Obama`s Most Sophisticated Defender
April 03, 2008, 01:43 AM
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is a Canadian lawyer who calls himself Pithlord. He`s read Obama`s autobiography very closely (we mostly disagree over whether there`s anything humorous in Obama`s irony — he finds it funny, I find it self-pitying and lugubrious). He sums Obama up:

At bottom, I think Obama`s basic theoretical framework is in dispute resolution. The worldview is sometimes attributed to his experience as an organizer, but it could also be that of a corporate litigator. He thinks of the world as filled with non-zero-sum games, in which the win-win alternative of making a deal and dividing the surplus isn`t taken because each side is gripped with a narrative that makes rationally self-interested compromise difficult or impossible. The intellectual problem is to look at the interests coolly and dispassionately and see where the surplus-maximizing position lies. But the harder problem is to be sensitive enough to how the identity-constituting stories keep both sides from doing that. It`s Harvard Negotiation project stuff, but it also works with who he thinks he is.

Obama doesn`t particularly claim to come from nowhere or have no loyalties. He is instinctively cosmopolitan, on-the-left and tied to his adopted black American Protestant identity. But I think he recognizes that to advance the interests he is loyal to requires figuring out what other people`s loyalties are, "recognize" them and then figure out how to get to the best possible resolution of the bargaining problem they represent.

Obama loves to put things dialectically. In this, the successful politician he most resembles is Tony Blair. His central rhetorical trick is restating positions he is arguing attractively and strongly, but in such a way that they obviously have limitations he hints at transcending. Dreams From My Father is hardly a black nationalist book — but it engages very sympathetically with black nationalism, not unlike the way in which Audacity of Hope engages sympathetically but critically with fusionist conservatism. In Dreams, black nationalism is twinned not with white racism, but with the white romantic liberalism of the family he grew up with. The good thing about that liberalism is that it tries to transcend tribalism — the bad part is that tribalism is too central to the human condition to be transcended.

I find much to agree with here, and, indeed, I would be all in favor of electing Barack Obama to succeed Jesse Jackson as black America`s unelected tribal leader. But, it`s an unelected job and I`m not black so I wouldn`t get a vote if there was one, and that`s not what he`s running for. Instead, Obama wants to get elected President of the United States, which is a rather different office altogether.

The key phrase in Pithlord`s analysis is "He recognizes that to advance the interests he is loyal to requires figuring out what other people`s loyalties are ..." Conversely, by the same logic, we the people of the United States need to figure out what this Presidential candidate`s loyalties are. Exactly whose interests is Obama loyal to? (Besides his own career`s interests, of course).

The reporters covering him haven`t managed (or even tried) to get him to speak frankly about this crucial question. That`s what shocked so many naive people when they finally learned about Obama`s 20-year-relationship with Rev. Wright — that while on the campaign trail he says one thing, but at home for two decades he acted in a very different fashion.

When Colin Powell thought about running for President, he published an autobiography that stressed his success in taking command of a demoralized Army unit in South Korea that was sharply divided along racial lines during the Army`s drugged-up post-Vietnam malaise, and rebuilt espirit de corps by emphasizing that there`s no black or white in this man`s Army, just G.I. green, and the like. From that, I surmised that Powell`s loyalty lay less with his racial group and more with the U.S. Army (and by extension, with the United States of America). Now, that sounded to me like Powell had met a minimum requirement in who I would want as President: he`s shown in the past that he`s on the side of the United States of America.

In contrast, I`m still waiting for evidence that Obama has taken stands against black interests. What I see his supporters boasting is that he`s either pushed black interests more deftly than less sophisticated black politicians, or that he has (perhaps temporarily) eased off on pushing black interests when they could have gotten in the way of his personal ascent to supreme power. But does he have a record of taking stands against powerful black interests in the interest of the greater good of the citizens of the United States?

Perhaps somebody should ask him.