Monday, May 14, 2007

More Barack

A great in-depth profile from the New Yorker. Not too surprising to see some quotes from fellow Chicago Law prof (and BWJ favorite) Cass Sunstein, but there's also some stuff in there from Robert Putnam, from whom Obama took a seminar based on Bowling Alone. And Sunstein even throws out a Rawls reference. It's a regular BWJ-fest. Here's some of the meaty stuff:
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.”

1 comment:

Ryan said...

One of the fascinating pieces from this account relates to something called accurate empathy. By attempting to restate others' views, Obama implicitly acknowledges them. This tends to set people at ease and makes them feel understood. The foundation is set for a civilized, meaningful, productive discussion. It is an art and form of discourse that is lost on most of our politicians.