The virtue trap: Obama's biggest vice

The very virtues that got Obama elected are now his biggest weakness.
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President Barack Obama embraces Bill Clinton after the former president's speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

The very virtues that got Obama elected are now his biggest weakness.

There’s a school of thought that holds that what really imperils us is not our vices but our virtues.

Perhaps because we take pride in our virtues and are often lauded for them, we may miss that virtues too have a downside, and that good qualities can, under the right (or really wrong) circumstances, become liabilities. When pushed too far or too single-mindedly, a virtue may flip over and become a vice.

I wonder if something like that is what happened to President Obama in the first debate. In 2008 Barack Obama both presented himself and was touted as “not your ordinary politician,” as someone who was above the usual partisan snipping and polarizing fracas. In the immediate wake of his election there was a lot of ink spilt regarding a new era of “post-partisan” politics.

Personally, I liked the idea. I was tired of every issue being framed as an “either/ or” and the parade of false dichotomies that dominated our political debate. I was interested, and still am, in solutions to our most vexing challenges, rather than ideology or ideological purity.

Obama appeared to be something like Plato’s philosopher-king. He was above the usual fray and foolishness. He saw that what we took for reality was often little more than shadows cast on the big screen.

And therein lies his failure, at least in the first debate. This kind of thoughtfulness and restraint, this kind of desire to be different and better than garden variety politicians was on exhibit on October 3, and came across as diffidence, passivity and disinterest.

But that’s not exactly new. When MSNBC host Chris Matthews was in town last spring touting his new biography of his hero, JFK, Matthews confessed to being mystified by this president. “He doesn’t like politicians. He doesn’t want to spend time with them. And that comes through," said a concerned Matthews. “The result is that he seems distant, disengaged." Politics, argued Matthews, “is all about relationships.”

Will President Obama deign to fight with etch-a-sketch Romney on Tuesday night?

Given the bad ratings and loss of support following Round One, it seems a pretty sure thing that the president will be more aggressive in this second debate. But will his heart be in it? Or does the same intelligence that allows him to eloquently re-frame issues in a more complex and nuanced way, stand in the way of blunt force in a debate setting?

Another wrinkle on this was suggested by a journalist friend who offered the enigmatic observation that President Obama’s “sub-conscious may be wanting him to lose the election.”

What in the world does that mean? How could it be?

Well, if he entered into the campaign for President in 2007 as a “transformational figure,” one who would change politics, was a “Game-Changer,” and “The One,” it may be difficult to really get amped up for another four years of a slugfest in which the milestones of transformation are hard to spot. Famed sociologist Max Weber once described politics as "the slow boring of hard boards." Maybe the whole thought of it, at some level, is wearisome to Obama.

I hope that’s not the case. I hope that he not only finds fresh energy and resolve for this debate, but — even more importantly — for another four years of leadership.

In the long perspective of history, Barack Obama may prove to be a transformational leader, but in the day to day and month to month of a presidency, it's a slog. Much like life is most of the time. Is he just tired of it? Who could blame him? Still, it would be a loss if either his conscious or subconscious demanded he pull back and disengage.

Beyond this debate and election, the theory of deadly virtues remains a provocative one. Both individuals and institutions tend to develop a particular set of virtues or strengths and then play to those over and over again. But what happens when things change and when the “tried-and-true” is no longer productive?

As a minister and church leader, one of my virtues has been that I am pretty highly responsible. But sometimes, too much so. I found myself carrying responsibilities that really belonged to others. 

What happens when the virtue of a great work ethic flips over into crippling impatience with others and oneself?

What happens when the virtue of attention to detail becomes an obsession that drives everyone around you nuts?

What happens when the very real virtue of giving generously to others and doing for others becoming an inability to receive what others would give you?

When competence rules out the possibility of admitting one’s limits or asking for help?

The classic vices — gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, envy and more — tend to be obvious as problems. They are ugly. They are excessive. They hurt others and ourselves. We are more likely to see them coming.

But we are less likely to see the way that, for example, our always being ready to give or do for others blinds us to our impoverished capacity to receive what others might give us, or the way our competence may isolate us from mere mortals.

It’s amazing that in something as protracted and scripted as a presidential campaign the quirks, flaws and complex make-up of actual human beings still matters. But I’m so grateful it does.

Now, go get ‘em Mr. President!


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.