Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Obamawatch, The NLT Series

I think we should take a betting pool on how many entries will appear on NLT over the next four years about Obama, with a key subcategory of "Have We Figured This Guy Out Yet?" My guess is that there will be about 3,000 Obama entries on NLT by the end of 2012, and that 75 percent of them will fit in the subcategory. (Who wants to do the counting?--Ed. Make Peter do it as retribution.)

I say this after listening to Jeffery Sikkenga’s podcast mentioned below, in which I second Peter that you should listen to more than once. Above all I come away with the conclusion that Obama may be the most interesting and complicated man we have elected to the presidency in modern times.

But I do recall that Churchill once said something to the effect that there are two principal errors in politics: the word without the deed, and the deed without the word. Obama may have these very large ambitions and a high degree of cleverness about how to move us toward his goals through his oratory--an ability not to be misunderestimated. But he is also a wartime president, and this fact may constrain him, just as World War I disrupted Woodrow Wilson (to whom Obama should be compared intellectually) and the Progressive movement. And if his deeds in foreign policy--good, bad, or mixed--are not matched with clarity of words, he will stumble as Wilson did.

Discussions - 8 Comments

I'm not so sure. The older I get, the more convinced I am that it is virtually impossible truly to know someone, particularly one does not spend real time with. On the other hand, it might be possible to learn to predict, with some deal of accuracy, how someone is likely to act in a given circumstance. We won't get a good idea of that from President Obama until he's been President for a while.

Well, Mr. Hayward, there does seem to be something important and even enjoyable (as Jeff and Peter note in their podcast) about trying to figure this guy out. I mean, here's a real-live product of the modern liberal creed, a Plutarchan life not possible prior to certain modern American liberal triumphs, and a life that does not bring the obvious baggage of other Dem leaders: the id of Bill Clinton, the blinkered personality of Jimmy Carter, or the collective family ego/baggage of Kennedy, to say nothing of the Vietnam albatrosses of Kerry, McGovern, etc. None of that. There's a purity about his Democratic-ness.

Jeff, a pleasure to hear your voice again via the have many interesting, pregnant points. I think perhaps the most fruitful might be that Obama is attracted to Lincoln because "he thinks Lincoln is a progressive." And a poetic one. Yes. When he speaks in the address of American "honesty, hardwork, courage, and fair-play" as being both "true" and being "the quiet force of progress throughout our history," my mind drifts back to the moment in Lincoln's great June 26 1857 speech against the Dred Scott decision in which he says, "I had thought the Declaration contemplated the progressive improvement in the condition of men everywhere." I suspect Obama cherishes that Lincolnian line particularly.

Also potentially fruitful in your comments, Jeff, is your take on his realization that he (and we) "need" a race. A collectivity must be posed against pure individuality. But you also mention the more important collectivity that Obama is interested in poetically and politically cultivating/inventing, the American "We" of his political addresses. But I wonder. Do these two collectivities, and Obama's experiences with them, work together? Or does the cultivation of both lead to an inevitable incoherency and clash? And at what point does the entire theme of cultivation/invention here undermine everything?

That is, Jeff, I do not see the full vision you're suggesting is present in this speech. I see interesting seeds of thought that perhaps require the water of minds like yours to make them grow into anything solid. Unclear if Obama has such a mind. For example, can anyone tell me what the following seemingly key line from his address means?

"This is the source of our confidence: the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall."

I think it could mean that Obama would like us to think that God is a Rortian progressive and that the American creed of liberty is to be undersood accordingly...but I also think it could mean that Lucas Morel is right (see below) that he and his speechwriting team were scrambling for phrases, and not at the top of their game.

In the podcast, you seem grateful that Obama is willing to say of the "old things" of America, that they are "true things." But when he does so he does not refer to the Dec. or to the Const., but again, to "honesty, hardwork, courage, and fair-play." It just doesn't take any intellectual or political courage to say those things are true. There is nothing distinctively American or capital-L Liberal about holding those things to be true, although there is somthing distinctly American--in our progressive vein--about holding that they are the "quiet force of progress," and about being so quick to use the word "progress" after one has dared to utter the word "true."

I see Obama-ism as a Progressivism for a new time. It's basically Wilson/Croly/1912TRoosevelt/Dewey/Brennan but without any explicit critique of the founders and the Constitution, and with a large dollop of "best/brighest" techno-pragmatism, and with a powerful FDR-like talent for make this seem common-sense and American-as-apple-pie. It is of course inspiring that our new-model FDR can be a black/bi-racial man, and it does of course bring in the deeper pathos-laden and prophet-quoting strains of the Civil Rights movement, but does it change the model? What evidence do we have that the progressive understanding of the fundamental things is significantly altered in Obama by this Civil Rights influence? I am truly open to considering the evidence. But I strain to hear in this speech what you, Jeff, suggest is truly new here. Nor do I quite grasp what you're saying it is...could it be that Obama has momentarily sucked your thinking into the golden-clouded whirl of his own grandiose vagueness? Or do you really begin see the shape of that "uncertain destinty?"

And you do give him too much credit on race. That is, you do not acknowledge the real costs and moral betrayals that his fellow mixed-race man Shelby Steele revealed about his deliberate "invention" of his black identity. Never forget, with a better Republican candidate/situation, Obama's sick-making twenty-year association with Wright might well have cost him the election. I do, however, sincerely hope he learned just what you said he did from the campaign against Bobby Rush.

This is already long even for myself, but I do know that what Obama has said in the past about the principles of Declaration and the soundness and proper interpretation of the Constitution is more than a bit squishy. He's spoken of the second sentence of the Declaration as fundamentally inspirational words, as "just words" that can be used as a basis for agitational motivation, contrary to his teacher Alinsky's focus on the basis of self-interest. As you say, he has an interest in the political uses of poetry. More well-known is the interview when he spoke of the Constituion in terms of whether it could or could not be used to create economic rights, and seemed to ruefully admit that it could not PRACTICALLY be interpreted this far afield from the text itself.

So, no, he has not had to answer basic questions about what the American creed is and what it is not. Now if only he'd do a podcast with you!

Not sure what to make of all that you say above (nor am I sure what to make of Obama) but I am struck by what you said about Churchill and, after watching Bush all these years, it occurs to me that he fell into "deed without the word" error. And that may just be another way of saying that he didn't quite think it all through. Perhaps there were no words? The "words without deeds" error may be the same political error, in a way, though. Both errors really imply that one has not thought a thing all the way through. If you talk big but act small, might it not mean that you that you didn't fully consider the role of accident, contingency and circumstance? You can't act as you said you would because circumstance will not allow it? Or perhaps it only means that you lack courage. Bush had no shortage of courage--though perhaps it would have been better if he had less of it. I also have a hard time imagining that Obama lacks courage. I just hope his judgment is equal to his courage.

I think Dr. Sikkenga and Mr. Hayward are right. I penned a long post in reply to Sikkenga but got carried away with an analogy about a weaver, tapestry, and the threads of fate, nothing I haven't said before. Upon review it seemed vacuous, and brevity is a virtue when one is vacuous...

Obama will I believe place judgement above courage, such that he always apportions his courage to his judgement, which is the same I recon as saying he will use discretion. Along these lines it is said that discretion is the better part of valor, that he who takes flight in fight, lives and in living lives on to fight. The Audacity of discretion is the Audacity of Hope, because hope is the movement(in the way that Sikkenga means it I think) that things will be on more suitable terms tommorow, that one is living on and holding out to pick better spots, better opportunities.

" If you talk big but act small, might it not mean that you that you didn't fully consider the role of accident, contingency and circumstance?" Well maybe, Julie but then again there are abstract ways, using mathmatics and correlation to factor out chance...but even then this sort of thinking only works if your parameters reflect reality, I mean this thinking works in a game of poker, because of the rules that makeup the game, by the rule of thumb, that 2% per out per card...but you can't exactly boil down life to poker or any other game exactly, it could be that no contingencies are possible for the unexpected by definition. The best one can do is expect the unexpected. But then again to properly take into account risk and accident what one has to do is close enough to the opposite. In other words do not expect the unexpected. To make plans that require long shot events is close enough to daydreaming.

"You can't act as you said you would, because circumstances will not allow it." I think this situation might occur more often among those who expect the unexpected than among those more dispassionate about expectations.

But this gets even more complicated because an element of courage is simply doing your duty regardless of how you feel about it. Courage isn't not being afraid, but being afraid and not letting it affect you. Of course fears are often times rational emotions that tell us we shouldn't expect good outcomes. Courage tethered to duty becomes Kantian in the sense that outside circumstances have nothing to do with it, it is explicitly not within a Utilitarian calculus.

I sense that Obama is clearly a person with a strong sense of Duty, but I think he might negotiate courage, he might be pulling a Wittgenstein on the dispute between Kant and Mill, in other words seeking to disolve the distinctions.

Of course to talk this big, is to act small by comparison...but I do think that Obama is partially hard to peg down because he is a disolver, Someone who can be acid to base and base to acid.

In a sense Obama is animated by Hope, and expectations. The expectations are rational or coldly calculated, the Hope is partially the reason for which one would be coldly calculating. A hope is an expectation, but it is an expectation of something good, It is the joining together of something like a wish, with something closer to a deterministic event.

blah, blah, blah...but anyways it may pay to watch the different meanings Obama puts on wishes, Hopes and expectations. He is clearly a scientific/deterministic man of rational expectations, but he is also a dreamer well-wisher and man of Hope, but because he is a disolver, he weaves the disparate and seemingly discordant threads together into his own tapestry, and he is a great weaver.

I like Carl's suggestion that Obama is a new model Progressive for our time. It isn't the whole truth about Obama but we will probably have to accept that the best we can hope for are partial truths that are really true rather than a global explanation of the man that will probably be false.

I suggest that one thing that makes Obama a new model Progressive is that he makes a point to distance himself from the time bound accretions of Baby Boomer liberalism. I saw a 2004 interview Obama gave where he talked about the mistake that liberals made by rejecting faith in politics as inherently dangerous (with a few self serving exceptions), and argued that the embrace of secularism (as opposed to the secular) was a politcal mistake. There is also that line he wrote where he saw modern politics as the continuation of a fight between two sets of poltiticized students from the 1960s. Whe examimining Obama's record you see a consistent but usually prudent liberal. One of the many things that sets him apart is his ironic distance from many of the cultural tics and resentments of modern liberalism. He can be pro abortion with none of the "keep your rosaries of my ovaries" attitudes. He can argue for liberal politics in religous language without seeming to want to expel religous people who disagree with him on a particular issue from politics (the Waren thing was very shrewd). He can oppose a war without a hint that he thinks American policy is basically rooted in imperialism. He can be both very liberal and the anti-Howard Dean at the same time.

Always interesting Carl Scott, but the line that you chose from Obama's speech seems straight foward enough.

"This is the source of our confidence: the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall." I figure that it is always possible that it was cobled together by his speech writters but even if it was hastily done, still in that haste it must have beat out other considered lines. If this is the case I figure you should read less into it, but it seems to me to simply be several true phrases. The knowledge that God calls us is I think debateable while the fact that we do shape an uncertain destiny is fairly par for course. God calls on us to make the best choices/to flourish/to get what we can out of life. Folks animated by this hope(which is the creed) are massed in Washington willing to put to use the Liberty and Freedom they have to attain what they are hopefull for in life, in so far as all creeds are represented all manners of hopes are represented as well, just as the understanding of God's calling takes on different forms within the crowd nevertheless none or very few within the crowd would doubt that they are each shapers of individual destiny and together and representatively the shapers of american and perhaps human destiny itself, thus the confidence they share in being together is the knowledge of: Yes we can!

In a sense in saying this he is saying, you aren't here for me, you aren't just here for you, we are here for us, for what we all hope for individually and in playing our individual roles, what we accomplish also for our famillies, our race, our gender, our history, our country, our religions, and the world itself all that is in fact the creation of that God who granted us the station from which we wrest our destiny building out and upon the foundations of ancestors who came before for the sake of their efforts and our own and for posterity that will come after...

Blah, blah, any case the meaning of anything Obama says is capable of further expansion...and Obama likes to speak in such a way as to guarantee that others will give it that expansion. As Carl Scott notes Obama has seeds that the water of minds like Sikkenga can bring to bloom, but the minds of those less able than Sikkenga can also bring seeds to bloom, and each does in his own way the proof of which was the crowd(moovement)itself. By virtue of not being solid, i.e. by being potential accorns can become oak trees the likes of which oak trees cannot become because they already are. In the beginning was the word...or in the beginning was the deed, in a sense Obama is just the word, but what he says in the Audacity of Hope about being a blank canvas upon which others project immages, hopes and fears this is certainly one of his arms. The old belief that speaking of the devil can bring him to you might opperate on a similar basis.

What Obama means is always in the ear of the listner and the eye of the beholder, but I think Obama himself knows that when he speaks to a crowd and says: you are here because you hear, see and understand, he knows that each is aware of something slightly different. I think ultimately to make what it "is" solid would bring about faction and fighting, but to leave it as vaguely benevolent "potential" brings unity, or at least unity enough to draw a nice crowd.

Obama is the magnet to the overworked immagination of hopeful iron fillings. In a sense it doesn't even matter if Dr. Sikkenga is being "serious" or "solid" or if he is sucked into the golden cloud of grandiose vagueness. It doesn't matter that is in the same sense that someone falling from the sky expects to die and hopes to live and wishes he was somewhere else. The expectation is most accurate, the hope is somewhat possible, the wish is futile. But the wish is just as futile as the certain expectation is accurate and futile.

Maybe it is just me but I am thinking in terms of collective hope/national unity/fraternity I can't dismiss it as mere whim and wishes but it seems to me that as soon as you reach those shores you are in the realm of golden clouds and grandiose vagueness, as Aristotle says each science or art has its respective degree of precision, and sometimes I think the Pythagoreans were right in saying that only geometry was most real, and I get the sense that this itself is important to understanding Obama, in other words what science or art is most real? His answer seems to be the science or art that works, that brings results, that gives hope.

I don't think the comparison to Wilson is all that great. Wilson was, mabye, a naive college professor who sort of owed the people who got him elected. Obama is much more cut inthe mold of modern politician, ivy league law degree. Wilson lamented signing the federal reserve acts later on in his life, something to the extent of saying he had sold out his country i believe. Obama is dealing with a nuetered congress as well, just compare the passage of the TARP with the refusal of the league of nations. I just don't see any reason to paint Obama as either: naive, overly intellectual, or overly idealistic. His policies are what the establishment left has wanted along with what the corporate crowd wants. I don't know, mabye he will lament his actions some day if oversees the transition to world government, but I doubt it.

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