Welcome, Mr. President!

A.K.A. – An Analysis Of “The Obama Effect” Through The Use Of Quotations 😉

You have to admit, it’s been a rather unusual – some might even say historic – time over the past week or so, yes? No? Don’t believe me? Well, have a gander at this:

Obama inauguration as seen from space
Obama’s Inauguration…From Space

This is the view from GeoEye-1, the satellite which Google is using to map the entire Earth’s surface. Hard to look too closely, even with such a powerful instrument, but have a good look…because that’s what 1.9 million people (most of them, even with this wide a shot, not all of them could fit in the frame) look like.

1.9 million people.

Even if we assume that this is an inflated figure, and there were only 1.5 million in attendance, that means that one out of every two hundred people in this country felt like this was a significant enough event to travel to Washington D.C. and stand in 25-degree weather for hours just to be able to say “I was there.” That’s a heck of a lot of interest, even if we don’t make the assumption that every person in attendance was a full-throated supporter of the new President.

I’ve been thinking about why – other than the obvious and hugely significant part about the first African-American President in our nation’s history – this President seems to have captured our imaginations, and our hopes. It can’t all be about race. If it were, Jesse Jackson could have been our first African-American President. He wasn’t, though…Obama is. And I think the reasons for that lie much more in – if you’ll forgive me the overused MLK Jr. line – the content of his character, than in the color of his skin. Yes, it’s significant that America is finally ready to judge a Presidential candidate by those criteria. As Rick Warren put it, somewhere, MLK Jr. himself must be shouting at the progress we, the people, have made towards the fulfillment of his dream.

But that’s our victory, not Obama’s. And he knows it. In fact, he’s continued to point it out, from the campaign trail all the way through to yesterday’s inauguration. Many of Obama’s most moving lines have been the ones where he points out that such a willingness, such progress, is ours. Obviously, he’s made plenty of progress of his own – from humble circumstances through to Harvard Law. He is truly among “the best and the brightest.” But while he’s plenty comfortable with his own progress and stature, he never fails to remember – and to remind US – of our own progress, and of the fact that this Presidential election is – as they all should be (and in fact, as they all ARE, whether we admit or realize it or not) – about US more than it is about him.

Through the last eight years, there have been more than a few times when it has been very easy to give in to despair, fear, suspicion – and a host of other emotions and ideas which make the world a harder, more brittle place. Many of us have thusly given in, from time to time, for various reasons. But underneath the various reasons why people have done so lies the fact that we were offered little but fear and suspicion from the highest offices in the land. I say that not as an excuse for any of the failings of myself or any of my fellow Americans to call forth the best of ourselves, or for having given in to whatever degree at times. We are each responsible for our own actions, and for our own path.

But knowing the path and choosing the path are two different things. T.S. Eliot once put it thusly, in the jaw-dropping poem The Hollow Men:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

Mr. Eliot’s words surely encompassed a greater range of ideas than simply fear and doubt when he referred to “the shadow,” but equally surely, fear and doubt were among the things he imagined when he wrote those words. And, though I doubt Mr. Obama spent a lot of time reflecting upon TS Eliot’s poetry, I think it’s clear he grasped on a very fundamental level the following notion, put forth even longer ago than Mr. Eliot’s words, by Frederick Von Goethe:

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.

This, to me, sums up how I think Obama very consciously chose to approach his campaign, in terms of dealing with the actual people he hoped to lead, especially the final italicized two sentences. In fact, I would offer the idea that those two lines constitute the simplest and most fundamental difference between the way our country’s leadership chose to deal with us over the last eight years, and the way Obama dealt with people throughout his campaign (and promises to continue doing as President): “If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” George W. Bush consistently treated people, both domestically and abroad, as they are – even, at times, as how he expected them (us) to be at our worst. It’s unquestionably accurate, for example, to point out that Islamic extremists are murderous thugs twisted by a steady diet of hateful rhetoric which they’re told comes from their God.

But – and this is the part that George Bush, Dick Cheney and the neocon crew never seemed to understand – it isn’t helpful.

Yes, obviously, it’s helpful, even essential, to see clearly; to see things and people as they are. First things first; being able – and willing – to see people and things as they truly are is the essential foundation to any rational view of the world upon which to base any actions which have any chance of success. To take an undeservedly optimistic view of people or things without a rigorous cataloging of what they ARE is exactly the soft-headed Pollyanna-ism which some conservatives so enjoy accusing liberals of. And such an approach indeed will almost certainly result in the failed outcomes which come from viewing the world through rose-colored lenses. But there’s a key difference – the difference of how we each engage people, how we treat them – which is what Mr. Goethe was talking about, and which Obama understands…but which George Bush’s administration never seemed to. Video cameras see the world as it is. But they don’t suggest a direction to proceed. They don’t lead, and they don’t inspire. Only people do that. But if leaders do nothing but remind us of how the world is (especially if they focus on that which threatens, angers and degrades), then that is not leadership either, it is merely confirmation and reinforcement of the worst of that which we already suspect about ourselves and especially each other.

Between the idea and the reality/falls the Shadow.

What Mr. Eliot implied (but, as he always did, left us to figure out), and what I believe Mr. Goethe amplified and expanded (and what Mr. Obama somehow figured out long ago and took to heart), is that the couplet is bi-directional in its meaning, if read inversely. Read forward, it repeats the oft-voiced notion: “sure, sounds great…but the reality is much less appealing.” Farmer’s Almanac-wisdom has this as: “the devil’s in the details”: the idea that between the idea of something and the reality of it, there’s a lot of room for disappointment and problems. But neither Eliot nor “old wives” and their “tales” are the first to point this out; you also can find the same notion shot through the history of philosophy everywhere, like one thread which fades into the pattern of the tapestry of received wisdom. As far back as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, you see the same thread, the same idea: that the things we see on Earth are always merely poor copies of their idealized, imagined forms (like shadows thrown on the wall of a cave, Plato imagined: we see the shadows, but can only imagine, never see, the idealized form from which the shadow is cast).

But what Eliot implied and Goethe stated explicitly – and what Barack Obama is putting into action – constitutes the major difference between the Bush Administration’s approach, and Obama’s. Read and interpreted forwards, that same couplet of Eliot’s may say that there’s a lot of room for error and disappointment (“shadow”) between things as they are and how we might have imagined they could be at first. But read and interpreted backwards, what Obama has understood somehow (though I doubt he thinks of either of these passages when he thinks of these ideas) is that even after one has taken realistic stock of what IS, there is still room to imagine and to recognized what can be – what people and things could be. Barack Obama’s clarity of vision isn’t lacking. He’s more than intelligent and informed enough to see the world’s occupants and tensions as they are. I doubt anyone was unclear about his intent or his meaning, when he said during yesterday’s speech:

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

It’s pretty hard to find multiple meanings in those words, or to claim the man who spoke them doesn’t “see the world as it is.” But what Barack Obama has understood is that while a willingness and an ability to view the world clearly as it actually exists is unquestionably the foundation for any leadership or policy which isn’t doomed to failure, such an ability and willingness is NOT, in and of itself, leadership. It offers neither a direction, nor any hope or encouragement that what lies along that direction can be reached. Instead, Obama is treating us, both his fellow citizens and people throughout the world with which the United States will interact, as he knows they can be. Quotes which both echo and amplify this notion are littered through his entire speech:

…in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint. We are the keepers of this legacy.

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

and perhaps most especially:

And yet, at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all. For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

and finally:

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

Exactly, Mr. President. Last night’s music has already faded, and the confetti’s been swept up, the tuxedos and the ball gowns are back on the rack. Today begins in earnest Mr. Obama’s call to all of us to become what we know we can be. What we already are, at our best. Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and the rest of that crew spent much if not most of the last eight years treating us, their fellow citizens – as well as the rest of the world, as we are. Or, too often, not even as we are, but as they feared we might be, at our worst. And guess what? It made us worse. Today, you, President Obama, have made us remember what it feels like to have a leader who understands not just what we might be at our worst – or even what we are – but what each of us ourselves knows that we can be. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Welcome, Mr. President!

  1. Beautifully written and very thought provoking. I appreciated your comments and perspective!

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