By Zev Karlinn-Neumann
He’s been called a “Barack star.” He already did a spread in GQ magazine. Obamania is sweeping the nation, and there is a reason that so many are turning to charismatic Illinois senator Barack Obama, despite the fact, as Jon Stewart pointed out on The Daily Show, his name rhymes with both “Iraq” and “Osama.” People flock to him because in times of great need, we seek out inspirational leaders. Obama is just such a leader, and this is unquestionably a time of great need.
My support for Obama stems not from his views on key issues – although I’m largely in agreement with him – but because I believe in his ability to be a transformative leader. On the “issues,” Obama opposed the Iraq war at its inception and advocates bringing the troops home within 16 months. He is pro-choice, wants to strengthen America overseas, implement universal healthcare, address the problem of global warming, promote alternative energy, clean up Washington and the environment, improve our schools, protect the United States, work to reduce poverty, establish enlightened immigration reform, strengthen families, reconcile faith and politics, bolster Social Security, and do a litany of other things.
These are generally not unique views, however, and while the current political climate might encourage candidates to split hairs in order to differentiate themselves from their colleagues, Obama’s stance on various hot button issues is not so different from that of other Democratic candidates, nor is it what draws me to him.
His personal qualities, however, do. I believe Obama possesses the traits of what Harvard professor and public servant Joseph Nye Jr. calls “transformational leadership.” These qualities include policy vision, emotional intelligence, communication, organizational capacity, political skill and contextual intelligence. More broadly, they define a leader with an inspirational vision for the future, tempered with the realism and communication skills necessary to understand and adapt to changing situations, possessing the necessary political know-how to manage and get things done.
Nye offers former presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson as men illustrating some of the above qualities. The jury’s still out on Obama, and his relatively brief time in the public eye hasn’t provided enough examples to determine how well he embodies these characteristics of “transformational leadership.”
Yet I feel that he does. Listening to him speak in San Francisco several weeks ago, I realized that he sincerely has a desire to heal this country and its image abroad. Nye also cites a crisis or transformational moment – such as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 – as necessary to reveal transformational leadership. Obama is correct in understanding that today, as an intensely polarized nation facing the challenges of global warming, globalization, terrorism, economic difficulties and a multitude of other issues, our transformational moment is upon us.
It’s been said many times that he’s too inexperienced, and would be better served waiting another eight years before running. This would be true if Obama merely wanted to win the presidency. But he doesn’t just want to inhabit the highest office in the land for the sake of kicking back in the Oval Office – he wants to mend our country.
He frequently invokes, and genuinely believes in, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “fierce urgency of now,” as a way to emphasize that he’s running because the moment for change is today. He probably would have a better shot at winning if he gained more experience, but as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney have illustrated, experience is no guarantee of wise policy, nor is the moment for change eight years down the line. It is now.
What Obama has, more importantly than years of political experience, is a nuanced view of the world. Unlike George Bush, he doesn’t see everything in terms of black and white, terrorist or ally; he defies pundits who would label him one thing or another, disregarding those who would box him in as “inexperienced” or “the black candidate.” His background as the son of a Kenyan and a Kansan, raised in cultures across the world, is what allows him to reach across the aisle and compromise in ways other candidates are unable to do.
Several months ago, the media was abuzz with the news – presented as an accusation – that Obama attended a majority Muslim school as a child in Indonesia. What’s the point? So much the better if our president is one who has experienced the world and understands a diversity of views. He is uniquely placed, through age, personality and background, as pointed out in Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic Monthly article, to do what the other candidates cannot, and transcend the specter of Vietnam and the 1960s culture wars it engendered.
Yes, Obama is comparatively young and idealistic. His strident calls for universal healthcare and a prompt withdrawal from Iraq will likely run up against the harsh realities of lobbyists, an uncooperative Congress and public opinion. He is Wilsonian in his idealism, but not necessarily fated to fail as Wilson did. Wilson was initially quite successful and beloved; that his dream of a League of Nations failed and ultimately doomed his presidential legacy was a product of his extreme stubbornness, a quality that Obama replaces with an open mind and desire to recognize and balance opposing views.
Obama does lack the political experience of some other candidates. He is idealistic, perhaps naively so. But he is the man for the moment. There are other candidates on all sides that might appeal for one reason or another. By all means, vote for them. I’m voting for the man with vision and charisma, who holds a nuanced view of the world and acts accordingly. I’m voting for Obama because his name might rhyme with Iraq and Osama, but it is synonymous with hope for a new America. And besides, he looked cute in GQ.