Obama: Still the Same
by Donna Schoenkopf
I’m still trying to figure out what to say to Jim. Maybe if I start writing, I’ll be able to get it out of my soggy old brain and make some sense out of things. You see, Jim sent me an email a few weeks back. It was an op-ed from The New York Times. If you choose not to read it, I’ll summarize for you:
Obama is weak and capitulates to bullies. Obama has reneged on his promises and sold out.
I disagree. To illustrate, I’ll begin with this old joke:
The Flood of the Century had forced Joe, a deeply religious man, onto the roof of his house. He prayed long and hard (and out loud) to God Almighty, “Heavenly Father, please come down and save me and carry me away from this rooftop!”
A little while later a neighbor called out from shore, “Joe, grab this rope. I gotta get outta here in a hurry. The flood’s forcing me to me to leave!”
“Go on,” Joe yelled. “The Lord will save me.”
So his neighbor left, muttering.
After an hour or so another man in a rowboat appeared through the falling rain and called out, “Come on over to the edge of the roof and climb down and I’ll take you to safety!”
“No, thanks. The Lord is coming to save me,” Joe called back.
So the man rowed off into the deluge, shaking his head.
Some time later Joe heard a helicopter overhead and saw a long rescue rope dangling down.
A voice over a bullhorn said, “Grab the rope! We’ll pull you to safety!”
“No thanks. The Lord will save me!” Joe called back.
After some back and forth about whether he was sure about that, the helicopter and the rope disappeared into the rain.
The rain went on and on and eventually Joe was swallowed up by the flood and drowned. The next thing he knew, he was in heaven in front of God Almighty, Himself. Joe was hopping mad.
“Why didn’t you rescue me, God? I have been your most faithful servant. I never gave up hope that you’d come down to save me!”
God replied, “Well, I sent your neighbor, a rowboat, and a helicopter, but you told them all to go away.”
Are we like Joe, waiting for a god-like figure to rescue us? I think Mr. Westin is.
Contrary to what the Westin piece says in the New York Times, President Obama has never changed directions as to what kind of president he would be. He has always talked about changing the paradigm in Washington and that a new way of doing things was about to happen. He believes in (gasp) democracy and that he is the President of all the people and must consider everyone’s point of view.
Barack Obama is unlike anyone who has ever held the presidency before him and is perfectly suited for the office in these times. He is no Lyndon Johnson, twisting arms or giving goodies to members of Congress to coerce them to do his bidding, nor is he Roosevelt who “welcomes the hatred” of the opposition, nor is he George W., showing strength from the barrel of a gun. Obama is something new.
His personality is new. People don’t quite know what to make of him. He comes from a Norman Rockwell, white middle class America, but he has an African father and grew up being an African American. We are familiar with white and black cultures, so we can see those influences in him, but we forget the powerful influence of Asian cultures on him. Remember, he grew up in Hawaii, the only state in the union that has a predominantly Asian population, and spent a few years in Indonesia during his childhood. But most of us aren’t familiar with Asian cultural attitudes, which regard bombastic personalities as boorish. Loudmouths are thought of as child-like. Keeping one’s cool is considered adult and well-centered.
Sounds like Obama, doesn’t it?
And then there is Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. She married outside of her race and had a biracial child. She worked with poor women in Indonesia and started microfinancing programs for them—microfinancing programs that empowered them and helped them and their families survive.
She ardently believed in education and invested early morning hours with her son to catch him up in English. She sent him back to Hawaii so he would benefit from a good education at Punahou School, Occidental College, Columbia University, and Harvard. She sacrificed a lot for her son’s education. She always, always believed in him. She was a person who felt a kinship with and saw beauty in every person and taught her children that philosophy.
She believed in democracy. She was from the 60s, a time when democracy flourished. Her generation marched on Washington, invaded the Democratic Convention in Chicago, stuck flowers in the barrels of the rifles of the National Guard instead of throwing rocks. Peace, feminism, environmentalism, equal rights were signs of the times. “Power to the people” was the mantra. Change was good. Barack Obama was infused with these ideas through his mother’s example.
He became fascinated with democratic decision making. While a senior at Columbia he wrote his paper for his honors seminar in American Foreign Policy about how decisions were made during talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union regarding nuclear disarmament. He didn’t delve into the issue itself, but instead wrote about the intricacies of how people interacted with each other in order to reach agreement. Sort of like game theory, I suppose.
His study of shared decision-making served him well when he went on to Harvard and became president of the Harvard Law Review. Everyone involved in the Review, conservatives and liberals alike, saw him as a person who listened to all sides and was fair.
After graduating he didn’t chase power or wealth. He became a community organizer, just like his mother. Those on the right belittle him for that. Imagine. Making fun of someone who brought people together to work on problems they could solve themselves. He spoke to the people of his community so beautifully that his future wife, Michelle, fell in love with him as she listened to him speak to the people of a poor Chicago neighborhood about how to get a little justice in their housing situation.
Do you remember the first time you heard Obama speak? I do. It was at the 2004 Democratic Convention and the video that follows is the portion of his speech that was wildly cheered and admired and is still what is remembered from that night.
That was and is the person who is our President. The idea that we are one nation, the UNITED States of America, different and alike, all of us together, is what he believes. He is about inclusion, respect, working together. He has never sold out, never given up.
So when Drew Westin writes about Obama betraying the people who elected him, I wonder if he listened to any of Obama’s speeches. Didn’t he know his background and his values? Barack Obama has always, always been someone who drew people from opposite sides together and worked to create consensus.
What happened? Why are people like Mr. Westin nervous about his abilities as President? I think it’s because we are still in our old “Us vs. Them” ways. I hear folks say that you just can’t talk to the other side. They are too rigid or too stupid to understand.
Don’t get me wrong. I have my own ideas of the way things should be and argue strenuously for my side. But I treasure my conversations with folks who differ from me. I always feel stimulated by the conversation, smarter, more connected to them when we talk about our ideas. But, I am sad to say, most of our political discussions these days are reserved for people who have the same belief system as our own. Open, frank, honest, respectful conversation is rarely seen or heard between neighbors and friends and members of the community. It’s actually considered rude to “talk politics” in a social setting. We listen to and read only our own side of the argument. We don’t open ourselves to opinions contrary to our own.
It’s really hard to change. People from Old School Politics are still stuck in the adversarial way of doing business. Kill or be killed. Mitch McConnell doesn’t care about a vibrant, healthy America as much as he wants to defeat Obama. The Tea Party (bless ’em) have such a buzzword philosophy—“government is the problem,” “no taxes,” “death panels,” “climate change is a hoax,”—that they are actually hurting themselves. Our national conversation is proving to be overheated and sometimes intractable.
What’s to be done? Where is the god-like, strong leader who will come down from the sky and rescue us from our rooftops? While we’re looking up in the air for Him or Her to save us, the answer is on the shore, in the rowboat, in the helicopter overhead. It’s people working together to help each other.
Barack Obama knows that.