November 5, 2008


Which Barack Obama will govern?: He won on a campaign that combined ambitious goals and a cautious temperament. But as president, he faces peril if he hews too far left or pursues cautious mediation at the expense of his agenda. (Doyle McManus, November 5, 2008, LA Times)

Barack Obama won the presidency Tuesday by persuading voters to embrace a seeming paradox: leadership based on contradictory principles of change and reassurance.

The Illinois senator combined ambitious goals and a cautious temperament. He promised tax cuts, better healthcare, new energy programs and fiscal discipline all at the same time, and all without the bitterness and stalemate that arose when those issues were tackled in the past.

Now, as Obama moves through his transition to the White House, this effort to square the political circle becomes the defining challenge in the months ahead. Which Barack Obama will dominate as he begins to govern?

Too much of the ambitious liberal, and he rekindles partisan squabbles he was supposed to transcend.

Too much the cautious mediator who reaches across the aisle to compromise with Republicans, and he risks losing the energy and idealism that attracted millions to his candidacy.

...was that, as the last time he won a presidency, the entirety of the "change" he promised was personal, that the president would be black for a change. Indeed, he took a complete cypher as a running mate and then disappeared him as soon as he began to shoot his mouth off. He successfully made this an election about nothing but his Obamaness.

But, as to policies, he cannily offered no significant challenge to those of Clinton/Gingrich/Bush. Not only do his tax cuts offer seeming continuity with W, but he came out of the infamous White House meeting as the de facto ally of the Republican president and his Secretary of the Treasury, with John McCain oddly stuck in the oppositional camp with the House GOP. The talk is that Rahm Emmanuel, an architect of the Clinton presidency, will be Chief of Staff and that both Henry Paulson and Robert Gates may be asked to stay on, which would give two of the four original cabinet spots, and still among the most important, to Bush men. Never has a vote for "change" been more about voting for the status quo.

The key to understanding all this remains Mr. Obama's experience in becoming the first black president of Harvard Law Review. Here's one of his black supporters at that time and current advisor, Cassandra Butts, from the Frontline election special:

He essentially spent his life trying to synthesize the duality of being one person in one place and being another person in another place. What I like to say to people is that Barack never meets a stranger, and that's one of the things that makes him so effective as a politician. When he meets people, when he sees people, when he's interacting with people, he isn't inclined to stereotype people. He ultimately has met you before in some other experience, or someone just like you. …

Barack was not and is not predictable. He's thoughtful. He'll tell you what he believes. But it isn't always what you expect. … His ideological approach is to the left and there was an expectation that as the president of the Law Review that he would side on the part of his more progressive colleagues. But he recognized that his role was such that he had to bring both sides together. And in order to publish the Law Review and to be productive in his term as president, he had to figure out how to make it work and how to make both sides work together, which meant that he wasn't always going to side with his progressive colleagues, that he had to take the interests and the ideas of the people on the right into account.

It's not to suggest that where he was on the issue was being reflected in the decision that he made. But it did reflect what he needed to do as a leader in order to produce the Law Review. …

It is Barack's natural inclination to reach across the aisle. It's personality. And it's also just his intellect. … He's not interested necessarily in dominating the conversation. He wants to bring people into the conversation. He wants to understand different points of view. And understanding those different points of view informs the way he thinks about issues. …

and Christine Spurell:
Honestly, we were just very polarized on the Law Review, we really were. It's like you go to a college campus, and the black students were all sitting together. It was the same thing with the Law Review; the black students were all sitting together. Barack was the one who was truly able to move between the different groups and have credibility with all of them.


I really don't know. He grew up in a multiracial environment. I don't know what he's like now with conservatives, but I don't know why at the time he was able to communicate so well with them, even spend social time with them, which was not something I would ever have done. …

I don't think he was agenda-driven. I think he genuinely thought, some of these guys are nice, all of them are smart, some of them are funny, all of them have something to say. …

Now, as you may know, I had personal hopes for my own future on the Law Review. I was kind of hoping to get a masthead position, and I did not get a masthead position. So we went from the high of having Barack elected -- now, this is just me speaking, as at the time I was a very narrow-minded, almost radical student. I was 22 years old at this point, so I kind of saw everything in terms of race. I try not to do that anymore.

So I did assume I would get the position that I thought I had coming. I [did] think I had earned it as far as the quality of my work. But I'll tell you now, I had not earned it as far as the quality of my diplomacy with the other students. ... He did know I was a hard worker, that he did know. That's why I felt betrayed, because I worked so hard. I pulled so many all-nighters, I thought I should be rewarded. But he put the good of the Law Review ahead of my agenda. That's what makes him such a great leader. ...

He's going to be a terrible disappointment to those on the Right and Left who anticipate a twilight struggle over socialism in America. He just isn't a boat rocker.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 5, 2008 8:43 AM
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