Barack Obama is smart, eloquent and well-informed; he has an even, sometimes too even, temperament; he can inspire a crowd and he can impress individuals. What he has not had--what he has not found until now--is a weekly or daily pulpit from which to be heard and understood by large numbers of Americans. Instead he has seemed at times like a moody warrior, like Achilles at Troy, sulking a bit in his tent as his enemies mock him and outflank him but then sallying out to wage a saving struggle just as his supporters were about to conclude that all was lost. Well, the last month seems to have given the president his pulpit: call him a preacher, call him a professor, call him cool (in both senses), he has at last found the setting and style in which to get his ideas across. He has found his bully pulpit. And wouldn't you know, given his career, that it's a seminar room rather than a church or an auditorium.
What he learned in Baltimore at the Republicans' Congressional Gathering--and what he displayed to all who had the time to listen throughout the Health Care Summit in Blair House--is that he can lead as well as anyone by the simple teacherly device of gathering people up for a televised conversation: He sets out his own ideas, not least about how to proceed; he invites others to comment, challenge and differ; he engages again and again in a dialogue about the country's needs and the need for the country to pull together.
This is as important a moment as any we are likely to experience in his presidency. He has found his stride and his groove--and let's hope he keeps it up!
Call him the professor, then, if you like. He knows the facts, he's open to questions, he doesn't have all the answers. What distinguishes him in this setting is his calm, thoughtful and engaged personality. He disarms with humor; he disarms with knowledge; but above all he disarms with the insistence that discussion--conversation--should clarify choices and lead to a vision that most of us can share or at least respect.
Teaching as conversation is precisely what seminar rooms exemplify, at their best. Yes, the teacher leads the discussion--and yes, he or she may do more of the talking than the others. But each of the participants gets to have a say; each can voice objections, raise questions and push the conversation in new directions. It's up the teacher to pull the comments together and to provide not so much consensus as synthesis--a sense of the relationships among the points of view that have been raised and explored.
This is what happened both in Baltimore and Blair House. Letting his challengers raise questions and objections, he fielded them all with grace and savvy. In the health care discussion, in particular, he was able to show the nation that there are tradeoffs no matter what we do--and that if want coverage for one and all we will have to work for it and pay for it. The easy inconsistencies of the naysayers seemed thin and evasive.
Few of us believe that we will have healthcare reform on a bipartisan basis, now or in the future. In that sense, not much has changed--certainly, not for the better--in the last year. But the President has plainly found his own voice, his own sweet spot: whenever and wherever he can engage his opposition in a civil conversation, he has as good a chance as any recent American president to convince us that reform is needed and needed soon.
Tom Gerety is a Collegiate Professor at NYU, where he teaches law and humanities.