Sunday, January 31, 2010

Good Crazy

Many people have written extraordinary articles and diaries about Obama's performance last Friday at the House Republican Retreat. But for me, none have captured what I saw better than Melissa Harris-Lacewell in an article she wrote titled "The Obama I Remember" for The Nation.

She begins by summarizing her experience as a neighbor and constituent of his beginning with his term in the Illinois State Senate. And then she says this.

These early encounters with Obama remind me that he is President not solely, or even primarily, because of innate gifts, but because he moves up a learning curve more swiftly and fully than anyone else in public life. My consistent support for President Obama, despite my real differences with him on a number of policy issues, is deeply rooted in my understanding of his openness to and capacity for learning.

I trust that when he does not have the answer he will seek it. I trust that when he fails with one strategy, he will adjust. I trust that when he needs a new skill, he will learn it. I trust that when he needs advice, he will seek it.


This, for me, captures what I most admire in other human beings...an openness and willingness to learn. And I think it is also the quality that most distinguishes Obama from his predecessor George Bush.

But then Harris-Lacewell goes on to talk about Obama's performance at the Republican Retreat and how it reminded her of what students said about him as a Law Professor at the University of Chicago.

That Barack Obama showed up today. The President put on a clinic in public discourse, political argument, intellectual dexterity and moral courage. It was a reminder of what democracy could be if we engaged our opponents with substance, patience and civility rather than invectives, gamesmanship and boorishness.<...>

President Obama is modeling a different kind of democratic engagement. It is a model he adhered to during the election and he continues to follow it now. President Obama refuses to believe that we can have a functioning democracy if the majority refuses to speak to the minority. He takes seriously his responsibility to govern in the interest of both his supporters and his opponents. He remains committed to the possibility that he and his Party may not always be in sole possession of good ideas.


I think there are many progressives that missed this focus in what Obama said last Friday. In our enthusiasm for his intellect and the forcefulness with which he spoke, we have perhaps overlooked things like this.

And I'm not a pundit. I'm just a President, so take it for what it's worth. But I don't believe that the American people want us to focus on our job security. They want us to focus on their job security. (Applause.) I don't think they want more gridlock. I don't think they want more partisanship. I don't think they want more obstruction. They didn't send us to Washington to fight each other in some sort of political steel-cage match to see who comes out alive. That's not what they want. They sent us to Washington to work together, to get things done, and to solve the problems that they're grappling with every single day.


So no, Obama is not done reaching out to Republicans. He still believes that - even when we don't agree - the way in which we talk to one another and engage in the battle of ideas can change.

Does that sound crazy to you? Given the pattern we see with GOP leaders, it does to me. But it reminds me of something another one of my favorite writers, Ta Nehisi-Coates, wrote back in November 2008 just days after the election. He talked about his fascination with the words of Rev. Joseph Lowery about "good crazy."



"I came over here where crazy things are happening," Lowery told his audience, and then, referring to Obama and the echoes of his own history, added: "There are people in this country who say certain things can't happen, but who can tell? Who can tell? . . . Something crazy may happen in this country."<...>

Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined -- in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion's share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.


I agree with Nehisi-Coates. Obama is engaging in a "shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity" and I regularly question whether that faith is justified. He really believes that its possible, as Harris-Lacewell said, to "engage our opponents with substance, patience and civility." Last Friday, he showed us how to do that - all while remaining forceful in his convictions and not compromising his own beliefs.

This is the "trust deficit" Obama talked about both in his State of the Union speech and with the Republicans. What is shocking about Obama's position on this is that he is willing to step out - in trust - and lead the way. It drives many of us crazy because we know that the other side's reaction will be to abuse that trust...just as the early civil rights leaders were abused by white racists.

But what Obama is counting on is that the American people are watching. And much like MLK believed that white people "wouldn't support the right of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge," Obama is relying on his belief that the American people eventually won't support the abuse of our national trust and dialogue.

I agree that its a big gamble. But I begin to wonder...if Martin Luther King could believe in white people back in the 1950's, who am I to question what other "good crazy" might be possible.

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