Kagan, Obama, the new Brit leaders: What makes them tick?

New York edginess, the cool of the outsider, and bankers' sons help depict these new figures on the world's stage.
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Elena Kagan meets Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader and a supporter of her nomination as a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

New York edginess, the cool of the outsider, and bankers' sons help depict these new figures on the world's stage.

Amid all the heavy and worrisome public-sector problems, the personalities and characters of the players sometimes turn out to be as important as the 10-point plans offered to solve the problems.

For instance:

  • Elena Kagan as U.S. Supreme Court nominee: My own impression of Kagan is wholly favorable. She should be confirmed, after serious hearings, with only nominal opposition.
  • Much has been made in recent years of the need for diversity among court and other nominees. Yet, if Kagan is confirmed as expected, she will be the fourth justice on the current court to have been raised in New York City. Kagan is from Manhattan and Justices Antonin Scalia from Queens, Ruth Ginsburg from Brooklyn, and Sonia Sotomayor from the Bronx. Only the borough of Staten Island will be unrepresented on the court.

    In laid-back Seattle, New Yorkers can seem impatient and aggressive. They are, and I like them for it. Having lived on three occasions in New York City and spending time there in between, I admire the tough-mindedness, street smarts, and savvy required to rise in the city.

    Of the New York Four, only Ginsburg comes from what could be called a comfortable background. Her father owned small clothing stores. All four set out at an early age to make their marks in the world. (Ginsburg was treasurer of the Go-Getters Club at her public high school in Brooklyn.)

    There is another distinction among working- and middle-class New Yorkers who rise to such positions. They represent an intellectual meritocracy, often rising from urban schools to scholarships at Ivy League colleges and graduate schools. They also come from immigrant-family backgrounds, where political ideas and such concepts as justice are regular dinner-table fare. I like the idea of these four justices questioning attorneys pleading cases before the court with a bit of New York edge and feeling for the underdog.

  • The new British government: Does it seem to you, as it does to me, that new British Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg were separated at birth?
  • I see them pictured together, and separately, and have trouble distinguishing them from each other. Same height and weight; same haircuts; same age (43); same shoes, suits, and ties; same carefully framed soundbite answers to reporters' questions. Both, by the way, are bankers' sons and educated at the best British schools. No mistaking either of them for a rumpled Labourite.

    Late-night TV shows no doubt will become filled with sketches in which the two are portrayed in polite and not-so-polite discussions — and in which one mistakes himself for the other. But, beyond the laughter, the two face truly difficult challenges in trying to sustain the first non-wartime British coalition government since the 1930s.

    The British and European Union financial systems are under great pressure. In Britain, as here, there are pent-up frustrations among ordinary citizens who feel they are getting the short end of things. And the two leaders' parties have important differences on key issues — for instance, Cameron's Conservatives are wary of the EU, Clegg's Liberal Democrats supportive. Conservatives want to limit immigration; Liberal Democrats favor more open policies. Whatever our own politics, we must wish them success because Britain's success is important to our own.

  • The real Obama: As far back as 2007, I advocated that Barack Obama should be our next president. I liked his life story, his intellect, his sense of cool, and his pledge to move beyond partisanship and polarization toward consensus problem-solving. Since that time, I have been at times heartened and other times quite disappointed by Obama's performance in office.

I also have been unable — at least until now — to get a good handle on the real man behind the trappings of the office. I do not know and have never met Obama and, now, often regret that I did not take opportunities in 2007 and 2008 to do so. But I know and have talked to people who have known and worked with him, dating back to his Harvard Law School student days. Some continue to serve him now.

The smiling, engaging public Obama is depicted as an often-frowning, abrupt doer of business in the Oval office. He is no amiable backslapper in private.

Several adoring Obama biographies appeared during his campaign and just before his inauguration. Since then, there have been several hatchet-job books and articles. Now we are getting books (such as the new one by David Remnick) and articles that are more balanced and give us some insight into how Obama works and thinks.

On the policy side, I was perplexed early in 2009 when, during huge financial and economic crises, Obama announced his intention to introduce and enact comprehensive health-reform legislation. He should wait, I thought, until the country had found its financial and economic balance before undertaking such a wrenching and expensive reform. Now, recent writings disclose that many in his own White House shared my view and counseled Obama against taking the initiative. (It would, also, jeopardize the 2010 re-election of numerous incumbent Democratic senators and members of the House of Representatives.) Obama overruled them and went ahead, because he thought history required him to act ambitiously.

The principal criticism of Obama by longtime D.C. Democratic insiders is that he seems strangely detached and without passion in the conduct of the public business. The smiling, engaging public Obama, moreover, is depicted as an often-frowning, abrupt doer of business in the Oval office. He is no amiable backslapper in private. Whereas President George W. Bush often governed in a seat-of-the-pants, instinctive way, Obama, it is said, overdoes it on the side of careful policy-option examinations. Every meeting a mini-seminar. He has been ruthless is dumping early appointees and in cold-shouldering many dedicated Obama campaign workers who hoped to serve in his administration.

I continue to feel that Obama erred in the timing of his health-care initiative and underestimated the degree to which financial and economic revival should have been the sole focus of his first year in office — and the degree to which the levels of accumulating public debt would begin to alarm the general electorate and limit his further options. On the other hand, I have been pleased at his restraint and detachment in addressing foreign-policy issues that could be poisoned by more emotional approaches. If we are able safely to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, and to avoid damaging confrontation with Iran, it will, in part, be because Obama has kept his cool. The same coolness, and behind-the-scenes efforts, have helped avert falling international economic dominoes.

Over time, we usually form a clear mental picture of our presidents and come to know what to expect of them. We are not quite there yet with Obama. There are some human aspects of the man that, in particular, give me hope. I like his marriage and his relationship to his children. I like the idea of his common-sense, no-nonsense mother-in-law's presence in the White House. I like the time he takes to keep up with professional and college hoops, and to shoot a few regularly on the court behind the White House.

If he pushes his staff and appointees hard, and is stinting with praise, it does not bother me — if he gets the right results. Although he was raised mainly in Hawaii and abroad, and missed the domestic American civil-rights revolution, I value his personal experience as a sometime outsider with a sense of what that means.

It is, in the end, the characters and capacities of individual human beings, on the U.S. Supreme Court, governing a major ally such as Great Britain, and presiding in the White House, that determine the course of history. Altogether, I feel encouraged that the current players are occupythe ing the positions they do.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.