Rethinking Obama

Why I’ve reconsidered Barack Obama and his run for the presidency.

by Jason Stahl

With George W. Bush’s approval ratings hovering in the same range as Nixon during the Watergate scandal, and with a Newsweek poll showing that 58 percent of respondents wish “the Bush presidency was simply over,” it is no wonder that there is so much media coverage of the 2008 presidential elections this far in advance of the first primaries. Given that I am part of this 58 percent, and given that I am a Democrat trying to make up my mind on who to support in the primaries, I cannot help but succumb to the urge to talk about the race once again.

I say “once again,” because I wrote my first column on the subject even before the Democrats took control of Congress. In late October, I wrote a column titled, “Obama in 2008?” in which I suggested that Barack Obama needed to exercise more leadership on the issues of the day (especially Iraq) before I would start considering him for the Democratic nomination. Specifically, I criticized Obama’s “deliberative style” and ended the column as follows: “Öif the last election taught us anything, it is that a ‘deliberative style’ can easily be portrayed as a ‘flip-flopper,’ as it did in the case of John Kerry. Democrats can avoid a repeat of this if we pick a forceful leader in 2008 to be our presidential nominee. Right now, Obama does not fit the bill.”

Although I am still undecided on who I will support in the Democratic primaries, recent events have made me reconsider my position on Obama. First and foremost, Obama has stood up and once again shown leadership on the Iraq War. On Jan. 30, Obama introduced the Iraq War De-escalation Act of 2007. In his floor speech in the Senate introducing the act, he declared that it was “time for us to fundamentally change our policy” and, as such, proposed a plan which would “place a cap on the number of troops in Iraq and stop the escalation; more importantly, it would begin a phased redeployment of U.S. forces with the goal of removing of all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by March 31, 2008.” Rightly recognizing that President Bush does not care about ending the war, this legislation and speech show important leadership by working to change the conversation from escalating the war to ending it.

While this leadership on the war is clearly important, recent events have made me reconsider Obama’s “deliberative style” as well. In my previous column, I argued that this style inhibited his ability to lead and could be portrayed as weak. Moreover, I saw the style as calculating – one which is often used by timid Democrats to either avoid taking a stand or to take a stand in favor of a right-wing position (see Joe Lieberman, for example). However, upon further reflection and evidence, I don’t think this is the best way to look at Obama’s politics and his “deliberative style” more generally.

What initially convinced me that I was wrong was an article I read this past week, written in 1995 as Obama was running for the Illinois state senate, about his past experiences as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago. It was here Obama learned that to be a good organizer, one had to be a good listener, to not impose his own agenda and to empower others to facilitate change. A friend of his remarked at the time that Obama “had a reasonable, focused approach that I hadn’t seen much of. A lot of organizers you meet these days are these self-anointed leaders with this strange, way-out approach and unrealistic, eccentric way of pursuing things from the very beginning. Not Barack. He’s not about calling attention to himself. He’s concerned with the work. It’s as if it’s his mission in life, his calling, to work for social justice.”

What this person was describing is essentially the same deliberative style one still sees in Obama today. And I would argue this deliberative style – one borne out of a community organizing experience – is far different than one borne out of electoral calculation. The latter is cowardly while the former might be just what is needed to create progressive change at the presidential level.

Obama declared at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting Friday that his campaign would, most importantly, be about fighting cynicism in politics. And maybe it was cynicism that made me view him in the way that I once did. So while he hasn’t made me a supporter yet, he has achieved his goal of making at least one person less of a cynic.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]