has undermined a legacy to which many people have devoted their life and work.
This is where individualism in America has brought us. To the false simplicity. To self-indulgence. To self-righteousness. To the narrowing of truth to that which can be seen from personal perspective. But the lens of personal experience a priori is too narrow to encompass the complicatedness of the interconnected, information-saturated world.
Finding another current. How Obama is tacking against our slipstreams of simplicity.
Barack Obama has what it takes to bring American life and culture around again to the sense of group identity that has fortified this country from its beginning. Why Obama? Because he knows that his own personal experience is too unique and, frankly, strange (a combination of the bizarre and the lucky), to be a lens through which to see the nation. He internalized the experience of group identity just as many of his fellow Americans were losing it. He chose, among many possbilities, to be a Christian, and to be part of African-American culture. And yet his relationship to both groups is fraught. He is both of, and not of, each group. He understands, therefore, the limitations and dangers of group-think.
Loss of national identity can be laid at the feet of my generation, the baby-boomers. We are a bridge between our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, whose experience of war (hot and cold) and austerity (the Depression) gave them a shared sense of purpose, and our more recently balkanized culture. As children, we baby-boomers lived the Sputnik moment; as young adults, we were the vanguard of “do your own thing.” In the 1950s, that my classmates and I were not interested in math did not matter; like most other American schoolchildren we set ourselves to the national task: beating the Russians in math and science. What our personal preferences might have been were of no consequence–not even to us. Such a sense of national purpose–driven and sustained by oneness–is inconceivable today. As I have written before, our time for Sputnik moments has come and gone–a result, in part, of the growth of individualism and entitlement.
The turning point was the schism in American politics and society over Vietnam. We boomers, too young to be the leaders, nevertheless were the foot soldiers, both in the anti-war movement and in the military. The dynamics of the rift are still playing themselves out in American life and culture. Obama, once again, is the Janus figure, our first post-Vietnam president with no connection, personal or political, to that war and therefore knowledgeable of it but not burdened by it.
Pre-occupied by domestic problems, Obama has not been able to concentrate on reshaping American foreign policy as much as he had planned. So far–in Libya, in his relationship with former Defense Secretary Gates, in his determination to leave Afghanistan, in drone warfare, in small secret selective military missions–Obama has given us nevertheless promise of new policy, on the one hand, even as he has made big mistakes (not following up on his Cairo speech, re-launching the “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians prematurely, imagining a reset button for Russia) and has had to bow to the reality that for primarily financial reasons we no longer enjoy the influence we once had, on the other.
This is complexity. It is easier to spot in foreign affairs. Sometimes we are as powerful as we once were; sometimes we are not. I do not sense that most Americans, with the exception of policy wonks, care very much here. The nation as a whole is resigned to a gradual loss of influence. (And if any Republican candidate for president thinks that making us Number One again is a viable campaign platform, he will be disabused.) In all matters domestic, however, we are lost. And here is where Obama has failed us as leader. He has not talked openly and honestly to us about the consequences of the changes we face. Yes, yes, Obama talks about change constantly. The need for better education, for cleaner energy, for rebuilding infrastructure. But he never talks about the consequences.
What are the consequences of change? The biggest consequence is the need for patience and delayed gratification–not to mention sacrifice. Why? Because all the good changes about which Obama talks need time to come to pass, even as the changes whose harbingers we have long ignored (cheaper labor abroad, unsustainable spending on Medicare, a larger need to rein in government spending) are now battering us right and left.
Better education will take at least a generation to achieve. Finding that cheap, abundant, renewable clean energy will be a process of trial and error. Infrastructure projects, intricacies of cooperation among all levels of government and jurisdiction, involving all sorts of legal and environmental issues, do not break ground quickly. Education, energy, infrastructure–all take time. And in the meanwhile the old jobs are not coming back. We will continue to be poorer. To keep us whole, to keep our society from falling apart, the American middle class must re-orient itself. We must move away from materialism as a defining characteristic, because who we are will no longer be what we can buy. And why should it be so? For most of our history, self-sufficiency–not money and things–has been the dream.
With his decision to spend an enormous amount of political capital (all he had, really) on medical insurance reform, Obama has laid the cornerstone for harnessing change. Yes, the bill is a mess, a compromise and a hodge-podge. Yes, it is smoke and mirrors when it comes to reining in cost. But it has cracked open the door of possibility. My generation, the baby boomers, will use the bill’s thousand pages to change how we live in old age and how we die. Through the rest of the century, we will be experimenting here. This will lead to an obsession with health, with aging, with gradual decrepitude, with end of life choices–and, most importantly, with how we as a society apportion our medical resources among various generations. Health will be one of the new ways in which the American middle class is defined.
If Obama does nothing else, his decision to push for health insurance reform has already made his presidency.
Elsewhere Obama has fallen short because he does not know how to talk to the American middle class. His unusual upbringing and his quick good fortune (Ivy League, coterie of movers and shakers in Chicago, bestselling author, wealthy senator) explain this difficulty, in part. But personal history does not excuse it. Patricians from FDR to Bush (father and son) have been able to connect. Obama’s problem, like Lincoln’s, is that he does not really like ordinary folk. Therefore, Obama over-compensates by prettifying us, by colorizing us in a life story that is not really us.
Having given many examples of the false Obama narrative previously, I add to the list this curiosity. Again and again, in speech after speech, in town hall meetings and on factory floors and at fundraisers, Obama characterizes the goal of the middle class as giving our children a better life materially. Upward mobility. However, there is little in the course of American history to support this. Until sixty years ago, when we realized we had shifted from a primarily agricultural to an industrial society, each generation, except for he or she who inherited the family homestead, had to begin anew. This is the story of the westward migration: leaving an easier life in the East for a scrappier existence as pioneers. And each generation of parents expected their children to start out on their own, without a hand up–just as they had done.
This is the story of the American immigrant: leaving a heritage, a language, a network of friends and family–and often prominence and comfort–for the promise of America. What is this promise? It is not the house, the automobiles, the disposable income. Over the past half century, we have increasingly characterized the American dream in material terms and thereby diminished it. But the American dream is not so easily defined. It is privacy, self-sufficiency, self-determination, entrepreneurship–all made possible by the rule of law. Paradoxically, this is a shared experience. This is the group identity, mystical at times, that binds us together as Americans because a society based not upon corruption but upon enforceable rights is rare in the world.
If Barack Obama fulfills the Lincolnian destiny that he has envisioned, he will return to us that acute sense of group belonging. And that group will not be “nation of shoppers.” I have suggested changing habits and practices in health and health care as a new focus. Reconfiguring the social compact–how to care for a generation or two of the jobless even as government spending diminishes–will be another. There will be more. Disorder, conflict, false starts, uncertainty–all will be part of the process, part of the complexity in this turn-about for American middle class identity.
Who We Are.
We are the Gettysburg Address. As a nation, we have lived its dramatic arc, we have internalized its essential truth–the terrible but ultimately sacramental power of bloodshed–just as Lincoln himself had already done when he took a quiet moment to jot down the few words he would say at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg. The power of this speech lies in the unsaid. Lincoln never mentions the Confederate soldiers, shoveled into mass graves along the roads around Gettsyburg and not, unlike their Union opponents, individually reinterred at the national cemetery. But without the opposing force–the Other–there would have been no dedication, no consecration. In the end, “those who here gave their lives that that nation might live” included all the men. If few Northerners would have appreciated this hard truth in November, 1863, certainly Lincoln did. In his speech, he never blames the South for driving the buggy of state into the ditch.
Lincoln’s actions would become more important than his words. Although the men who fought for the Confederacy were, after all, committing treason, not even the officers were arrested at the close of the war. Except for Jefferson Davis, briefly incarcerated, the men were allowed to return home, with horse and gun, if they had them. (They did briefly lose the right to vote.) In the beginning, when Union forces took the Carolina sea islands, the plan had been to bring to trial and to hang every captured leader. By the end of the war, Lincoln saw that the rule of law had to be cut with mercy. This decision–one of Lincoln’s last–not to seek pay back, not to retaliate, assured that we would recapture our acute sense of group belonging. Within three decades, for example, Tennessee held an elaborate celebration, one of the world fairs then in vogue, to commemorate its statehood centennial, even though–not to put too fine a point upon it, and indeed nobody did at the time–Tennessee had left the Union for awhile and therefore been part of the United States for only 96 years.
Misfortune is the midwife of many good things. I am quite sure, for example, that our current financial woes, both personal and national, will bring forth the new attitudes and behaviors that we need to thrive in the globalist world. A hundred and fifty years ago, many sorrows laid the groundwork for Lincoln’s decision not to punish the soldiers on the Other Side: the interminable years of fighting, the incompetence of his generals, the horrific bloodshed, the death of his own son. Somewhere in his presidency Lincoln had a dark night of the soul, perhaps after spending one of his afternoons with convalescing soldiers across the river from Washington at the Arlington hospital that had only a few years before been Robert E. Lee’s plantation house.
Lincoln’s rise in the world had been fueled, in part, by his aversion for rural America. That was the world of his father–illiterate, unknowing, content to stay down on the farm. Lincoln was a city man, with city wit and city ambition. But at some point during the Civil War Lincoln was humbled by his coming late to an essential truth about the farm boys of Illinois and Iowa and Ohio and every other state: they defined themselves, just as much as America’s educated elites, not by their own best interest but in larger terms. And they were willing to lay down their lives for this.
From all that I can discern, Obama has yet to experience his own presidential dark night of the soul. But it will come. And not only because his political fortunes will sink further. Obama cannot rise, cannot prevail against the forces set against him and us, cannot keep his promise to bridge our divisions until he, like Lincoln, understands who we are. The revelation in Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men has nothing to do with White House incompetence or infighting. Speaking in an interview with Suskind, Obama says, “What’s the particular requirement of the president that no one else can do? And what the president can do, that nobody else can do, is tell a story to the American people about where we are and where we are going.”
Tell a story. This is trend-speak–how politicos now hope to present themselves the way a beautiful family photo shoot did in the past. It is also slightly condescending. After all, voters are not children. Nevertheless, it is true. But Obama has lost himself in the wrong narrative. In his speeches, he describes who we are. But he does not know who we are. This is not the speaking and the writing from personal knowledge that leads to persuasion of an audience. Furthermore, as both the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement show, we Americans prefer to tell our own stories about who we are. Both Tea Partiers and Occupiers, different though they may be, demonstrate quite well that we are not, as Obama likes to describe us, a people who “play by the rules” and can be found “sitting around the kitchen table.”
The story Obama knows is the future. He understands globalism and its many consequences. He knows where we should be going. He is–or at least he has been–confident that he can lead us there. But he never tells the story of “there.” He never helps us imagine it, so that we can almost see it, taste it, grasp it, want to be in it. (Bill Clinton was a master here–my god the man made you want to run right out and buy an electric car battery–and Obama would do well to study Clinton’s campaign speeches on behalf of his wife in 2007-2008.) The story of there is the essential beginning. For the text is the stony road we will travel to the destination. And here, in particular, Obama has never spoken forthrightly with us. Why? Because just like Lincoln and farm boys, Obama underestimates us.
Politicians often get second acts and second chances. Almost certainly, Obama will get his. If Obama is going among us and telling the wrong story wrongly, at least he knows the right story and could tell it if he had to. Romney, on the other hand, is stuck in last century’s narrative. In No Apology, Romney writes about preserving “America’s greatness throughout the twenty-first century.” For Romney, this greatness is all about our “economic and military leadership.” Here, in short, is why Romney, although he will prove to be a formidable opponent for Obama, will lose. This is not America’s story in the twenty-first century globalist world. We voters, even if we feel lost and unable to discern the right story going forward, know that this is no longer our story
Will Obama in his second term move us down the road? We are a fractious, motley, mulish horde. Our leader does not have the common touch. Some of us kicking and screaming, we have been dragged to the open road by the health insurance reform bill, where we are stalled, milling about in confusion. This has not been an auspicious beginning. Nevertheless. Going forward, Obama has everything he needs to lead: comfort with complexity, innate ruthlessness, knowing where to take us. God willing, he will.
November 11, 2011
[Many apologies for taking so long to finish this piece. At first, I thought I had writer's block. Or was spending too much time lolling about in my new spa and watching the stars. But I have realized that I have been loathe to say goodbye to writing about Obama. Nevertheless, the time has come. I have been away from the action a long time now; I have said all I can say from the perspective of first-hand experience married to distance.]