Barack Obama: A Manner of Thinking

The Obama Campaign: In Retrospect

The Obama Campaign: Now Looking Forward

Three days after claiming the nomination, Senator Obama, who makes infrequent visits to the campaign’s Chicago headquarters, offered his gratitude by way of a motivational pep talk. “I want everybody to catch your breath. Do what you do to get your ya-ya’s out – that’s an old ’60s expression – and then understand that coming back we’re going to have to work twice as hard as we’ve been working,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re going to have to be smarter, we’re going to have to be tougher, our game is going to have to be tighter.”

Before finishing, he included a self-assessment, saying, “I am going to have to be a better candidate.”

From that point forward, the 2008 presidential campaign plainly will be different from what American voters have grown accustomed to. Senator Obama’s status as the first African-American nominee of a major party is only the most easily recognizable difference. However, there are a number of other important distinctions, such as style, scale and the silence of the leading journalistic voice in contemporary political culture. The style contrast is based upon Obama’s clearly more accomplished eloquent presentation of his speeches during the campaign primaries, delivered to huge audiences all across the country.

The scale difference flows from Obama’s record-shattering ability to raise money. If Mr. Obama casts off the constraints of taxpayer financing in the general election, as strategists in both parties expect, he’ll have an unprecedented range of options for communicating with voters by being free of the spending limits that accompany public financing.

The silence is the absence of Tim Russert, who died last week at 58. As the leading political analyst in the American media, he played an arbiter’s role that echoed beyond the viewership of Meet the Press on NBC. This general election will be the first since 1988 without Russert as the moderator of that program.

Senator Obama Reflects on the Loss of Tim Russert

The Initial Focus Upon Broader Visions: Public Statements and Policy Announcements

Like most presidential candidates, Senator Obama has been developing his executive skills on the run, while at the same time being under intense media scrutiny. The evolution of his style in recent months suggests that he is defining new procedures to confront a challenge that he has not faced in his career: managing a large organization.

That skill will become more important should he win the presidency, and his style is getting added attention as the country absorbs the lessons of President Bush’s tenure in the Oval Office. Mr. Bush’s critics, including former aides, have portrayed him as too cloistered, too dependent on a small coterie of trusted aides, unable to distinguish between loyalty and competence, and insufficiently willing to adjust course in the face of events that do not unfold the way he expects.

Mr. Obama’s earlier style was marked by an aversion to leaks and public drama, and he had assembled a small group of advisers who exhibited discipline and loyalty in carrying out his priorities. He has always read widely and encouraged alternative views in policy-making discussions, but earlier he liked to keep the process crisp. During the primaries, Obama delegated many decisions, and virtually all tasks, to a core group that oversaw a sprawling, yet centralized operation in his Chicago campaign headquarters, which going into the general election season now is absorbing many political functions of Washington’s Democratic National Committee.

Mr. Obama stays connected to advisers and friends via a BlackBerry, sending frequent but unsigned messages that are to the point. A discussion that cannot be conducted in a sentence or two is likely to be finished by telephone. A night owl, Mr. Obama is known to send e-mail messages well after midnight. In interviews with more than two dozen senior advisers, campaign aides and friends, a portrait of Mr. Obama has emerged as a concerned but not obsessive manager. By now, his associates have learned, there is no need to deluge him with unnecessary details, so long as someone knows them.

On policy issues, Mr. Obama can have a photographic memory of intricate details. Earlier, most high-level gatherings involving Mr. Obama were held either in his kitchen or at an office away from campaign headquarters, and were expected to unfold in an orderly manner. Written agendas and concise briefings were preferred. His style has usually been to not stir up dissent simply for the sake of dissent, but he often employs what some have called a Socratic method of discussion, where aides put ideas forward for him to accept or reject.

Defining Details That Support His Broader Visions

If a presidential campaign is intended to be a test-run for the presidency, during the campaign primaries Obama’s chief priorities had been the words in his speeches, messages in his television advertising and policy pronouncements. On other matters, even if he disagreed, he often allowed himself to be overruled.

But now, Obama has clearly picked up the reins in his campaign, quickly moving to take control in defining some of the more precise details that support his broader visions for America.

Obama Elaborates Specifics Central to His Broad Visions

An Appeal for People to Embrace Personal Courage and Responsibility

Senator Obama made what may have been one of his most influential presentations so far in the post-primary campaign, when he spoke at church on Father’s Day. In an address that was striking for its bluntness and where he chose to give it, Mr. Obama directly addressed one of the most delicate topics confronting Black leaders: how much responsibility absent fathers bear for some of the intractable problems afflicting Black Americans. In his speech, he was strongly critical of the failure of so many African-American men to live up to their responsibilities in raising their children, citing that dramatically growing numbers of them have simply abandoned their families. His words were crucial in once again attempting to recast the image of the Democratic Party.

For too many years, Democrats have been increasingly perceived as controlled by a host of liberal special interest groups, from labor and teachers’ unions to women’s and gay rights groups. But none of those groups have been viewed as more influential, and in many respects, as damaging to the party than African-Americans. Obama’s address strongly confronted African-Americans with the view that their failure to succeed in America begins with the increasingly debilitated core of their families, rather than constantly displacing blame onto racism, using it as a crutch to explain away their failures to make progress in America’s political, educational, cultural and social institutions.

The broader issue is whether social problems exist because of flawed individuals or flawed social systems. Cognizant of the fact that entire universities of Ivy-league sociologists, radical Leftists and many Democrats have opted for the latter, Obama wisely drew our attention to the boot straps. Praising God, he said relatively little else about religion, but more importantly he paid tribute to women, lauding women in general and single mothers in particular. Obama listed some of the many heroic things that single mothers do, and illustrated his praise with reminiscences about his own mother.

Speaking at Chicago’s Apostolic Church of God, Obama said that more police on the street and job training programs are essential for a safe and sound society, “But we also need families to raise our children.” Admitting that he has been “an imperfect father,” Barack Obama spoke of the need for African American men to live up to their responsibilities during the Father’s Day sermon. Saying that too many Black fathers are “missing from too many lives and too many homes,” Obama said these men “have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”

I say this knowing that I have been an imperfect father, knowing that I have made mistakes and will continue to make more; wishing that I could be home for my girls and my wife more than I am right now,” said Obama, as his daughters Sasha and Malia sat with his wife, Michelle Obama. “I say this, knowing all of these things, because even as we are imperfect, even as we face difficult circumstances, there are still certain lessons we must strive to live and learn as fathers, whether we are Black or White; rich or poor; from the South Side or the wealthiest suburb.”

Describing his own experience of being abandoned by his father at the age of two, Obama said he was fortunate to have his grandparents aid his mother in his upbringing. “Even though my father left us when I was two years old, and I only knew him from the letters he wrote and the stories that my family told, I was luckier than most. I grew up in Hawaii, and had two wonderful grandparents from Kansas who poured everything they had into helping my mother raise my sister and me, who worked with her to teach us about love and respect and the obligations we have to one another,” he told the audience. “I screwed up more often than I should’ve, but I got plenty of second chances. And even though we didn’t have a lot of money, scholarships gave me the opportunity to go to some of the best schools in the country. A lot of kids don’t get these chances today. There is no margin for error in their lives.”

A Call for Personal Courage and Responsibility

The Evolution of Obama’s Political Thoughts and Positions During the Campaign

Barack Obama’s strong appeal earlier in the presidential campaign was largely based upon his commanding oratorical skills. His speeches enthralled huge audiences all across the nation, speeches that were eloquent, emotionally uplifting and powerfully resonating with particular broad themes: unity, hope and change. Obama’s early appeal quickly was met with criticism from opponents who claimed that what he was offering was “just words” and that instead an effective presidential candidate needed much more than that, it called for a strong background characterized by a lengthy history of political experience at the national level.

Since becoming the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Obama’s campaign stance has moved to one that elaborates many of the more particular issues upon which his broader visions for America rest. Further, as Obama has begun to present his positions on the details of the major issues of the 2008 campaign, some of those positions appear to have an increasingly centrist quality. The latter development, of course, opens him up to a myriad of potential criticisms from members of both the polarized far-left and far-right political groups.

On the other hand, one might view the early phase of Obama’s campaign, during the primaries, as one in which he was engaged in introducing and teaching Americans about his major broad visions for America. Subsequent to becoming the Democratic nominee, Obama’s speeches about the details supporting his visions have revealed much more about his thought processes, and certainly a great deal more than is captured by the naive “centrist” political label. They have revealed a mind that is deliberative, flexible, sensitively responsive to ever-changing contextual issues, and capable of actually recognizing the reality of other people’s perspectives, as well as to consider that their perspectives might be just as good as his own or even better. Perhaps by nature, Obama’s manner of thinking might be described as social-constructivist or, more specifically, dialectical social-constructivism.

Thinking of criticisms that Obama is destined to receive from members of polarized far-right and far-left political groups, I am reminded of a reply that Samuel Beckett offered to a renowned progressive German philosopher who was enduring harsh rebuke from political extremists in 1969. About those fierce attacks, Beckett retorted:

Was ever such rightness joined to such foolishness?”

Barack Obama: On the Meanings of Change

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One Response to “Barack Obama: A Manner of Thinking”

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