WASHINGTON – Regarding Barack Obama, it’s useful to start with the whole what-is-he thing. Not that there’s any question in his mind: “I’m clear about my own identity,” Obama said in an interview last week. “I do think that I’ve become a receptacle for a lot of other people’s issues that they need to work out. … I’ve been living with this stuff my whole life.”
The reason to begin with the what-is-he issue is that it’s a good handle on a key tenet of Obama’s political philosophy. He is both an African-American and the biracial son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother; both a product of the streets of Chicago, where he worked as a community organizer, and a son of the streets of Jakarta, where he played as a kid. Obama is the personification of “both-and.”
He said his belief that American politics has seen enough “either-or” – and that he can shift the paradigm to “both-and” – is what led him to undertake “the risks and difficulties and challenges and silliness of a modern presidential campaign.”
Thus on the question of inner-city poverty and dysfunction, Obama proposes a suite of orthodox solutions – early childhood education, after-school and mentoring programs, efforts to teach young parents how to be parents. But he also emphasizes personal responsibility: “The framework that tends to be set up in Washington – which is either the problem is not enough money and not enough government programs, or the problem is a culture of poverty and not enough emphasis on traditional values – presents a false choice.”
That’s the way Obama talks, by the way, in sinuous but precise sentences that practically diagram themselves as they go along.
While more resources are needed, “there is a strong values-and-character component to educational achievement,” Obama said. “To deny that is to deny reality, and I don’t want to cede that reality to conservatives who use it as an excuse to underfund the schools. … Sometimes people think that when we talk about values, that somehow that’s making a ‘lift yourself up by your own bootstraps’ argument and letting the larger society off the hook. That’s why I always emphasize that we need both individual responsibility and mutual responsibility.”
The cultural values of “educational achievement and delayed gratification and intergenerational responsibility and hard work and entrepreneurship” produce success, he said, but “if a child is raised in a disorderly environment with inadequate health care and guns going off late at night, then it’s a lot harder to incorporate those values. We as a society can take responsibility for creating conditions in which those cultural attributes are enhanced.”
Our political discourse, he said, remains mired in the bitter arguments of the 1960s. But the nation has long since moved on.
“We’ve learned that it was a good thing to break down the gender barriers that were keeping women from fully participating in the society; on the other hand, it turns out that things like marriage and fidelity are actually good things,” he said. “In people’s day-to-day lives, a lot of these issues have been resolved. Our politics hasn’t caught up.”
These are not bolt-from-the-blue insights. Other prominent African-Americans (Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, to name two) have spoken about the importance of personal responsibility. Other Democrats (Bill Clinton, most successfully) have tried, through their rhetoric if not always through their deeds, to move the nation beyond the culture wars. But no message gets through without the right messenger and the right moment. Not everyone is convinced that Obama is that messenger.
Vernon Jordan, a longtime friend and supporter of Hillary Clinton, helped raise money for Obama’s Senate campaign, but told me he advised him not to run for president this cycle. Jordan told Obama that this is not yet his time. The candidate concluded otherwise:
“I think that there’s the possibility – not the certainty, but the possibility – that I can’t just win an election but can also transform the country in the process, that the language and the approach I take to politics is sufficiently different that I could bring diverse parts of this country together in a way that hasn’t been done in some time, and that bridging those divisions is a critical element in solving problems like health care or energy or education … .”
So far it’s this sense of mission that has defined Obama’s campaign rather than his specific agenda for the country. Obama invites people to believe in him, and in the power of “both-and.”
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.