Friday, June 5, 2009

The Big Picture: Obama's Power as a Communicator, and the Context for this Moment

Almost nothing happened today involving Congress and the White House, other than President Obama paying his respects at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, so I'm filling in with a couple of thoughts about Obama's big speech yesterday. It was a monumental speech in so many ways, but the reason it was so effective, and the reason Obama can so consistently rise to these heights as a communicator, is that he does such a remarkable job of demonstrating his sincerity and his empathy. Obama has noticed that people from widely diverging ideological, ethnic, religious, regional, and educational backgrounds see themselves in him, believe that he is their spokesman, that he truly gets where they're coming from, and this capacity has fueled his unfathomably rapid ascent toward a position of such broad and deep support. He has often been derided for trying to be all things to all people - where does he really stand, his skeptics demand, when he is always appealing to both sides in seemingly every dispute. Does he stand for anything besides being popular? No other politician could get away with the kind of speeches Obama has given, especially some of his most brilliant, including his speech on race, his speech to Notre Dame, and his speech in Cairo., where he expresses support for both sides of seemingly unresolvable moral conflicts rooted in endless cycles of recrimination and aggrievement. Every other politician would fall into either the George W. Bush trap or the Hillary Clinton trap. Commentators have noticed that George W. Bush said many of the same sympathetic things about Muslims, and if you go back in the record, he also said magnaminous things about non-religious people, about liberals and activists and union leaders - but the crucial caveat is that nobody believed him. His efforts at appeasement were utterly transparent as precisely that; they were so clearly just paying lip service, saying what he had to. Politicians who are clearly identified with a cause, who have a core of supporters who really believe in them, find it almost impossible to be taken seriously when they say "We honor George W. Bush for his efforts to combat AIDS" or "we really do want Obama to succeed" and on and on. Other politicians like Hillary Clinton, in contrast, tried to appeal to the whole spectrum of voters - to be for the war and support a Constitutional Amendment banning flag-burning in a culturally conservative area, to be against the war and staunchly pro gay rights in San Francisco - and the result is a loss of credibility for all your positions. John Kerry was even worse in this regard - as the Strike said, imagine him giving his own Cairo speech - it would have pandered to every side, everybody would call it wishy-washy, no one would be appeased, all would question what he really stood for.

But Barack Obama has the unique capacity to stand on both sides of divides and actually seem to passionately believe each seemingly conflicting perspective. In the Cairo speech he was at once a strong patriotic Commander-in-Chief saying we will do what's necessary to defend ourselves, and then he seemed to show a non-forced respect, appreciation, and understanding of the Muslim world that no U.S. President has ever approached. He was a convincing advocate for democracy and women's rights, and also authentically champion the appeal of Muslim tradition and values. Most remarkably, he gave a stirring account of the moral necessity of U.S. support for the Jewish people and the State of Israel that seemed to be as passionately felt as any Zionist. And then in the next breath he was empathizing with the struggle of the Palestinians as well as advising them on their most effective path to freedom. From anyone else that would have come off as ivory-tower lecturing, judging from afar, and it would have been rejected, but from him it seemed like he was a Palestinian himself, wanting the best for his people. That is the essence of Obama's power: he seems to be lecturing all these groups to which, on paper, he does not belong, and anyone else would be dismissed as an arrogant meddling outsider for doing so, but he almost always comes off as both the empathetic mother and the tough-love father who just want what's best for their children. This remarkable skill at authentically projecting empathy has accomplished extraordinary things for Obama so far; let's hope his speeches on abortion and on the America-Muslim relationship will lead to similarly impressive achievements for the world.

It's also worth stepping back and appreciating that America has reached the point where a black liberal named Barack Hussein Obama can, in the course of two weeks, appoint a proudly liberal, race-and-gender-conscious Latina justice, and give a speech where he speaks in Arabic, quotes from the Quran, apologizes for colonialism, implicitly condemns the invasion of Iraq, empathizes with Palestinians, speaks of the Muslim world as a source of peace, does not speak of terrorists, and doesn't evince any sense of superiority - and most importantly of all, these moves aren't proving to be costly mistakes but are instead actually strengthening Obama's domestic political standing. Obama and his chief strategist David Axelrod are astute political analysts who have always been extremely careful with protecting Obama's golden brand from any risky symbols and associations that have doomed previous liberals and previous blacks, so we can be pretty confident that the current political environment is in fact tolerant, even supportive, of these actions by Obama. And these were actions that for decades would have been almost laughably tailor-made for the Republican caricature as the Democrats as a party that supports racial minorities over whites and that coddles our enemies. In studying American history, those two caricatures have been the most important factor in tarnishing liberalism and activist government and pushing the country to the right. If Obama can not only get away with these moves, but actually benefit from them, than liberalism is in an almost unprecedently favorable position.

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