important about Barack Obama: How great is his capacity to learn and to
During the campaign, at several junctures, Obama impressed me on just
this point, which is one of the aspects of the man that made me very
hopeful about his presidency. But in the past two months, he's
seemed slow to catch on to the way his customary approach was failing
to deal with the evolving situation.
The evolving situation concerned the battle over health care
reform. His customary approach is to be conciliatory and to avoid
Non-confrontation is a fundamental aspect of Obama's modus
operandi. He was able to ride that approach all the way to the
White House. The effectiveness of that approach surprised me, and I
learned a lot from Obama.
My own tendency is far more confrontational. My own website --www.NoneSoBlind.org-- was
launched with a piece entitled "What America Needs Now: A Prophetic
Social Movement that Speaks Moral Truth to Amoral Power." I
closed that piece with this declaration:
Let us then speak to America out of our faith in a
venerable idea deeply embedded in the Western religious tradition: the
idea that the material power of the bad ruler can be overcome by the
power of moral truth boldly spoken. Let us launch, then, a prophetic"
social movement to re-establish the power of real righteousness in
Obama spoke some moral truth, but he hardly took on the mantle of the
prophet to denounce the evil ruler. He left evil pretty much
alone. Yet, avoiding confrontation with evil, he succeeded.
Until now, with this health care reform battle. For the past two
months, Obama has been losing the battle, and in large measure that is
because he has continued employing his habitual mode after it has
ceased to be effective. While his enemies became ferocious and
hateful, he remained calm and gentlemanly. Obama occasionally addressed
their lies, but he never counter-attacked his enemies by calling them
on their lying.
As a result, it seems, the lies of Obama's enemies largely drowned out
Obama's positive message, and at the end of this one-sided
confrontation a substantial proportion of the American people believed
the lies and Obama's numbers were falling.
Why didn't Obama succeed with the methods that have worked for him before?
Perhaps it is because in this instance he's trying to sell something
complicated. (And it didn't help that not only was it complicated
but, because Obama did not define the specifics of his program but left
it substantially up to Congress, "Obama-care" remained vague.)
Compared with the kinds of lies Obama had to deal with during the
campaign (such as the image of him as a Muslim terrorist), a complex
program is vulnerable to the lie: What's not easily perceived and
understood is more readily misrepresented so that people will see it as
something different from what it is.
He could sell himself just by showing himself, but he could not sell a
complex and amorphous program his enemies were determined to distort
without joining the battle.
Regardless of the reason why the lie succeeded in this instance,
regardless of the reason why it no longer worked for Obama to leave the
crazies to be crazy while he modeled sanity, what Obama has to
understand now is that no single way of dealing with things is adequate
to all occasions.
Non-confrontation has its uses; so also does
confrontation. And it is now time for Obama to wield a different
set of tools to prevail.
The old tool is not adequate to the new situation.