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Obama for Skeptics

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Mikhail Lyubansky       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   21 comments

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This piece is for the skeptics. Not for skeptical Republicans (I imagine you have your minds made up already), but for all the undecideds and independents, for all the middle-of-the-roadsters, for the person who is right now saying "I would be happy with either candidate as President" or, I suppose, for the one who is saying "I can't stand either of these guys." I’ve been listening to you, reading your editorials. I know what you’re saying. Dare I say, I know what you’re not saying too. Obama skeptics: This piece is for you.

“The only thing he’s done is give a good speech.”

I suppose we can blame Hillary Clinton for this, but I suspect Republicans would have come up with this line of attack anyway. In any case, here’s what it sounded like coming from Clinton during the primary campaign in mid-February in Lordstown, Ohio:

“Over the years you’ve heard plenty of promises from plenty of people and plenty of speeches. And some of those speeches were probably pretty good. But speeches don’t put food on the table. Speeches don’t fill up your tank. Speeches don’t fill your prescriptions. My opponent makes speeches. I offer solutions. It’s one thing to get people excited. I want to empower you…There’s a big difference between us—speeches versus solutions. Talk versus action. You know, some people may think words are change. But you and I know better. Words are cheap.”

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Fast forward to Joe Lieberman speaking at the GOP National Convention:

"Sen. Barack Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who I think can do great things for our country in the years ahead. But my friends, eloquence is no substitute for a record--not in these tough times."

Different person, same argument, which would be fine if it had any merit to it, but it is still now (as it was in February) nothing more than a smokescreen. I agree that Obama still has to back up all the good rhetoric, but at least the rhetoric is, in fact, good. More on the substance later. First, let me point out that the argument is, at its very core, illogical. The argument hinges on the presumed association between good speeches and lack of subsequent action. But why would inaction be more associated with good speeches than those that are bad or merely mediocre? It has nothing to do with promises. Every politician makes those, Clinton and Lieberman included. And certainly, despite Clinton’s implication (“My opponent makes speeches. I offer solutions.”), it can have nothing to do with the act of speech-making itself, not when Clinton and now McCain are campaigning just as long and have just as many “speaking engagements”. So why exactly should a good speech mean anything more (or less) than just that, a good speech? Yeah, I can’t think of any reason either.

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But there is something more too. It's tempting to dismiss talk as just "talk", but talking is also a form of behavior. What we choose to say says something important about who we are. If you listen carefully to Obama's speeches, there is empathy there that you just don't hear very often at this level of politics. Not promises (those can and will get broken), not sympathy (who among us doesn’t feel sad for the families who lost loved ones in Iraq?) but genuine empathy (defined as emotionally putting yourself in the place of another) for a variety of different people across many different demographic lines. Here's how one linguist broke it down: The author is unmistakably pro-Obama, but that's not really relevant. Show me a pro-McCain article that discusses his empathy. If you can’t recall any, it’s not because of a memory deficit. If you haven’t seen any, it’s not because you haven’t read enough. Genuine empathy is not something that can be faked. Most politicians, McCain included, know better than to try.

“He’s just like every other politician (I don’t trust him)”

It’s really to Obama’s credit that the charge of being “just like every other politician” is generally perceived as a criticism. We can argue the degree to which Obama really does transcend “politics as usual”, but I think that’s really not the point. After all, Americans have voted for “every other politician” in every previous election to date. The way I see it, the key part of this “argument” lies in its second (often unstated) part: that, for whatever reason, he is not trustworthy (or less trustworthy) – not because he is like every other politician (after all, we choose to place our trust somewhere), but because in some important way he is unlike every other politician.

How is Obama unlike other politicians, or more accurately, other recent Presidential candidates? I made a list, certainly not an exhaustive one, but it’s a start.

1. He’s not White (might as well get that out of the way first)

2. He’s not patriotic

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3. He’s not experienced

Let’s examine them one at a time, well sort of.

He’s not white/He’s not patriotic. Racial dynamics are clearly going to play a role in the November election. Elsewhere (see, I’ve argued that allowing the candidate’s race to play a role in deciding who to vote for is not necessarily a bad thing and that electing a Black President would be beneficial to this country and its citizens in a number of different ways. But where some see benefits, others see potential costs. One of these, for many White people, seems to be that it’s harder to trust Obama, not because of explicit racist beliefs (these exist too, in some circles) but because his racial status seems to suggest to some people that his allegiances may lie somewhere other than the nation’s best interest. Any evidence of this is, of course, hard to find, but as psychologists have long understood: perception is reality. And the reality for many White Americans is that inconsequential behavior (such as not wearing a small-flag pin on his lapel) is filtered through preconceived notions and consequently given inordinate weight and consequence. This is what’s important in a President? That he wears a flag pin? Few voters will admit to distrusting Obama because of his race, but when was the last time a major party’s Presidential nominee had to defend his patriotism during the party’s National Convention, as Obama did this past week? Call it “lack of patriotism” if you want to, but at least “try on” whether you would feel the same way if Obama were White?

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)

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