Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Sam Fleischacker on Barack Obama and "The Importance of Political Imagination"

Over the past few weeks various people I know who live in Super Tuesday states have been trying to decide which candidate to vote for in the Democratic primaries. Some made up their minds a while ago, but others were agonizing up to the last moment. Now that the moment of truth has arrived, some of these late-deciders have have broken for Hillary Clinton and others for Barack Obama. (I haven't heard from Republicans I know, but my guess is that most of them decided sometime in January to vote for John McCain.)

I notice that a number of the people who ultimately decided to go with Barack Obama accepted, explicitly or in effect, Bill Clinton's point that voting for Obama means taking a bigger gamble than voting for Hillary Clinton. (One internet-accessible example is Todd Gitlin's endorsement of Obama yesterday.) They decided that this was a gamble worth taking ... and that may turn out to be right.

I remain genuinely undecided between Clinton and Obama myself. I think both of them have significant (partly complementary) strengths as well as some (complementary) weaknesses. But since I live in Pennsylvania, where the primary won't happen until April, I have the luxury of putting off a decision. It seems safe to predict that Obama and Clinton will still be slugging it out then, so those of us voting in Pennsylvania will get to have our say, too.

=> My good friend Sam Fleischacker, who is an academic philosopher by trade and was also a co-founder of the Chicago-area branch of Americans for Peace Now, has decided to go for Obama over Clinton. The following piece, which he's given me permission to post here, cogently spells out his reasons for reaching this conclusion.

It seems fair to say that Obama has inspired in Sam the audacity of hope. The real choice between Obama and Clinton, Sam argues, has less to do with their policy packages--which don't look that different--than with the styles of political leadership they seem to represent. Like others, Sam sees in Obama more promise of imaginative, inspiring, and effectively transformational political leadership. Could be ... and we may get a chance to find out.

--Jeff Weintraub
Why Barack over Hillary: The importance of political imagination
February 3, 2008
Sam Fleischacker

It's important to remember that when we vote for a presidential candidate, we are not really choosing a package of policies. Hilary may offer one health care proposal and Barack another, but if either of them becomes President, their proposals will become at most an opening bid in the legislative proceedings that lead to a real health care program. The same goes for every other legislative proposal they make. They may be able to call their own shots a bit more in military matters and foreign policy - but even there they will be limited by the legislature, and the other parties, in the US and abroad, with whom they need to work.

So a person's political style matters considerably more than his or her precise policies (the policies, indeed, are best seen as a clue to the style: the absence of mandates in Obama's health care proposal, for instance, suggests a willingness to work with people across the aisle). We need to ask: is this person likely to inspire others to want to carry out the vision he or she presents? Is this person, however inspirational, also realistic and well-informed? Can this person work well with others - is he or she flexible and even-tempered? And is he or she honest and open, or secretive and inclined to work just with a small in-group? We need to ask, in short, whether the person is likely to be able to bring about a vision with at least the general shape he or she is promoting, and whether he or she is likely to share that vision with all of us, and respond sensitively to our concerns, or likely instead to try to impose it from above.

It is to these questions that Barack Obama gives us a better answer than Hillary Clinton. Clinton certainly has some of the political virtues we need, but she lacks others. She is certainly intelligent, realistic and well-informed, but even if we set aside the fact that she obviously does not inspire others the way Obama does - a quality of great importance for a political figure whose main tool will be the "bully pulpit" - she has a reputation and manner that suggests anything but flexibility, willingness to work with others, and openness.

I want to stress one other feature of political style, one political virtue, that I think differentiates the candidates but has not received enough attention: imagination. Political imagination shows when a candidate finds an unexpected solution to a problem that seemed insoluble, or an unexpectedly sensitive way of presenting his or her views. Consider, for instance, the difficulty of standing firmly for public financing of campaigns, which most Democrats say they do, while remaining viable in the extremely expensive arena that elections have now become. Obama's proposal of accepting private funds for the primaries but then taking public funds only in the general election if he faced an opponent willing to do the same thing, was a stroke of genius.

Less extraordinary, but also a mark of imaginativeness is the fact that he is running on his ability to work with Republicans: an important quality but one that Democratic candidates hardly ever stress. And it showed imagination - as well as courage - to address the problem of anti-semitism in some black churches, which had been used against him in the Internet rumor mill, by raising that problem himself in an address to a major black church on Martin Luther King Day.

Why do we need imagination in our leaders? Well, just a little imagination might have led George Bush the Elder to support the Shi'ite insurrection against Saddam Hussein in 1991, rather than letting that dictatorship fester for many more years. Or compare the response of Truman to the end of WW II with the response of the first Bush to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. By a judicious mixture of carrots and sticks - the Marshall Plan, especially - Truman managed to make permanent friends out of our worst enemies: Germany and Japan. By doing nothing to help the democratic forces in the changing Soviet Union, Bush allowed it to drift into poverty and unrest, which provided a basis for the return of totalitarianism in Russia that we now see.

Again, imagination might have led Bush or Bill Clinton to recognize the threat of al-Qaeda earlier, and either try to isolate them by winning over more moderate forces in the Muslim world or move hard to crush them. And imagination might have led Yitzhak Rabin to signal his sincere peaceful intentions towards the Palestinians by withdrawing from some settlements immediately after Oslo.

In short, political imagination is a source of foresight, that can help one find ways out of looming problems before they grow into great and current threats. It is especially important in foreign affairs because that is where the dangers can be most serious, and where the political situation can change most quickly, but it can also be crucial to breaking through deadlocks on the domestic scene. Clinton, for all her vast knowledge of policy, mostly represents the entrenched, very slow-to-change orthodoxy of the Democratic Party. She doesn't like going out on a limb, or proposing anything that has not been vetted by a long line of experts and settled politicians. Obama, by contrast, is extremely quick-witted, able to give excellent responses to challenges on his feet, and he shows a willingness, even a fondness, for doing things differently from the way his predecessors have done things.

These qualities make for political imagination, and they are precisely the qualities we need in a rapidly changing, complicated world. If it looks like our enemies abroad are boxing us in, or our friends deadlocked in a struggle with one another, Obama is more likely to respond with an unexpected way out than Clinton is, and he is also likely to find a solution if left- and right-wing forces here at home are deadlocked on an important political issue. I can't imagine a virtue we need more in the next President; we can't afford a leader who sticks doggedly with entrenched ideologies when they provide no solution to the strange new challenges we seem now to be facing every day.