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Obama's Tic

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grist.org

barack obamaLet's discuss Barack Obama, shall we?

I'm about 3/4 of the way through his book. The first half or so is mostly him telling stories -- his own history, stories from his campaigns, stories about his fellow senators. The writing is just spectacular: clear, engaging, slyly funny, self-deprecating, perfectly paced. It's got those touches of idiosyncrasy no ghostwriter can capture (if you've read ghostwritten books, you know they all have a certain feel). It's clear he's uncommonly self-aware, intelligent, authentic, and charismatic. It's impossible to resist the guy.

But when he turns to discussion of the issues, the tic emerges. In every case, there are two moldy, entrenched positions, politicized extremes advanced by shrill partisans. In every case, neither of those moldy positions adequately addresses our current realities. He, however, has a clear-eyed, above-the-fray position of his own that synthesizes all the best of both extremes.

There's merit to this sort of thinking, of course, and it's true enough for many policy questions. But the same formula comes up so often, on so many diverse questions, it's hard to believe it's come by honestly in every case. It's clearly as much about positioning, about vanity, about an aversion to being pigeonholed as it is about a dispassionate assessment of the issues.

He has an impulse to convince everyone he disagrees with that he doesn't disagree with them just because he's one of those liberals, with their strident, settled dogmas. He doesn't dismiss or demonize you. No, no, he understands what motivates your position. He knows where you're coming from. All of you. Everybody.

If Bill Clinton felt your pain, Obama does him one better: he thinks your thoughts too.

Just take a few quotes from the recent New York Magazine profile. If you think that the mainstream media's "both sides are bad, bipartisanism rulez" fetish is stupid, well, he understands:

"There are times I think we're not ambitious enough," Obama says. "I remember back in 2004, one of the candidates had made a proposal about universal health care, and some DLC-type commentator said, 'We can't propose this kind of big-government costly program, because it'll send a signal we're tax-and-spend liberals.' But that's not a good reason to not do something. You don't give up on the goal of universal health care because you don't want to be tagged as a liberal. People need universal health care."

But if you feel that those bloggy, shrill liberals are stupid, well, he understands you too:

"One good test as to whether folks are doing interesting work is, Can they surprise me?" he tells me. "And increasingly, when I read Daily Kos, it doesn't surprise me. It's all just exactly what I would expect."

The important thing: he understands you. But he understands the other side to. And if you're bothered by his constantly understanding both sides, well, he understands you too.

This constant tendency to define himself against a largely mythical far left is not only genuinely hurtful to some of the very activists who've most supported him, but it can easily become an intellectual pathology, a habit detached from the facts on the ground. Not all areas of policy can be neatly defined as "the two old positions and my shiny new one." Sometimes one side is right. Sometimes some of the old opinions are right.

It's easy to be attracted to Obama's persona. And it's easy to breathe a sigh of relief at someone who doesn't seem totally in the tank to a set of pre-defined positions and constituencies. But this kind of ethereal, all-things-to-all-people persona eventually has to break. Eventually it has to take sides.

Obama seems constitutionally averse to that, not only as a matter of political strategy but as a matter of character. He's a people pleaser. He wants to be loved and admired by everybody. No matter what he says, he loves being the golden boy.

I can forgive him all that if he wins and uses his power to push progressive policy. But for now, color me nervous.