Politics

Is Obama’s “Both/And” the Essence of Centrism?

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It’s become fashionable to put down Barack Obama, just to compensate for the embarrassing fervor of his fans. But that too can go too far, and today I read something that reminded me what it is about him that genuinely appealed to me before he was a superstar. From an excellent Seattle Times column by the syndicated Eugene Robinson:

He is both an African American and the biracial son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother; both a product of the streets of Chicago, where he worked as a community organizer, and a son of the streets of Jakarta, where he played as a kid. Obama is the personification of “both-and.”

That makes him representative of the growing numbers of us who rather smoothly juggle multiple identities. Any African American who speaks differently with black friends than in mixed settings, any college grad who works with his hands among other honest skilled laborers, any Jew like me who has a bizarre sense of homecoming among my neo-Orthodox cousins but feels even more at home at 1 A.M. in snowy Moscow in a bus full of karate students from all over the world, the windows steaming up as the South African team sings an African chant with Japanese words — well, we can relate.

He said his belief that American politics has seen enough “either-or” â€â€? and that he can shift the paradigm to “both-and” â€â€? is what led him to undertake “the risks and difficulties and challenges and silliness of a modern presidential campaign.”

Thus on the question of inner-city poverty and dysfunction, Obama proposes a suite of orthodox solutions â€â€? early childhood education, after-school and mentoring programs, efforts to teach young parents how to be parents. But he also emphasizes personal responsibility: “The framework that tends to be set up in Washington â€â€? which is either the problem is not enough money and not enough government programs, or the problem is a culture of poverty and not enough emphasis on traditional values â€â€? presents a false choice.”

That’s exactly the frustration of so many centrists — our sense that the Right and the Left each have a part of the truth, and they can’t put the two parts together because they’re too busy fighting with each other. When Mike Huckabee, for instance, says the right to life includes the right to basic health care and education, we feel the same relief listening to a Republican as we do to Democrat Obama. The relief of someone being drawn and quartered when the horses pulling in opposite directions are called to a halt.

While more resources are needed, “there is a strong values-and-character component to educational achievement,” Obama said. “To deny that is to deny reality, and I don’t want to cede that reality to conservatives who use it as an excuse to underfund the schools. … Sometimes people think that when we talk about values, that somehow that’s making a ‘lift yourself up by your own bootstraps’ argument and letting the larger society off the hook. That’s why I always emphasize that we need both individual responsibility and mutual responsibility.”

The cultural values of “educational achievement and delayed gratification and intergenerational responsibility and hard work and entrepreneurship” produce success, he said, but “if a child is raised in a disorderly environment with inadequate health care and guns going off late at night, then it’s a lot harder to incorporate those values. We as a society can take responsibility for creating conditions in which those cultural attributes are enhanced.” […]

“We’ve learned that it was a good thing to break down the gender barriers that were keeping women from fully participating in the society; on the other hand, it turns out that things like marriage and fidelity are actually good things,” he said.

Robinson observes that Obama is not the first to say these things: “[N]o message gets through without the right messenger and the right moment. Not everyone is convinced that Obama is that messenger.” It is, however, the combination of the message and the messenger, who not only embodies it but has an unusual facility for articulating it, that is so appealing. When Obama gave the 2004 convention keynote speech that launched him into the political stratosphere, what struck me about it was his ability to express complex ideas with clarity, which has the effect of not just respecting but flattering the listener’s intelligence: what he’s saying isn’t oversimplified, yet you understand it so clearly that you feel smart, and you feel that he knows you’re smart. Robinson describes this nicely:

That’s the way Obama talks, by the way, in sinuous but precise sentences that practically diagram themselves as they go along.

It’s this rhetorical skill, combined with his appeal to those of us with multiple identities and the chameleonlike ability his own multiple identities give him to speak to many different singular identities in their own languages — that makes up Obama’s political whammy.

Read the whole column, and see who doesn’t think it’s Obama’s time.