Monday, November 13, 2006
'Run, Barack, Run' By David Brooks
Barack Obama should run for president.
He should run first for the good of his party. It would demoralize the Democrats to go through a long primary season with the most exciting figure in the party looming off in the distance like some unapproachable dream. The next Democratic nominee should either be Barack Obama or should have the stature that would come from defeating Barack Obama.
Second, he should run because of his age. Obama’s inexperience is his most obvious shortcoming. Over the next four years, the world could face a genocidal civil war in Iraq, a wave of nuclear proliferation, more Islamic extremism and a demagogues’ revolt against globalization. Do we really want a forty-something in the White House?
And yet in his new book, “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama makes a strong counterargument. He notes that it’s time to move beyond the political style of the baby boom generation. This is a style, he said in an interview late Tuesday, that is highly moralistic and personal, dividing people between who is good and who is bad.
Obama himself has a mentality formed by globalization, not the S.D.S. With his multiethnic family and his globe-spanning childhood, there is a little piece of everything in Obama. He is perpetually engaged in an internal discussion between different pieces of his hybrid self — Kenya with Harvard, Kansas with the South Side of Chicago — and he takes that conversation outward into the world.
“Politics, like science, depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality,” he writes in his book. He distrusts righteous anger and zeal. He does not demonize his opponents and tells audiences that he does not think George Bush is a bad man.
He has a compulsive tendency to see both sides of any issue. Joe Klein of Time counted 50 instances of extremely judicious on-the-one-hand-on the-other-hand formulations in the book. He seems like the guy who spends his first 15 minutes at a restaurant debating the relative merits of fish versus meat.
And yet this style is surely the antidote to the politics of the past several years. It is surely true that a president who brings a deliberative style to the White House will multiply his knowledge, not divide it.
During our talk, I reminded Obama that at some level politics is about power, not conversation. He pointed out that he’d risen from nothing to national prominence in a few years so he knew something about acquiring power, but he kept returning to his mode, which is conversation, deliberation and reconciliation.
The third reason Obama should run for president is his worldview. At least in the way he conceptualizes the world, he is not an orthodox liberal. In the book, he harks back to a Hamiltonian tradition that calls not for big government, but for limited yet energetic government to enhance social mobility. The contemporary guru he cites most is Warren Buffett.
He has interesting things to say about the way culture and economics intertwine to create urban poverty. He, conceptually, welcomes free trade and thinks the U.S. may have no choice but to improvise and slog it out in Iraq.
The chief problem in his book is that after launching off on some interesting description of a problem, he will settle back, when it comes time to make a policy suggestion, into a familiar and small-bore Democratic proposal. I’d give him an A for conception but a B-minus for policy creativity.
Obama, who is nothing if not honest about himself, is aware of the problem, and has various explanations for it. And what matters at this point is not his platform, but the play of his mind. He is one of those progressives, like Gordon Brown in Britain, who is thinking about the challenges of globalization outside the normal clichés.
Coming from my own perspective, I should note that I disagree with many of Obama’s notions and could well end up agreeing more with one of his opponents. But anyone who’s observed him closely can see that Obama is a new kind of politician. As Klein once observed, he’s that rarest of creatures: a megahyped phenomenon that lives up to the hype.
It may not be personally convenient for him, but the times will never again so completely require the gifts that he possesses. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, you should hope Barack Obama runs for president.