Beneath The Soaring Rhetoric

The soaring rhetoric for which Obama is praised for, or condemned for, is not what really put me in his camp.  True, I am absolutely giddy at the idea of having a president who doesn’t make me cringe every time he or she talks; after seven years of that I’m ready for a change.  But there was something much more attractive to me in what he represents as a potential president; a powerful kind of pragmatism.

The thing about politics is that it can often be very much like the SATs (or at least how the SATs were when I took them.  No clue what’s going on with them now); you lose points for wrong answers.  As the good little political junkies that we all are, we should all understand that advocating the wrong issue at the wrong time can have catastrophic effects, even if it’s the right stance on the right issue.

For many of us, the righeousness of an issue can easily overcome the pragmatism required to be an effective advocate of it.  We polarize our moral scale based upon the issue, and malign or deify those politicians and activists who enter the debate, all of this seemingly taking place without a clear endgame and an actionable plan on reaching a final goal.

The endgame is never forgotten, mind you, but attainable benchmarks, strategies, and compromises typically are.

We think we can rail against the winds and win, and every great once in a while, that might be true.  Unfortunately, doing this comes with great risks of doing more harm to your cause than good.

It is this understanding that Obama has that I have appreciated the most.  That winning sometimes means not getting everything you want, but some of what you want, and that it is often required to work with subtle nuance, and quiet determination than to simply be the loudest voice in the room.

Thus, beneath the Soaring Rhetoric we do not see a leader that is crystallized in his ideological precepts, but instead someone who is constantly looking at the system through which things are getting done, and trying to find a way to work things to his advantage.

We see this pragmatism in the way he has run his campaign.  He hasn’t tried to fit the rules to his liking, but instead studied the rules, and plotted out from the beginning a path that would allow him to navigate a likely path to victory in the face of a seemingly insurmountable opponent.  And, as of this moment, his candidacy has enjoyed great success.

Please, remember, Obama was never supposed to get this far.

Another example comes from events earlier in his career for which he has been maligned by some.  I speak, of course, about the “Present” votes that earned him some attacks from the Clinton campaign, and some embarrassing condemnations by vocal women’s groups.

The only problem is that the “Present” votes were not indicators of Obama’s lack of advocacy for female reproductive rights, but instead a pragmatic device used to defend female reproductive rights.  Sure, he could have stood up and made great speeches about it, voted decisively about it, and made himself look much better as an advocate of female reproductive rights, but that would have also had a lesser chance for actually succeeding.

Obama has been criticized by the Clinton campaign because he voted “present” in 1997 on measures that would have banned so-called “partial-birth” abortion and in 2001 on measures that would have required parental notification before a minor could receive an abortion. Pam Sutherland, president and CEO of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, has said Illinois legislators were encouraged to vote present on the bills to encourage moderate Republicans and Democrats to do the same, thereby defeating the measures (Daily Women’s Health Policy Report, 1/7).

I bring this up because there has been some maligning of Obama now because he seems to be not pro-LGBT enough.  He definitely hasn’t produced the same interview that Hillary has for the Philadelphia Gay News.

Indeed, she does tend to strike all the right notes, and answers all the questions with essentially the right answers.  She participates in the interview just as you would expect a politician to address this kind of interview; like someone looking to get some votes.

But what bothers me is not how she says yes in all the right parts, but how she seems so unwilling to say no, or, put differently, how the interview is conducted under the precepts of the unreality of the campaign trail as opposed to those of the reality of actual governance.

It’s a little too much like promising everyone everything.

By contrast, we see the kind of pragmatism that I’m speaking of in this recent exclusive interview with Obama courtesy ADVOCATE.COM.  he doesn’t speak necessarily as someone who is just trying to suck up more votes, but instead as someone who is already looking forward to the presidency in a realistic fashion, parsing out what may and may not be doable as displayed in this exchange:

If you were elected, what do you plan to do for the LGBT community — what can you reasonably get done?

I reasonably can see “don’t ask, don’t tell” eliminated. I think that I can help usher through an Employment Non-Discrimination Act and sign it into law.

You think it’s transgender-inclusive?

I think that’s going to be tough, and I’ve said this before. I have been clear about my interest in including gender identity in legislation, but I’ve also been honest with the groups that I’ve met with that it is a heavy lift through Congress. We’ve got some Democrats who are willing to vote for a non-inclusive bill but we lose them on an inclusive bill, and we just may not be able to generate the votes. I don’t know. And obviously, my goal would be to get the strongest possible bill — that’s what I’ll be working for. 

The third thing I believe I can get done is in dealing with federal employees, making sure that their benefits, that their ability to transfer health or pension benefits the same way that opposite-sex couples do, is something that I’m interested in making happen and I think can be done with some opposition, some turbulence, but I think we can get that done.

And finally, an area that I’m very interested in is making sure that federal benefits are available to same-sex couples who have a civil union. I think as more states sign civil union bills into law the federal government should be helping to usher in a time when there’s full equality in terms of what that means for federal benefits.

It’s not perhaps the best news in the world to hear if you are a strong advocate of LGBT news.  It definitely doesn’t sound as great as, “I’ll do it all, you’ll be allowed to marry, and you’ll have all kinds of legislation that will prevent discrimination against you,” but while it lacks that, it gains in the virtue of being particularly honest.

LGBT issues and rights are tricky at this point in our political history.  One of the tricky aspects about it is that so many people view homosexuality, or transgender identity as a matter of choice as opposed to biological make-up; this leads to a situation where people don’t feel like anti-homosexual behavior is even a form of discrimination.  Shorter: homosexual rights for many is not nearly as black and white as the topic of Black vs. White.

In a way, it’s somewhat refreshing to see him address both the topic and the community in this fashion because the way he addresses the interview gives us what I believe is a better window into how he’s going to be a president that fights for LGBT rights.

Politicians promise things, they do it all the time, and when they get into office we inevitably are let down when those promises die as a result of political realities.  At least here, Obama provides a pragmatic reality where we know we will get some things, and we know we’re going to have to wait on others.

And, true to the spirit of his campaign, he makes this entire fight a group effort, not an “I” effort.  While he admits that legislation on certain things will have to wait until the political climate is right, he does not tell the community to wait their turn.  In the fashion of LBJ who told Civil Right Leaders to force him to enact the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, Obama tells the LGBT community to keep pushing him.

But this post is about pragmatism, and if you want another example of pragmatism, take a look at his approach to repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell:

Back to “don’t ask, don’t tell” real quick — you’ve said before you don’t think that’s a heavy lift. Of course, it would be if you had Joint Chiefs who were against repeal. Is that something you’ll look at?

I would never make this a litmus test for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Obviously, there are so many issues that a member of the Joint Chiefs has to deal with, and my paramount obligation is to get the best possible people to keep America safe. But I think there’s increasing recognition within the Armed Forces that this is a counterproductive strategy — ya know, we’re spending large sums of money to kick highly qualified gays or lesbians out of our military, some of whom possess specialties like Arab-language capabilities that we desperately need. That doesn’t make us more safe, and what I want are members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who are making decisions based on what strengthens our military and what is going to make us safer, not ideology

In case you missed it, let me fill you in on what happens here.  He takes the subject of whether openly gay people should be allowed to serve in the military and moves it away from the domain of morality where it will meet with fierce opposition, and instead puts it into the category of a better functioning system.  Arguing against gays in the military is much more difficult put in this frame as it is put in the frame of, “Well, it’s just wrong to discriminate against gays.”

Nor is the interview void of the kind of idealism that has attracted so many to Obama’s campaign.  And we see it arise when he is faced with his connection with Donnie McClurkin:

Do you have any regrets about the South Carolina tour? People there are still sort of mystified that you gave Donnie McClurkin the chance to get up onstage and do this, and he did go on sort of an antigay rant there.

I tell you what — my campaign is premised on trying to reach as many constituencies as possible and to go into as many places as possible, and sometimes that creates discomfort or turbulence. This goes back to your first question. If you’re segmenting your base into neat categories and constituency groups and you never try to bring them together and you just speak to them individually — so I keep the African-Americans neatly over here and the church folks neatly over there and the LGBT community neatly over there — then these kinds of issues don’t arise.

The flip side of it is, you never create the opportunity for people to have a conversation and to lift some of these issues up and to talk about them and to struggle with them, and our campaign is built around the idea that we should all be talking. And that creates some discomfort because people discover, gosh, within the Democratic Party or within Barack Obama’s campaign or within whatever sets of constituencies there are going to be some different points of view that might even be offensive to some folks. That’s not unique to this issue. I mean, ironically, my biggest … the biggest political news surrounding me over the last three weeks has been Reverend Wright, who offended a whole huge constituency with some of his statements but has been very good on gay and lesbian issues. I mean he’s one of the leaders in the African-American community of embracing, speaking out against homophobia, and talking about the importance of AIDS.

Bringing people together to talk about the tough issues and try to heal those divides which seperates us is pretty idealistic, in fact, it’s as idealistic as it gets, like putting Louis Farakhan and David Duke in a room and expecting them to come out best of friends.  It probably won’t work, but the greater population of us all will never be able to get passed these divisive issues if we don’t stare each other in the face and talk about them.

But, like I said, I love the soaring rhetoric, I love the idealism, but what I’m here for is the fact that the man is keeping his head in the game, looking at the landscape and plotting out realistic courses of action to get things done.

I’d rather have a politician that will offer few promises and follow through on one, than a politician that will offer many promises, and follow through on none.

More from Memeorandum: The Daily Dish, Ben Smith’s Blogs, Fox News, Pam’s House Blend and Boston Globe.

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