Obama’s Sense of Perspective
Would all those whose sons or daughters died in Iraq, who’ve lost their jobs, who can’t afford gasoline or health care, or whose homes are in foreclosure—but who still think gay marriage is our most burning issue—please stand up?
The human virtue we Americans most need restored in these perilous times is our sense of perspective. Its complete absence has been one of the Bush Administration’s most dangerous and deceptive follies.
Dubya and Rove gained power, abused it, and set our country on a course of precipitous decline by elevating just such national nonissues as gay marriage to central positions in our political dialogue. They raised gossip above policy while allowing their cronies in the oil, coal, car and outsourcing industries to plunder the nation.
At the same time, they neglected the fundamentals of our economic, commercial, environmental and military survival. Their policies on energy, infrastructure, pollution, global warming, medical and scientific research, disaster response, war, military preparedness, and terrorism were counterproductive or ineffectual at best.
Now comes Senator Obama. What much of the nation has yet to learn about him is that he is, first and foremost, a realist, pragmatist and centrist. He never loses perspective.
Republicans like to tar him as a liberal or “far-left” Democrat. They do so not because that charge has any semblance of reality, but because it has worked so well for them against others in the recent past. Maybe they tried to move the country so far to the right that they can no longer discern the center. But their old song is out of tune with the times.
How does Obama’s pragmatism and centrism reveal itself? Let me count the ways. On health care, he never went for Hillary’s superficially attractive mandates, which were politically and economically flawed. He never proposed a politically elusive “single payer” system, although his praise for Medicare suggested that he might favor it. Instead, he suggested a simple, direct and politically feasible combination of public and private resources, with nuances of uncanny economic understanding. It’s clear that he designed his approach to minimize political opposition and get a practicable solution in place as quickly as possible.
On foreign policy and terrorism, Obama kept his eye on the most important ball: Al Qaeda Central in Pakistan. If Al Qaeda or its affiliates get their hands on a nuclear weapon and are able to detonate it in an American city, you can kiss our country as you know it now goodbye. Dubya’s feeble imperial aspirations gave us just a foretaste of what would happen. Someone like Cheney would take over, and a frightened and cowed population would not only let him, but encourage him.
Even if the nuke were a North Korean dud, its detonation would be like Alaric sacking Rome in the fifth century. After Alaric, the wounded Roman empire stumbled on for a few more centuries but was a spent force. The Dark Ages ensued. Just such an end is likely for us if we don’t take Al Qaeda seriously.
Obama has. Nearly a year ago he proposed the strongest, clearest, most thorough and comprehensive plan to combat terrorism of any presidential candidate. He recognized the need to pursue bin Laden and Zawahiri in Pakistan if necessary. And he beat everyone else in politics, including the Bushies, by at least five months in recognizing how Musharraf’s clumsy military government had failed both the battle against terrorists and its own people.
On energy policy, Obama has been too ready to pander to Midwest farmers in supporting inefficient corn-derived ethanol. He has also pandered to his home state’s coal industry in pushing the promise of so-called “clean coal” far beyond any demonstrated feasibility or technological merit. But he has acknowledged the two most important points of national energy policy: the fatal damage that our dependence on foreign oil is doing to our economy and national security and the urgent need to achieve carbon neutrality and retard the scourge of climate change.
Recognizing these points, Obama exposed the absurdity of Republican proposals to cure our oil addiction by drilling for yet more oil in our wilderness and coastal areas. As he or his staff has pointed out, our total national oil reserves—a mere 3% of the world’s—are a drop in the global market’s bucket. Their complete exhaustion would not even budge the present trajectory of global supply and demand, and consequently wouldn’t change prices. More important, it would take at least a decade to bring any of these resources on line, by which time we could be halfway to a real policy of energy independence.
Obama’s good sense of perspective doesn’t stop with future proposals. It shows in his campaign. Many Democrats decried his vote to legally immunize the telecommunications companies that voluntarily participated in Dubya’s illegal electronic surveillance.
But what’s the point of exposing these corporations to interminable lawsuits? At the time, their managements thought—albeit erroneously—that they were doing the right and patriotic thing. Despite intensive journalistic investigation, no serious abuses of individual rights by these corporations have come to light. The only practical reason for denying them immunity is to use civil lawsuits to expose the Bush administration’s wrongdoing after it leaves office. But that wrongdoing is mostly over, and it will inevitably be exposed once an Obama Administration and a heavily Democratic Congress take office next year.
To ask for more is to make largely innocent corporations, their employees and shareholders collateral damage in a political vendetta against the Bush Administration. Obama is much too smart to do that. In voting for immunity he courted the support of important business leaders, whose help he will need to govern effectively. He did the right but unpopular thing. And he reminded us that the best revenge is living well—something we Americans, with our interminable political reprisals, have forgotten how to do.
Another example of Obama’s sense of perspective is his courting religious voters with support for faith-based initiatives. Courting them is exactly what he should be doing. He needs a strong electoral mandate and a durable Democratic majority to make the huge changes that need making. Religious voters now realize how badly Dubya and Rove conned them and subverted Jesus’ and the Bible’s teachings. They are ripe for political conversion.
Eight months ago, I predicted that Obama would woo religious voters and would do so successfully. Not being as politically savvy as he, I was off on my timing: it’s better to court them after the primaries, both because Democrats are more secular and because religious voters don’t like John McCain. Obama rightly turned to the task as soon as he had practically secured the nomination.
I know, I know. Courting religious voters risks weakening the separation of church and state. But church/state separation typically doesn’t fare well in third-world countries, and third-world status is where our national glide path has us headed. If Obama can use religious voters’ heft to pull back on the stick and get us heading upward again, minor blurring of the church/state line is a risk well worth taking. Here, too, his actions bespeak a man who sees and takes the main chance.
Obama’s most notable act of perspective and pragmatism was refusing to accept the $ 84 million federal limits on his campaign financing. He knows that racism, although dying, is not dead. He saw how cleverly even Hillary exploited it when the chips were down, and he knows it will raise its ugly head again this September and October. The Swift Boat Veterans’ character assassination of John Kerry was fresh in his mind. So he made sure he would have an enormous campaign war chest to fight unfair, irrational and unpatriotic attacks right down to the finish.
Obama’s opponents seem perpetually confused about him. They see his charisma, his powerful message of hope and change, his unmatched education, and his extraordinary intellect. So they think he must be a fuzzy-minded egghead, an idealist and ideologue.
He is anything but. He never loses perspective. He is a hard-headed realist and pragmatist who never takes his eye off the ball. He is the Tiger Woods of modern politics.
Like Woods, Obama is modest, likeable and understated and has a winning smile. But also like Woods, he is single-minded and relentless in the pursuit of victory, whether it be winning the election or conquering the host of real problems that threaten to demote us to third-world status. He is flexible on means and minor stuff but never seems to lose sight of what really matters.
Our leadership has lacked those qualities for so long that we have trouble recognizing them, let alone appreciating them. But they will serve Obama well as president. It’s a shame that so many people still underestimate both them and him.