I Just Don’t Get It

By , 28 July, 2008, 5 Comments


Obamamania, that is. I’m about 90% sure I’m voting for him, because at the end of the day I’m (moderately) left of center, but I’ll be voting for him the way most liberals voted for John Kerry in 2004: with a shrug, and a total lack of emotion.

I’m trying very hard to at least comprehend what has everyone else so jazzed up, but so much pro-Obama coverage confuses me. For example, I hear that he promises some new kind of politics that is cleaner and more honest than what we’ve got now. I may not like that, but that’s something I can get my head around. But as soon as I start to process that, I see this piece in the Sunday Times about how he and McCain represent “new” politicians because they come from the Senate, which is a change from an “old” model of governors (Carter, Clinton, Bush) and generals (Eisenhower).

Wrong. If we take the longview, we’ll realize that for most of US history, senators were the most likely presidential candidates. The 20C examples of presidents with executive, not legislative, experience was the change. Electing senators is old news: Abe Lincoln was a one-term Congressman, and from Illinois too. The contradictions go further–the article opens with a long lede about Lyndon Johnson and the kind of bargain politics he mastered as a senator, then used to pass a ton of legislation as President. But Johnson’s bargain politics was manifestly un-clean: it was the backroom dealing and verbal arm twisting of a DC insider. I kind of like Johnson, even if I think his policies were flawed, BECAUSE of that willingness to be forceful. The analogy might fit McCain, but using a HISTORICAL comparison to say Obama is a new politician, however, is just mind-boggling.

Then there’s the contradictions in the coverage of his recent international tour. Arguably, Obama’s biggest strength is that electing him would be a great PR move for America. That seems to be the gist of this blog post from Kevin Xu at Brown’s Watson Institute. But then, in the same post, titled “Obamamania around the world” Kevin reminds us that Obama has no foreign policy experience, so he should focus on the economy in this campaign. With all due respect to Kevin, who’s a good friend of mine, “Huh?”

That’s my biggest problem with Barack: not simply that it’s still unclear to me why I should vote for him, but that no one in his campaign or among his supporters is trying to bring his vision into focus. To ask for focus is an insult, a sign that I’m just an old fogey (keep in mind, I’m 21.) Instead, I’m asked to believe, to feel, to vote for some intangible inspiration–Kevin says Obama’s best foreign policy asset is that he “cares about people’s feelings.”

“Change we can believe in” just doesn’t get my political juices running, because I’ve never seen politics as an act of faith. If I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be seeing in the tea leaves, I have no way to evaluate if it’s there or not. Can anyone decipher?

Related Posts
5 Responses {+}
  • Anti-Aryan

    I’m glad Maha has finally written a post on the Obama phenomenon. Being an avid Hillary supporter her whole life, I was expecting her to contribute to the discussion at some point. I am even more honored that she referenced my blog in her post, which obliges me to explain my view in hope of convincing Maha (am I too naive?) to be as enthusiastic about Obama as I am.

    I must first clarify that I’ve never said or wrote that Obama’s biggest foreign policy asset is that he “cares about people’s feelings.” That is a rather careless paraphrase of my writing, which grossly oversimplifies my argument.

    To address the topic head-on, there are many different reasons why people are crazy about Obama, and I admit that many of those reasons are quite superficial (he’s black, he’s handsome, he delivers beautiful speeches, his daughters are adorable…). I am crazy about Obama because he has displayed an incredible political talent in his ability to captivate the attention of both the mass (200,000+ in Berlin, most of them don’t even understand English) and world leaders (Sarkozy essentially endorsing his presidential bid after their meeting in Paris) while being able to project both confidence and sound judgment. I think these qualities trump the deep military records of John McCain when the world yearns for more diplomacy and less cowboyism.

    Electing Obama as president isn’t a simple PR stunt for America (though its initial impact will immensely improve ties severed during the Bush era); he has the judgment and character to back up this change of image by engaging more countries and renewing the spirit of international cooperation. Obama is calm, intelligent and flexible. McCain is, however, stubborn, rash and hot-tempered. If both promise me diplomacy, I know Obama will have a better chance of getting it done, not McCain. At the neogotaition table, the ability to make personal connections and promote trustworthiness is key and Obama has demonstrated that time and time again. U.S. foreign policy platform will not change much whether it’s Obama or McCain. But Obama’s persona will allow us to get more mileage out of our current doctrine, I can say this with full confidence.

    However, I still stick by my initial assessment that Obama needs to win the economic argument at home to win the election. Most people will not recognize or trust Obama’s foreign policy potential the same way I do, and the economy is a more pressing domestic issue. This assessment is more an objective analysis of what Obama needs to do to win, not an extension of my personal interpretation of him.

    The intangible personal quality is key to foreign policy success (clinton, reagan, carter, jfk), and Obama has it. At a critical juncture when lots of old problems are moving forward again (Israel-Syria, Israel-Palestine, even U.S.-Iran??), we need a personal with the ingenuity and judgment to further these progress.

    I don’t much like the slogan “Change we can believe in.” It should be “Judgment we can believe in.”

  • Preppy McPrepperson

    My rant on Obamamania got an almost instaneous response from Kevin Xu, a pro-Obama blogger I went after in my post. Though Kevin generously tried to put my mind at ease, I’m still confused.

    First off, Kevin says I’m wrong to paraphrase his argument as “Obama cares about people’s feelings.” But that is an almost direct quote from his blog. Asked why he thinks Obama has such support abroad given his thin foreign policy experience, Kevin told a reader, “Foreigners…want someone who cares about their feelings.” The implication is that Obama is that person.

    Kevin also says he agrees with me that “change we can believe in” is a bit fluffy as a campaign selling point. But his alternative is “judgment we can believe in,” which doesn’t strike me as any more concrete. In fact, unlike “change” which seems nebulous enough to be something you can only believe in until it happens, judgment is all about rationality and evidence.

    I’m NOT (to anticipate the counter-argument) saying Obama is irrational or unintelligent–he wouldn’t be this far along if he were. But I’m concerned that the campaign case for him is not about the depth of his policy knoweldge, but all about the cultural and emotional zeitgeist he represents. It’s the premise that judgment and leadership are matters of belief that I take issue with: after all, our current President seems to lead by beliefs and convictions with an utter disregard for evidence. If Obama is a left-wing version of that model, then I’m totally turned off. I doubt that he is, but again, that’s the way he is being sold.

    If I were all alone in my desire to have public policy be dispassionate and fact-based, then I’d stop whining. But I think there are more of us realpolitickers out there than the Obamamaniacs acknowledge, and unless they can build a numbers-and-dates-and-names case for him, they will be in trouble come November.

  • Preppy McPrepperson

    Anti-Aryan said…

    I know converting Maha would be a fun and challenging experience, and I shall take another crack at it.

    Why is judgment a more concrete concept than change? I think that’s the crux of our dispute. Maha correctly states that judgment is about rationality and evidence, but there is more. Judgment is not only about rationality and evidence, but more importantly, about leadership and moral instinct. These four qualities together present the ultimate test that separates people with good judgment from bad judgment. You need to be a rational thinker, be able to use evidence effectively, to have the courage to lead and make the tough decisions, and to have the basic human decency and sense of morality to separate the right and the wrong in a split moment. Obama, in my view, has demonstrated all these qualities concretely. Rational thinker is an easy one; doesn’t how much you dislike Obama, I don’t think anyone can rightfully call him an irrational person. He has certainly made difficult decisions under the spotlight with the utmost display of moral instinct. One example of this is the way he treated the Rev. Wright affair. Instead of cutting Wright off immediately when his affiliation became a politcal baggage, Obama delivered a solemn and insightful address, explaining his long personal friendship with Wright, condemning the anti-American remarks that Wright has made, and ultimately decides to continue his relationship with Wright despite his gaffes and projected a rational and inspirational philosophy on race in America. It was not until Wright came out in public and continue his reckless ways that Obama cut him off. I would also cite Obama’s recent vote for the FISA amendment as another exercise of good judgment. His decision angered a lot of people on the left, who felt disheartened by Obama’s decision for supporting a bill that they believe gives telecommunication companies immunity for spying on Americans. While I agree that the Amendment is by no means perfect, I do think it is a good start to eventually correcting the violations the wire-tapping schemes that Bush has used and supported so prominently. The problem is most people don’t understand the difficulty of legislating. Not to say I do, but I at least appreciate the challenges and cut our lawmakers lots of slack for doing what they do. Obama did the right thing as law maker, which he still is at this point, to vote for the bill which, after rounds of discussion and compromises, at least established Congressional oversight over this issue. More can and will be done in the future on FISA, and this amendment provided a good start in the right direction. Another point for Obama for making a tough decision using his good judgment, despite risking the alienation of his, often irrational and unappreciative, liberal base.

    Of course, Maha’s beef with Obama comes most from her preference for a more fact-based, dispassionate policy maker, which is different from what Obama projects to be. However, I feel that doubters failed to spend the time to get to know the candidate’s past experience before voicing their doubt. A simple glance of the Chicago section of Obama’s first memoir, “Dreams from My Father” (which I have almost finished), will show his incredible ability and capacity to work with both factual evidence and human evidence to organize disenfranchised and apathetic blacks in the South Side of Chicago to gain small but critical improvements to their condition, from basic housing inspection to improving public school. Obama exercised good judgment in many difficult situations which is something very few of our privileged politicians have had to face ever in their life. The very fact that he decided to quit his high paying consulting gig to do grassroots organizing in a strange city is an incredible display of good judgment and commitment to follow his own moral principle.

    Obamamania has a lot of irrational hype. But there are many of us devotees who believe in the candidate not because of his rock-star image or mesmerizing rhetoric. The media has been guilty of portraying him consistently as cultural phenomenon without focusing on his substance because people enjoy these coverage more. While I certainly do not expect everyone to read his memoir, I implore the people who do care about politics and still wonder about Obama to read “Dreams from My Father” to get an authentic and unfiltered look at him. By the end of it, I’m confident that you will see a more concrete Obama that can be the president this country needs and wants to see.

  • Preppy McPrepperson

    I moved this whole discussion into the comments section since I think it might go on a while!

    A couple of things, Kevin. First off, I think we do disagree about the essence of judgment. I think you’re right that there are four components, but I’d put rationality above the other three where you seem to rank the moral “gut” feeling higher. That’s a fair disagreement, but if voting for Obama means endorsing that definition of judgment, I’m not sold.

    And again, I’m not denying that Obama HAS the rationality and nitty-gritty intelligence. But as you say that’s not what he “projects to be.” As a media critic, I’m more concerned with what he projects to be than what he might be in the privacy of his own home. It’s a campaign–the small sliver of your personality you choose to emphasize must be the part you think is MOST important to you as a leader. If Obama is choosing to project the moral authority side of himself more than the fact/evidence side, than I am reasonable is assuming he will keep those priorities as President, that his vision of government is one centered on the morality/inspiration side of things. And I’m not okay with that kind of leadership; really, I don’t want to be inspired, I want to be convinced.

    And I actually own the memoir, which I think is okay at best. Some parts of it actually strike me as a bit bitter towards his background, but that is beside the point. This is politics, and I want a leader who is smart enough when he has 30 seconds of my attention in an ad or 30 minutes in a campaign speech to give me everything I need to know in order to know how he will lead. Referring me to your book is not really part of the equation–you have to excerpt what you think are the strongest bits of you/your life for the campaign trail, and the parts Obama has chosen to pick and project rub me the wrong way.

    Now, maybe the Obama campaign says to me “Fine, then don’t vote for him. We have tons of morality-emotion voters to more than compensate for losing you.” But I don’t really think that’s an accurate electoral math. So as a Democrat, I’m worried because I’m not sure how the campaign plans to a) win over people like me in prime time (not everyone will buy the book, you know) or b) win an election without the boring fact voters.

  • Thank God for Leon Panetta - Instant Cappuccino

    […] have expressed no shortage of skepticism about 44-elect, in part about his vision of government as driven by ideas […]

Leave a Reply