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Is Obama America’s First ‘Both-And’ President?



By Mark Sommer (*)

ARCATA, California,  (IPS)   .- Barack Obama’s choice of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, his retention of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his reliance on much of the same economic team that bequeathed us the current financial implosion has led many supporters to wonder whether his promise of change amounts to little more than spare change. Others say he’s simply being shrewd, employing establishment figures to enact a transformative agenda. He appears to be following the dictum reputedly made famous in his favorite film, The Godfather: "Hold your friends close and your enemies closer."


Those who had hoped for a more decisive departure from the politics of recent years may have wishfully imputed more liberal instincts to Obama than are justified by his mostly centrist policy positions. Granted, his social justice rhetoric and experience as a ground-level community organizer invite hopes of a progressive populist. But Obama was also brought up in the elite precincts of the Ivy League and attended the Chicago school of cutthroat politics where high-minded principles are quickly ground to dust. Obama couldn’t have gotten where he was determined to go without learning essential survival skills, including an ability to blend easily into the very different worlds in which he moved.


Given his hybrid identity and harsh apprenticeship, Obama may simply be a split-the-difference pragmatist. Or he may represent a new genre of politician for a post-partisan age, a “both-and” leader seeking to break out of the either-or dichotomies that so bedevil politics as we know it. Is he looking to forge the kinds of lowest-common-denominator compromise found in legislative sausage-making in democracies the world over? Or does he seek to foster an altogether different dynamic, integrating the best ideas from competing constituencies into hybrid solutions to problems for which no single approach provides an effective answer?


It’s too soon to say, but Obama’s personality, personal odyssey and political education all suggest that by both nature and nurture he is indeed a hybrid figure. The inherent ambiguity of his mixed-race ancestry presented him with more daunting challenges than had he been of either race alone. Obama spent his youth in often anguished attempts to reconcile the two identities embodied in the original sin of slavery.  His first book, "Dreams From My Father," reveals with remarkable candor and self-reflection a youth inspired by his mother’s secular Sixties idealism but repelled by the enervating culture wars it precipitated. His singular achievement was to transform his greatest struggle into his greatest strength.


Obama is thus perhaps best seen as a potentially transformational figure in American and global politics. If his background and beliefs reveal any consistent inclination, it is not so much to challenge the right but to question the very notion that rightness is the exclusive possession of any party, ideology or constituency. This, and not a particular ideology, is the sense in which Obama’s inclusive style of leadership represents a radical departure from politics as we’ve known it. 


Obama’s integrative approach, listening to conflicting points of view, then synthesizing their best elements, could begin to unlock the immense creative potential inherent in conflict. The twentieth century, an age of ideologies, drove us into two worldwide hot wars and a cold one, resulting in the collapse of both communism in 1989 and cowboy capitalism in 2008. The twenty-first century begins to look like an age of pragmatism, where unquestioning adherence to fixed ideas is replaced, at best, by a firm commitment to general principles and a flexible approach to fulfilling them. 


This integrative process is epitomized by the elegantly simple principle that drives the hybrid vehicle engine, where the very braking energy that slows forward movement rightly utilized becomes fuel for the next lap of forward movement. To the extent that we can apply this “mechanical aikido” to the realm of politics, economics and culture, we will tap into an immense force for social progress. 


As a transitional leader who embodies the effort to reconcile conflicting races and cultures of many kinds, Obama seeks nothing less than to bend the arc of history. This is surely more responsibility than any individual can bear. In seeking to bridge the most treacherous cross-currents in domestic and global politics, Obama attempts the same fusion and tempts the same fate as Abraham Lincoln, his professed inspiration. 


It’s therefore incumbent on all of us who believe in a more inclusive politics and culture to move out ahead of him to open up a space into which he and others can safely move. Franklin D. Roosevelt, another of Obama’s inspirations, once responded to his progressive supporters’ entreaties to accelerate the pace of change by telling them, “You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.” Shifting to a politics of both-and rather than either-or is a work not of one man or party but of a diverse range of actors over generations. As Obama himself has often said, “it’s not about me; it’s about us.” 


If we want a world that actually addresses its challenges rather than exacerbating them, we’ll need to engage in the hard work of reconciling not only the conflicting constituencies in our politics but the conflicting impulses within ourselves. Obama presents an admirable example of how to transform a potentially crippling inner conflict into a potentially healing political process. Now it’s up to the rest of us to enact the change evoked and embodied by his emergence. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS) 


(*) Mark Sommer is host and executive producer of the award-winning, internationally syndicated radio program, A World of Possibilities