The Man in the Middle Reaches Out
When Barack Obama declared in his inaugural address that a new era has begun and that "the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply," it sounded like empty rhetoric. Politicians always tend to inflate the historical importance of their own victories and forget that the large forces that shape our destiny are not subject to the whims of one election.
That said, there are two reasons to think that Obama may be correct in claiming that his rapid rise from obscurity to the presidency may signal at least a cease-fire in the hyperpartisan warfare that consumed Washington during the 16 years of the Clinton and Bush presidencies.
Certainly, the country wearied of that incessant battling between Democrats and Republicans. In an interview last summer, John McCain remarked on the cheers he received when he told audiences that he was ready to cross party lines and search for solutions to the nation's pressing problems wherever they might be found.
Obama discovered the same thing on the campaign trail and responded, not by offering off-the-shelf, standard Democratic policies but by citing his record of creative compromise and bipartisan legislation in the Illinois legislature -- the best counter he could offer to McCain's reputation for partnering with liberal Democrats such as Ted Kennedy and Russ Feingold.
But Obama's most effective credential was his personal identity as the Man in the Middle, raised in the most diverse of all the states, Hawaii, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother. As he said in his major speech on race last March, "I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue scattered across three continents."
He said in that same speech that "I chose to run for president at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together." That is why he has opened a dialogue with Republican legislators and conservative commentators, carrying to Washington a style of companionable disputation that he learned to enjoy as a law professor at the University of Chicago and at gatherings in its intellectually challenging Hyde Park neighborhood.
The second reason that Obama may see his hope fulfilled is generational. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- our two baby boomer presidents after a string of chief executives stretching back to John F. Kennedy who were youths during the Depression and veterans of World War II -- were cursed by their times.
They came of age politically in the 1960s -- the time of the racial revolution, the women's revolution, abortion battles and, most of all, Vietnam. Years after that war ended, Clinton and Bush and their opponents were still debating in their presidential campaigns what they had done back then. Time never healed the wounds of their generation, and they could never earn the trust of those on the other side.
Obama, by virtue of his birth date and birthplace, is spared the psychological burden of those battles. He simply has no dog in those fights. So when he is arguing economic or tax policy with contemporaries such as Eric Cantor, the House Republican whip, or Jim Cooper, a leading conservative Democratic congressman, they can focus on the issue at hand, unimpeded by emotional baggage from the past.
That does not guarantee agreement, but it opens the way to fruitful negotiation, something that has been nearly impossible in Washington in recent years.
In his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," Obama tells the story of a troubled childhood, clouded by a search for his absent father and his own identity, and how he first experienced the joy of inclusion on the high school basketball court. There was "a way of being together when the game was tight and the sweat broke and the best players stopped worrying about their points and the worst players got swept up in the moment," he wrote. "In the middle of which you might make a move or a pass that surprised even you, so that even the guy guarding you had to smile, as if to say, 'Damn . . .' " "At least on the basketball court," Obama wrote, "I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own."
Ever since, he has been seeking and finding communities of larger and larger dimensions. That habit of reaching out can serve Obama and the country well.