Eclectic Curiosity

A Generalist President

Posted on April 4th, 2009, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Miscellany. No Comments

It’s clear reading The Audacity of Hope that Barack Obama isn’t just a good speaker but he’s also a very good writer, exceptionally talented at conveying thoughts and ideas articulately, intelligently, and with flow. It’s a book that so obviously framed his whole presidential campaign, which as we all know now has thankfully turned the page on the redacted scribbles of the Bush-Cheney years. It’s a book about his background, experience, approach, beliefs, and aspirations.

Besides the obligatory pre-campaign introduction that most political personality books share, there are a couple things that really stand out about Obama in The Audacity of Hope.

The first is that this is a man who has a very keen understanding of history, especially American history. I blogged previously about a post at Pop Philosophy called The Return of History which summed up nicely the great value of studied hindsight on matters of the present and future. It would appear that Obama’s relative young age as president is more than offset by his professorial knowledge of past presidents and of his nation’s founding and subsequent journey.

The second thing that resonated throughout the book was that Obama most certainly possesses a generalist mindset. I’ve posted before about how leaders need to be generalists – including a vision of the big picture, a talent for “hiring” and delegation, and an openness and empathy towards differing ideas and perspectives. He covers sports, faith, economy, politics, power, science, family, and a number of other topics with ease and in balance with each other. This trait will serve him well as leader of a country with so many diverse challenges and opportunities.

Here are a few excerpts that illustrate the above further:

…[A]cross America a constant cross-pollination is occurring, a not entirely orderly but generally peaceful collision among people and cultures. Identities are scrambling, and then cohering in new ways. Beliefs keep slipping through the noose of predictability. Facile expectations and simple explanations are being constantly upended. Spend time actually talking to Americans, and you discover that most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual. Most rich people want the poor to succeed, and most of the poor are both more self-critical and hold higher aspirations than the popular culture allows. Most Republican strongholds are 40 percent Democrat, and vice versa. The political labels of liberal and conservative rarely track people’s personal attributes. (p63)

It is to say that after all the trappings of office – the titles, the staff, the security details – are stripped away, I find the President and those who surround him to be pretty much like everybody else, possessed of the same mix of virtues and vices, insecurities and long-buried injuries, as the rest of us. No matter how wrongheaded I might consider their policies to be – and no matter how much I might insist that they be held accountable for the results of such policies – I still find it possible, in talking to these men and women, to understand their motives, and to recognize in them values I share. This is not an easy posture to maintain in Washington. … (p59)

As a country, we seem to be suffering from an empathy deficit. We wouldn’t tolerate schools that don’t teach, that are chronically underfunded and understaffed and underinspired, if we thought that the children in them were like our children. It’s hard to imagine the CEO of a company giving himself a multimillion-dollar bonus while cutting health-care coverage for his workers if he thought they were in some sense his equals. And it’s safe to assume that those in power would think longer and harder about launching a war if they envisioned their own sons and daughters in harm’s way. … Black leaders need to appreciate the legitimate fears that may cause some whites to resist affirmative action. Union representatives can’t afford not to understand the competitive pressures their employers may be under. I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does… We are all forced beyond our limited vision. (p82)

Most of all, she [Obama’s mother] possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that could properly described as devotional. During the course of the day, she might come across a painting, read a line of poetry, or hear a piece of music, and I would see tears well up in her eyes. Sometimes, as I was growing up, she would wake me in the middle of the night to have me gaze at a particularly spectacular moon, or she would have me close my eyes as we walked together at twilight to listen to the rustle of leaves. She loved to take children – any child – and sit them in her lap and tickle them or play games with them or examine their hands, tracing out the miracle of bone and tendon and skin and delighting at the truths to be found there. She saw mysteries everywhere and took joy in the sheer strangeness of life. (p243)

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