January 20, 2009
Happy New Year
Today is a proud day for America. Yesterday, Martin Luther King Day, King’s son, Martin Luther King III, wrote in the Washington Post about "The Dream This Jan. 20" saying that “Martin Luther King Jr. would be extraordinarily proud of Mr. Obama for becoming the nation’s first black president. Perhaps more important, he would be proud of the America that elected him.” We can be proud, not because we elected a son of a black Kenyan (in whose country I will spend three weeks next month), but because we elected a very intelligent and thoughtful leader, who happens to be black—despite his being black (to be blunt). In Obama’s own words “It changes how black children look at themselves. It also changes how white children look at black children. And I wouldn’t underestimate the force of that." I am happy to say that when I saw the title of the Post article in which that last quote appeared, "President-Elect Sees His Race as An Opportunity", I actually thought it referred to his campaign for the Presidency.
But Obama’s own thinking is far deeper than that. “Beyond the symbolism of his historic achievement, Obama said, he hopes to use his presidency as an example of how people can bridge differences — racial and otherwise. ‘What I hope to model is a way of interacting with people who aren’t like you and don’t agree with you that changes the temper of our politics,’ he said. ‘And then part of that changes how we think about moving forward on race relations. Race relations becomes a subset of a larger problem in our society, which is we have a diverse, complicated society where people have a lot of different viewpoints.’
Obama embraces the traditional American values of personal responsibility and hard work. At dinner last night long time friend Sergio Pombo suggested that many older black leaders (the we are victims and are entitled to this or that crowd) are bound to be disappointed that Obama doesn’t deliver to them all the favors they hope for. These old attitudes will pass along with the white prejudices that helped give rise to them and Obama will help speed their passage by insisting that position and honor be earned. Washington DC’s black mayor, angered a few of the city’s older black residence (the vast majority of its residences are black) when he replaced the black chief of police with a white woman and the black Superintendent of Schools with a Korean woman because they were the best available. The vast majority of the city is excited by the implications, and prospects for a better city.
I am very impressed with the professional experience and quality of Obama’s cabinet appointments, especially his economic team. I expect many good things from them. I also expect things I probably will not like much because Obama has more faith in the capacity of government to do good than I do. What we desperately need from our national leaders after eight years of “my way or the highway” is serious debate about the important economic, foreign policy, and security issues before us. President Obama, who as President of the United States works for all of us, must build broad understanding of and consensus for new policy initiatives, and he has the skills and intension to do just that. We need to put behind us the view of some low lives that claiming Obama was really a Muslim (as if that automatically disqualified him) constituted an intellectual argument against what ever he might propose. We must return to a civil public discussion of the pros and cons of policy options rather than demonizing those with whom we disagree. I for one will do my best to marshal soundly reasoned and empirically supported arguments for private market solutions and limited but efficient government. I hope that the debate will focus on the most appropriate and beneficial partnership (and boundary) between government and the private sector (us).
Those who accused Bush W of manufacturing evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are guilty of the same enemy demonization. The fact that our war in Iraq was a tragic mistake does not mean that Bush did not think he was acting in the national interest. As E. J. Dionne Jr. pointed out in the Post in "Why the Uniter Divided Us", “Bush did not respect the obligation of a leader in a free society to forge a durable consensus. He was better at announcing policies than explaining them. He dismissed legitimate opposition and plausible doubts about the courses he wished to pursue. It is partly because of these failures that Americans reacted by selecting a successor with such a profoundly different political personality.” Fortunately, President Obama is a man of a very different temperament and not a minute too soon.
I suppose that it is human nature, one that civilization is dedicated to overcoming, to be less comfortable with or suspicious of people not like ourselves. The demonization of those we political disagree with feeds on itself unnecessarily sharpening political divisions. In another interesting Post article yesterday Shankar Vendantam reported on research on this subject in his article "Why the Ideological Melting Pot Is Getting So Lumpy". It seems that neighborhoods are becoming more homogenous politically (e.g. Greens vs. garden fertilizerers) rather than ethnically or religiously. My Iranian neighbor dropped by for tea the other day and shared an interesting comment about our neighborhood (he lost everything in Iran when the Shah fell and he and his wife moved to the U.S.). He said, you know there is only one other Republican in this neighbor (of 64 houses) besides you and me. He is also excited about Obama’s Presidency though he didn’t vote for him either.