President Obama is set to give his State of the Union tonight (Jan. 25). Chances are good we will hear some of the preacherly voice he has employed on other occasions, most recently in his speech in Tucson. What are the upsides and downsides of the President as preacher?
In his Tucson speech, the president was eloquent, bipartisan, and inspiring — a pastor of sorts to the nation in a time of shock, anger and grief. He cited biblical passages and appealed to the heart of the nation, a nation which the great historian, Sidney Mead, once described, “As a nation with the soul of a church.”
There are upsides when a president, this one in particular, adopts the tone and style of the preacher, and certainly he had (for all the controversy) a gifted mentor in the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, one of the most able of contemporary preachers in the great black church tradition.
There are three upsides that I see in Obama the preacher.
One, in this mode he gives the nation what might be aspirational goals or a vision. He speaks to us about our “better angels,” our shared values as Americans, and our national story. All this is to say that he reminds us of who we are, of our identity, and our story as Americans.
In doing these things, he accomplishes a second related value, one sought by all good leaders and preachers. That is, he gives us a better story to live in and by. We all live in some story, some narrative that defines and guides us. A better story reminds us of our own better self, collectively and individually.
Multiple intelligence guru, Howard Gardner, argues that a prime task of leadership is to give people a better story to live. Gardner goes to suggest that with respect to the use of story and narrative there are three types of leaders. There is the “ordinary leader” who recites and rehearses the traditional story of a people or group. There is the “innovative leader” who takes a story that is latent among people and gives it a new twist. Finally, in Gardner’s typology, there is the “visionary leader” who actually creates a new story for people to inhabit.
Which of the three does President Obama seem to be? So far, he probably falls in Gardner’s category of innovative leader, both rehearsing the tradition but also finding in it latent possibilities to which he gives a fresh twist and new meaning.
Besides giving Americans an aspirational goal and vision, and giving us a better story to live, a third upside of the president as preacher is calling the nation to bipartisan or post-partisan common ground. This has been an Obama theme from the beginning, recently reprised in Tucson. One consequence of the Tucson trauma is that Americans seem, for the moment at least, more receptive to this push toward a common and higher ground, and away from bellicose extremes and Beckian nonsense.
Are there downsides to Obama in his pulpit voice and style?
Yes, there are a several. Sometimes this president seems just a little too impressed with his own eloquence. One wishes for a the occasionally self-effacing note. His characteristic serious facial pose (the solemn stare into distance with left profile), while certainly a welcome contrast with George W. Bush’s smirk, sometimes seems as if he is prematurely posing for a place on Mount Rushmore.
A second danger for any president who goes preacherly is that he or she may appear to be, or actually be, exclusive and not inclusive of all citizens and traditions. Obama walks this line well. He calls on biblical texts that are part of the shared canon and on other sources as well. His language, while spiritual and ethical, doesn’t rely overly much on any one religious tradition.
A greater danger to this president, in my view, is his tendency to float slightly above the earth, above real life. President Obama could learn from his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, to get down into the policy trenches more readily, getting specific about issues and proposals. He doesn’t need to go on at Clintonian length to let us and his Republican opponents know clearly where the rubber meets the road and where he will take his stand. But it would be helpful to know that he is willing to enter into the fray and not remain above it.