why i admire the obama i know and fear for the obama that is to come

The coming weeks will be difficult, as Obama moves beyond the campaign and faces the enormous challenges of Iraq and the economy. But before these issues assert themselves and force me to be critical, I wanted to take a few moments to discuss why I found Obama such a profoundly impressive figure over the past ten years.

To start with, it’s not policy. My policy views diverge from his on a number of issues, even though I do share a strong antiwar stance. In reading his books, I found some of my own ideas criticized, framed as the extremes that he thinks are unproductive. It’s also not just the fact that he’s a gifted person of color. While I found it encouraging, it wasn’t really that important to me. I’ve met many gifted people of color, but few have grabbed my attention in the same way. Nor is my admiration derived from his modest background. A difficult family history, in my view, doesn’t qualify you for much, except for some sympathy and help from your neighbors.

Obama’s appeal for me is that he avoided the traps of black political life and did so by cultivating intellectual and institutional autonomy. Let me start with the first point: avoiding the traps that drag down black politicians. In the United States, black politicians have two options. They can either be urban machine politicians or civil rights establishment agents. The path through urban machine politics results in figures like Carol Mosley-Braun, who brought corrupt Chicago practices to Congress. The goal of style of politics is clientelism. The other path is through the Civil Rights establishment, which encourages politicians to survive off racial conflicts. Both political traditions allow some black politicians to reach public office, but it severely limits them as well.

Obama avoided these two paths by doing creating his own machine and cultivating a remarkably intellectual personna. Around 1998 or so, Obama began mastering all the details of political elections so that he would not need the help of Daley, Jesse Jackson, or other figures who might draw him onto these paths. Though Obama did receive help, and occasional opposition, from such political figures, he asserted great control over his organization, his supporters, and his career path. In the end, Obama wasn’t owned by Daley, Jackson, the unions, or any other group. He created his own networks and raised his own money. Obama was owned by Obama.  Or as Shirley Chisholm would say, Obama was “unbought and unbossed.”

At the same time, Obama developed a style of communication that emphasized equanimity and openness. While owning his own machine freed Obama from toxic urban politics, Obama’s public personna was well suited for a multi-racial audience who could appreciate the problems of black life, but also wanted politics to move into a world not defined by bitter race struggles. It’s also a style that permits the listener to feel as they they are equals in a conversation that is about them and something greater. A personna combining intelligence, broad mindedness, inclusiveness, and charity toward the listener is what a black politician needs to rise beyond stifling racial categories.

That encapsulates my deep admiration of Obama. Display of intellect; mastery of craft; self-ownership; groundedness; engagement; maintenance of dignity. Obama showed again and again how one could respond to crises with intelligence, not hysterics. And all of this was done by a person of color without any great endowment of wealth or status, except what his mother and grandparents taught him and his own natural gifts.

Now, I look to the future and  grow concerned. The campaign will be seen as the easy part of Obama’s career. Obama will have to succeed in managing two wars, a recession, and a tattered national reputation. These will require Obama to tap deeply into his talents. He will likely develop positions that may alienate the antiwar left that helped bring him to power. A failure in responding to the economy may alienate middle class voters. In short, Obama is human and a politician. The waters will not be easy, but whatever success Obama may have in the future will have to draw on the resources I’v just described, which gives me comfort.

Written by fabiorojas

November 5, 2008 at 6:33 am

7 Responses

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  1. Great post Dr. Rojas!

    I have to say that I share your admiration and solicitude for President-elect Obama. And yes, his being raised by whites, living in Indonesia for a few years, having a thirst for learning, and not growing-up in the black church, methinks, was key in his remaining free of the pitfalls of black urban politics. Having grown-up in the inner-city myself, and having an intimate relationship with a number of black churches, his adamance in remaining his “own boss” as a black politician is quite frankly MIRACULOUS. Nevertheless, his character, indeed, will be tried in the weeks ahead; I look forward to your future posts on this.


    Brian Pitt

    November 5, 2008 at 2:06 pm

  2. Fabio – I think you put into words what I have been trying to figure out in my head for a long time. I think one other thing that made me admire Obama is that he has never shied away from dissent — even within his own campaign or among his own supporters. I think that it was revealed in the way that he ran his campaign – he did not try and control the people below him, but let each of them use their own localized knowledge on the ground and build their own confidence by running things themselves (with help and guidance and coordination from the campaign).

    There seemed to be far less political posturing among supporters than previous campaigns, and I think that a lot of that has to do with Obama’s willingness to not make his campaign as hierarchical as other campaigns. He trusted people to use their judgment and allowed people to feel personally invested in the election. I just hope that feeling of personal investment continues into his presidency and he can find a new kind of politics to let people continue to build that investment.



    November 5, 2008 at 7:23 pm

  3. […] as much political power and as much influence as compared to Barack Obama in the years to come. And Fabio Rojas at orgtheory writes: “But before these issues assert themselves and force me to be critical, […]


  4. Never to be outdone, Fabio cotinues to be more Obama than thou.
    Yes we can? No, yes he can!



    November 7, 2008 at 3:45 pm

  5. @ Fabio: Did you get to talk to Obama beyond that spectacular handshake? I would be interested in what is your take in the high hopes and enormous expectations the face international scale of the challenges Obama will be confronted with as US President. How do you comment something like this?. Thank you!



    November 7, 2008 at 6:24 pm

  6. McCain edges Albania and wins strongly in Macedonia!

    You may recall that Albania is the place where pretty much the entire country fell victim to a Ponzi scheme a few years ago. Sound judges of economic policy, the Albanians.



    November 7, 2008 at 6:28 pm

  7. ha, ha! Well, “Wir sind Papst” (“We are Pope”) but there is no Obama-like political figure in sight, so we might want to consider trading shares or something …



    November 8, 2008 at 9:48 am

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