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Politics > Stir It Up

Adaptive Obama

Why we shouldn't give up on change just yet

 

Published 1/13/2010

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I fall solidly on the "L" side of the political spectrum. You can translate that to liberal or leftist, however you please. Let's just say that I'm not ashamed to come from that side. Never was, even when folks tried to hide behind the "P" (populist or progressive) monikers back in the 1990s after Republicans had effectively demonized the "L" brand.

It's because of my L-side orientation that, at times in the past year, I judged President Barack Obama harshly for not pushing harder against the conservative tide and sailing the ship of state into socialist waters. Democrats have the majority in the House and Senate, so why can't we just shove our agenda down their throats the way Republicans did in enacting President George W. Bush's agenda nearly a decade ago?

As we approach the first anniversary of Obama's inauguration (the thought still makes me a bit giddy), I've been thinking about my feelings and have found grounds for optimism. For me, the first real surge of belief in Obama's candidacy came because of his March 2008 race speech: The one he gave in response to the furor around the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's controversial sermons. Obama gave a speech that knocked my socks off. He talked about race in a way that didn't use the same old jargon or an accusatory, finger-pointing tone. He didn't condemn Wright or cut ties with him. It was a refreshing change. Obama acknowledged African-American anger over race in America, yet was sympathetic to whites who don't consider themselves privileged in these tough economic times.

"Race is an adaptive problem," says Harvard University psychologist Kimberlyn Leary. "It's always going to look different depending on what vantage point you have. A racial problem is always going to look different to the parties involved."

Leary, who is scheduled to speak on "Obama, Leadership and Race" to a group of psychoanalysts next week, says an adaptive problem is one which has no set answer — "the problem itself is fluid."

She also considers Obama to be an adaptive leader, one who "is oriented to learning himself and knows how to learn."

That gives me some perspective as I assess Obama's presidency. It's the Obama of the race speech that I love the most. If that's the case, then I need to at least appreciate the Obama of health care reform. Washington is focused on the health care legislation moving slowly through Congress. It doesn't look anything like what I wanted to see — a universal single-payer system along the lines of what they have in Canada and most of Europe. It was pretty obvious early on that we weren't going to see that. Especially when I heard that the insurance industry had two lobbyists for each legislator and was spending millions each day to ensure the legislative outcome favors their interests. Even the so-called public option (low-cost, government-run insurance) has been pronounced dead on arrival.

The health care bill we're probably going to get basically widens access to insurance, prohibits denial of coverage due to pre-existing conditions and provides a government subsidy for some low and middle-income subscribers. So why didn't Obama marshal his forces and force through a better bill? One reason may be that what's coming down the pike is actually passable. The last, more ambitious, health care reform bill floated during the early days of President Bill Clinton's administration went down in flames.

The more conventionally wise among us might argue that to get any progressive health care reform bill passed is a great victory, and maybe with that in place we can make it better later. I'm trying to be adaptive here. Maybe what I want isn't the one, best way to do it. What I'm now seeing in Obama is someone who is willing to listen and take the counsel of others. Someone who doesn't feel he has to be the 800-pound gorilla fighting to get his way at all costs.

Opponents argue that evidences a weak president. They may be right ... but they may be wrong that a president has to be a single-minded strong man. Bush was single-minded and strong, unwilling to question his positions or decisions. He drove the country into a ditch and never looked back. Maybe being committed to a single point of view isn't the best way for a president, or government, to perform.

Obama won the election with a platform of change — change from politics as usual, change from partisanship. He's reached out to Republicans and had his hand bitten. And in Congress the old process of trading favors for support of the health care bill is a throwback to the way things have been done. You can't turn the ship of state around on a dime, especially when the opposition party chooses to naysay and obstruct. But at least a certain amount of civility seems to be creeping into the way things are done.

"Obama's election changes the environment for all of us," says Leary. "The American president has profound influence all across the world."

That indeed seems to be the case. And it's being touted by folks who argue that Obama has had a great first year. People around the world seem to like America more now that Obama, a world citizen, is president. Contrast that with Bush, who bragged that he had never been to Europe before he became president and didn't seem to be sure he could trust French fries. The world so loves Obama that he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize probably based more on his potential impact than actual achievement. Although I must admit that ramping down the war in Iraq goes a long way with me, notwithstanding the ramp-up in Afghanistan.

The third leg of Obama's success is the economy. Again that's a work in progress, or to use Leary's term, it's adaptive on a daily basis. Whether or not you agree with Obama's shepherding the bank and auto bailouts as president-elect and as president, economists are pretty much in agreement that they saved us from even worse economic straits.

Overall, Obama gets a decent report card. Moving forward on health care, getting most of the rest of the world to view us more positively, and keeping the economy out of deep depression are pretty good for a young, inexperienced president in his first year on the job.

I'm not in love with everything he's done, and in my more paranoid moments I imagine that the secret cabal that runs the world pulled him in shortly after his inauguration and let him know that things aren't going to change that much, or he'd get the same thing President Kennedy got back in 1963. I don't really think that, but it certainly would explain a lot of things that go on. We all have our moments.

When Obama was elected, he told us that he couldn't change America on his own, that the rest of us needed to work to make good things happen in our own back yards. We need to push our locally elected representatives on what we want. We need to work for change and be willing to adapt when it makes sense.

So, if you are disappointed in Obama then you should be disappointed in yourself. He told us it would not be easy.


Kimberlyn Leary speaks at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 20, at the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute, 32841 Middlebelt, Farmington Hills. For registration (required) and information call 248-851-3380; $45, students $20; light brunch.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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