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Obama's Character: Ethikai Aretai for America

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Both Clinton and Obama are smart enough to be president. Both are temperamentally competent to be president. When it comes to past behavior, I have every reason to believe both will support and enable progressive legislation. So for me, the question comes down to moral and international leadership, and the sense of possibility.

I want a president who is an extraordinary foreign leader, Commander-in-Chief, and voice for what is best in America in the world. This is not a question of likability, but it is a question of character, or the moral spirit that Aristotle called ethikai aretai. Character is different than personality, but a persistent, deeply embedded structurally defining trait, embodied in words like wisdom (instead of intelligence), courage (instead of brashness), an intuitive relationship to justice and fairness. The metaphor of character is not the strength of impenetrable walls, but the strength in resilience, the capacity to maintain judgment and moral reasoning over the battering humiliations of time.

I support Obama -- proudly -- because he has that difficult to describe, but not difficult to discern, quality of character. He showed it when he persistently pushed through legislation requiring videotaped confessions in Illinois -- his graceful, non-triumphalist response to legislative success has then allowed Illinois cops to be evangelists for the process elsewhere. He showed it when, as the guest of the Kenyan government two years ago, he publicly urged his hosts to grapple with corruption and ethnic division.

Flowing from this strength, his demands on us, as citizens, are genuine demands, not genuflections. When Clinton says that its "all about you," she means that she will work tirelessly to take care of us (which I believe she would, or pursue what she believed was the best path). When Obama says its "all about you," he means that unless we find that 5% of citizen leadership in our own communities, unless we organize to oppose kleptocratic and ogopolistic and environmentally ruinous behavior, we cannot transform this country, and, moreover, we cannot hold our heads high as true, self-governing, citizens.

Hillary has personality -- a lot of it, and by all accounts she is tough, funny, and smart. I think she comes by most of her positions honestly; she honestly believes that her choices will lead to the best world for Americans, she honestly believes she can solve the puzzles, work through the stack of paper. But her moral language is either missing ("were you better off" is not civic language) or strikes a false note.

I want a President who speaks -- honestly -- to what is best in us as citizens. We can be a stupid bunch, but we are not fools. Dishonest, sophist language -- moral language used cynically--will lead us to use moral language cynically. Moral language used honestly, if it reaches just 5% of the population, will instill demands within us to organize, empathize, and consider the public good, not just our own good.

The image I can't get out of my head, the image that drives my drives to South Carolina, my contributions, and my phone calls, is the image of Obama as our leader in the world. President Obama will not just speak to Iran, but to Kenya, to Pakistan, to Russia, to Hamas, and to the WTO. He can take on the way the UN is organized, the way we engage in diplomacy, and the scope of possibilities for international cooperation in an increasingly globalized and unequal world.

I know, from everything he has done in Illinois and before, that he is deeply comfortable with that most uncomfortable job of the president -- maintaining and projecting moral commitments (not strategic commitments) while engaging with those who are completely opposed to you. With Obama at our head, we can finish the quartet of the American dream -- Jefferson for freedom, Lincoln for unity, FDR for international freedom, Obama for international unity.