In less than a week, our country will decide the next President of the United States. Having mediated and negotiated for many years, I am keenly sensitive to how the presidential candidates interact to deal with conflict and persuade others. What has particularly impressed me about Barack Obama is how he frames situations, utilizes language in conflict, and comports himself very much like a mediator. I am also astounded that this approach is winning over the American people as a whole.
One of the primary tenets of a mediator is to affirm what the other person just said, no matter how vociferously you disagree. Time and time again during the debates, Obama would initially start statements with how much he agreed with Hillary Clinton in the primaries or John McCain in the general election. Over and over pundits and supporters criticized Obama for not being tough enough. Yet the polls repeatedly showed Obama winning those debates and persuading more and more voters to his side.
Going up against Hillary Clinton particularly in the one-on-one debates; Obama certainly had to deal with potential for being perceived as the patronizing and aggressive male. Against John McCain, Obama has had to watch out for being goaded into an adversarial tit for tat confrontation and risk being perceived as an angry black man. Yet consistently over time, Obama has maintained his composure and created a slippery target for his opponents' attacks.
Each time Obama would simply step aside and let the attacks go by, leaving his opponents looking slightly unhinged and blustery. In the third debate, Obama provided his prototypical nonplussed statement. "What we can't do, I think, is try to characterize each other as bad people. And that has been a culture in Washington that has been taking place for too long.' McCain immediately leapt into a seemingly unprovoked tirade on Bill Ayers -- the "washed up terrorist" -- and ACORN. McCain like Clinton before him comes across angrier than he might otherwise, as Obama smiles and maintains an even speech tone no matter what these opponents do or say.
Like a professional mediator, Obama would repeatedly state, "You can disagree without being disagreeable" and then go on to model that quality in debates, press conferences and rallies. The Illinois Senator would evoke this calmness in stark contrast to the partisan rancor and slice and dice politics he faced. Repeatedly, he has been criticized as too cool, too Ivy League and too detached. Yet to his credit, Obama has never seemed to overcompensate in response to such perceptions. Similar to a mediator, he continually separates the people from the problem. As an objective third party does, he points out that disagreement need not be taken personally.
Obama's campaign was initially dismissed as utopian and overly idealistic; there was no red America, no blue America, only the United States of America. Yet he touched upon a common thread joining all Americans, that vision of a united America. A particularly potent example is his ability to activate the youngest population of voters, registering them at an unprecedented rate. Rather than slicing and dicing the electoral map, the Obama campaign has expanded the map to the point where previous Republican strongholds may likely go Obama's way. Instead of cutting up the pie like a traditional "adversarial" politician, Obama the creative problem solver has expanded the pie.
That Obama's father was a Kenyan immigrant and his mother was a white woman from Kansas has become an oft-told story. It is the common thread of his life. He grew up in multicultural Hawaii -- where Asian Americans were an eclectic majority. Obama lived in Los Angeles, Boston, New York and Chicago, cities that reflect the changing American composition. He can debate Ivy League intellectuals, talk trash with hoopsters and charm Florida seniors.
A politician by definition straddles many worlds, and Obama does so with a startling poise. He deftly maneuvers a minefield of critics who label him too exotic, too white and too black. At times he transforms the tightrope of politics into a wide open country road where anything seems possible. He exemplifies the American strength that comes from the plurality rather than any individual peoples.
Obama's consistent message has been change. While change is scary for many people, his temperament has gone a long way toward reassuring the American public. This is very much like the mediator who is often a stranger to the parties in a conflict. A mediator has to convey neutrality and concern to suspicious individuals. Obama has done so, comforting people on a national scale.
A mediator's strongest intellectual quality is understanding conflict from a number of perspectives. The conflict resolution specialist then applies that understanding in effective problem solving. The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once noted, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." A President must reach beyond giving mere lip service to opposing viewpoints. Whether in his Philadelphia speech on race in 2008 or his DNC Convention speech in 2004, Obama consistently reveals a deep understanding of seemingly diametrically opposed groups. Conservatives like David Brooks, Christopher Buckley and Colin Powell are highly attracted to this quality, a lack of demagoguery that makes them go against their other inclinations.
Lastly, a mediator must be comfortable in his or her own skin to handle conflict well. Obama has not become defensive when criticized strongly by others, and he has appeared confident in his own perspective. One of Obama's strongest suits is his steadiness. He has generally not seemed to have changed dramatically during the succession of debates and he has maintained his composure throughout the election grind. Unlike Gore who never seemed quite comfortable in the debates and appeared to be adjusting his personality, Obama has stuck to his own nature, exuding a confidence that it would carry the day.
Obama is ushering in an age of reasonableness. The country's citizens are signaling that they are tired of the partisan rancor and the unfair attacks. This nation faces financial crises, international conflicts, and a wealth of other challenges. A President Obama would truly understand the complexity of individuals, groups and issues and mediate amongst them all to create the best possible solutions. I can't wait.