December 18, 2007
The Obama-Clinton Issue
By DAVID BROOKS
Hillary Clinton has been a much better senator than Barack Obama. She has been a serious, substantive lawmaker who has worked effectively across party lines. Obama has some accomplishments under his belt, but many of his colleagues believe that he has not bothered to master the intricacies of legislation or the maze of Senate rules. He talks about independence, but he has never quite bucked liberal orthodoxy or party discipline.
If Clinton were running against Obama for Senate, it would be easy to choose between them.
But they are running for president, and the presidency requires a different set of qualities. Presidents are buffeted by sycophancy, criticism and betrayal. They must improvise amid a thousand fluid crises. They’re isolated and also exposed, puffed up on the outside and hollowed out within. With the presidency, character and self-knowledge matter more than even experience. There are reasons to think that, among Democrats, Obama is better prepared for this madness.
Many of the best presidents in U.S. history had their character forged before they entered politics and carried to it a degree of self-possession and tranquillity that was impervious to the Sturm und Drang of White House life.
Obama is an inner-directed man in a profession filled with insecure outer-directed ones. He was forged by the process of discovering his own identity from the scattered facts of his childhood, a process that is described in finely observed detail in “Dreams From My Father.” Once he completed that process, he has been astonishingly constant.
Like most of the rival campaigns, I’ve been poring over press clippings from Obama’s past, looking for inconsistencies and flip-flops. There are virtually none. The unity speech he gives on the stump today is essentially the same speech that he gave at the Democratic convention in 2004, and it’s the same sort of speech he gave to Illinois legislators and Harvard Law students in the decades before that. He has a core, and was able to maintain his equipoise, for example, even as his campaign stagnated through the summer and fall.
Moreover, he has a worldview that precedes political positions. Some Americans (Republican or Democrat) believe that the country’s future can only be shaped through a remorseless civil war between the children of light and the children of darkness. Though Tom DeLay couldn’t deliver much for Republicans and Nancy Pelosi, so far, hasn’t been able to deliver much for Democrats, these warriors believe that what’s needed is more partisanship, more toughness and eventual conquest for their side.
But Obama does not ratchet up hostilities; he restrains them. He does not lash out at perceived enemies, but is aloof from them. In the course of this struggle to discover who he is, Obama clearly learned from the strain of pessimistic optimism that stretches back from Martin Luther King Jr. to Abraham Lincoln. This is a worldview that detests anger as a motivating force, that distrusts easy dichotomies between the parties of good and evil, believing instead that the crucial dichotomy runs between the good and bad within each individual.
Obama did not respond to his fatherlessness or his racial predicament with anger and rage, but as questions for investigation, conversation and synthesis. He approaches politics the same way. In her outstanding New Yorker profile, Larissa MacFarquhar notes that Obama does not perceive politics as a series of battles but as a series of systemic problems to be addressed. He pursues liberal ends in gradualist, temperamentally conservative ways.
Obama also has powers of observation that may mitigate his own inexperience and the isolating pressures of the White House. In his famous essay, “Political Judgment,” Isaiah Berlin writes that wise leaders don’t think abstractly. They use powers of close observation to integrate the vast shifting amalgam of data that constitute their own particular situation — their own and no other.
Obama demonstrated those powers in “Dreams From My Father” and still reveals glimpses of the ability to step outside his own ego and look at reality in uninhibited and honest ways. He still retains the capacity, also rare in presidents, of being able to sympathize with and grasp the motivations of his rivals. Even in his political memoir, “The Audacity of Hope,” he astutely observes that candidates are driven less by the desire for victory than by the raw fear of loss and humiliation.
What Bill Clinton said on “The Charlie Rose Show” is right: picking Obama is a roll of the dice. Sometimes he seems more concerned with process than results. But for Democrats, there’s a roll of the dice either way. The presidency is a bacterium. It finds the open wounds in the people who hold it. It infects them, and the resulting scandals infect the presidency and the country. The person with the fewest wounds usually does best in the White House, and is best for the country.