History is a dialogue between humanity and time. And humanity's nothing more than the sum of individual behaviors - millions of them - behaviors that eventually become currents and patterns only visible at a distance. Barack Obama saw something in those patterns that everyone else missed. And he was sure enough of his vision to risk everything ... everything ... on what he saw.
Remember that period in August, right before the convention, when it looked like Obama was going the route of so many past Democratic candidates? When it looked like he was needlessly reaching out a conciliatory hand toward a party and a movement determined to destroy him? When the coming election was starting to look like a bout between Dukakis and Tyson?
Democrats have spent a generation scolding their losing candidates for being too high-minded and courteous. Now they're standing at the cusp of a new generation, congratulating their new President for the very same qualities they resented in candidates past. What changed? And why did Obama risk following a strategy that had failed so often in recent campaigns?
One possible answer: He was gambling. He was gambling that the political universe of 2008 was not what it had been in 2004, or 2000, or 1988. He could have run the old playbook this summer, the one so many of us were recommending. It looked like a safer strategy at the time.
But Obama didn't play it safe. And he stayed calm and focused - "one cool customer," as folks used to say - even when those around him were starting to panic. Coolness and intuition: the twin gifts of the successful gambler.
But if he was gambling, it was because he had a longer-term goal in mind: He didn't just want to win. He wanted to win in a way that would enable him to govern according to his particularly unific vision of governance. And he was so sure he would win - that the currents of history were with him - that he took a chance. He gambled that this time the politics of division would fail.
Some of Obama's supporters argued at the time that he was playing "rope-a-dope," letting his opponents exhaust themselves by throwing wild punches. Maybe. Yet those Republican moves had always worked before. Then came the economy, and the nomination of Sarah Palin, and the momentum shifted irrevocably away from John McCain.
Barack Obama could not have known that these things would happen. So, what did he know - to paraphrase the old Watergate expression - and why did he know it?
The "why" is hard to answer. Call it intuition, or instinct, or just a gambler's sixth sense. But Obama saw something in the zeitgeist. He drew it out from the confluence of economics, demographics, science, popular culture, and whatever else was shaping his thoughts. From the white noise, the static of endlessly flowing information, he saw a pattern - a hopeful pattern. There's no word yet for that kind of talent, the talent of perceiving the imperceptible patterns behind historical and social trends, then guiding them and shaping them for a given purpose.
Oh, wait. Yes there is. It's called leadership. It's nearly a lost art, but Obama's brought it back.
That doesn't make me a starry-eyed cult follower. The history of his Presidency has yet to be written. There are many stones in his path, and many people and ideas competing for his attention. But Barack Obama is an observer. Want to influence his Presidency? Add yourself to the flow of information, the ebb and flow of humanity. If enough like-minded people do the same, the current will shift in your direction. Barack Obama will be watching. (But let's not get overly dependent on Presidential-level leadership, either. Change happens on many levels.)
I didn't see what Obama saw two years ago. And yet I, and millions of others, eventually had the sense that what he saw was fundamentally right. Eventually people like me - people whose policy positions more closely matched those of other candidates - trusted their intuition about Barack Obama.
One person saw the shifting patterns of history. Then he had faith ... faith that the pattern was real and that his perception was accurate. With that faith, and nothing but that faith, he gambled on the outcome of this election. He gambled that he could win without practicing divisive politics ... even when that would have been safer course. With that faith he took the course of history and molded it to achieve what seemed impossible.
With that faith, whatever happens next, Barack Obama has already changed the world.
RJ Eskow blogs when he can at:
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