At some point this winter, something changed for Barack Obama. The philosopher became the fighter. The president who didn't seem to want to get his hands dirty was in up to his elbows.
Last August I had a long talk with an African-American friend, the pastor of a large church in the Atlanta area. Kenneth Samuel had served on a black clergy advisory committee for Obama's campaign. Samuel was concerned about the president, whose candidacy he had so passionately supported. He wasn't sure Obama was proving effective or engaged. Samuel, pastor of Victory Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, said (with evident frustration), "We need for him (Obama) to get down; so we can rise up."
But when I saw Samuel again two weeks ago we agreed, the president had "gotten down." The health care debate had tested and refined a young, relatively inexperienced president.
Not only did Obama descend from the philosopher-king heights, but he (and the Democrats) decided at some point to do what they believed to be the right thing and let the chips fall where they may. They stopped taking their bearings solely from focus-groups, polls, and prognosticators of political rise or decline. They just did it.
Ethicists call this paying less attention to "extrinsic rewards" (money, power, wealth and status) and more to "intrinsic rewards," doing a thing well because it is intrinsically worth doing. One can see the distinction in say, painting. An artist may decide to paint what will sell (extrinsic reward), or to paint well and in a way that is true to their vocation (intrinsic rewards), even though their may not sell like hotcakes. Of course, it's nice to have both intrinsic and extrinsic, but it seldom seems to work that way. Nor should we construe commercial (or political) failure as ipso facto a confirmation of integrity.
But we are so steeped, these days, in the value and calculation of extrinsic rewards that the idea of doing something because you believe it's the right thing to do and worth doing in itself even though it may not insure your victory in the next election, is almost odd. And yet, my hunch is that this form of oddity is what many Americans most deeply long to see in their leaders. But this is not the same as being a mindless, militant partisan.
Another word for the quality I have in mind might be "authenticity," a willingness to take a stand for what you think is right without always or only calculating the political or economic costs. My hunch is that Americans are willing to cut politicians some slack on particular issues if they feel that the politicians are real and have a center that does not shift with each new poll.
Obama's greatest victory in the health care debate may lie here. The man of nuance was willing to take a stand. The president who would be, if not bipartisan, then less partisan, said, "Here I stand."
This, of course, can be taken to foolish extremes (the aforementioned militant and mindless partisanship). But I don't see that happening with Obama. The danger for him lies on the other side of the ledger, to be or appear to be trying to be all things to all people, or to be so careful as to miss his chance.
Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (brother of the more famous Reinhold Niebuhr, a favorite of the president's), counseled, "Take your stand and pray for forgiveness." At some point, we must take a stand based on the knowledge we have, based on our best understanding of what is right to do in a situation. Even as we do, however, we must remain aware that we do not possess Truth full, complete, and unimpaired. "We see," as St. Paul said, "through a glass darkly."
Were Niebuhr's admonition taken more broadly to heart and understood, our political and civic life might look different and better.