Obama as the “great convener”

Obama as the “great convener”

A second point I found interesting in “The Great Convener” piece by David Brooks (New York Times, June 27) concerns Obama and authenticity.

While I have stated numerous times that I do not wish to do political commentary, or to express views about public officials in my writing or speaking, I nonetheless find it interesting to observe our leaders and their rhetoric.

So, for example, when I write during the US presidential campaign that Barack Obama is a masterful storyteller, my intent is to analyse his discourse, and not to express an opinion about the man or his policies.  That said, one cannot help but appreciate Obama’s use of personal storytelling to connect with his audiences and to bring his points across.

Obama won the election by creating emotional connections with the electorate.  Part of that connection was a “future story” of inclusion and hope, encapsulated in the now famous “Yes We Can!” refrain that pervaded the candidate’s speeches.

An equally important part of Obama’s connection with audiences was his skilful use of his own personal stories of identity.  When the people asked why health care reform was needed and how it should be done, the candidate did not try to connect rationally with the listeners by presenting fact and logical argument.  Rather, he reached out to them emotionally by explaining “what I learned when my mother was dying of cancer”.  By putting the need for health care reform in the context of his personal struggle with “the system” of hospitals and insurance companies, he was able to connect with audiences on a deeper emotional level.

In this example, we should highlight, once again, the power of personal storytelling.  Story allows us to do what other forms of discourse do not—to move people to action by touching their hearts as well as their minds.

So, let’s go back to David Brooks and his analysis of the President’s leadership style.  As I wrote in a previous post, Brooks argues that, ever since the JFK inaugural of 1961, American presidents have done harm to both themselves and the nation by trying to personify the image of the heroic leader.

According to Brooks, President Obama is now breaking with the hero image. “Far from being a heroic quasi Napoleon who runs the country from the Oval Office, Obama has been a delegator and a convener.”  In fact, the current president’s leadership persona is that of an organizer and compromiser.  He is a man who sets agendas and outlines policies, while letting the leaders of Congress dominate the substance.

In essence, Obama has been a convener his entire life.  That is a significant part of his story of identity, his “who I am” story.  Some trace his passion for bipartisanship to his biracial roots.  Others cite his ability to reach pragmatic compromise as an acquired quality that has long been one of his greatest strengths.  A Financial Times article from 2008 described how he was elected as editor of the Harvard Law Review because of a deadlock between liberal and conservative candidates.  The conservatives ultimately voted for Obama after he promised he would give them a fair hearing.  “His focus was always to try to bring people together to find a solution in the middle.  He was brilliant at that,” says Thomas Perrelli, who worked at the Review.

For much of his life, Obama has worked in nonhierarchical institutions and situations — community groups, universities, or legislatures.  For this reason, Brooks contends, he has developed a capacity for seeing issues from several vantage points at once.  As such, he naturally favors processes that involve negotiation and compromise between different points of view.

I do not know, and I do not mean to pretend to know, whether Obama’s style and persona will be effective for the substantial tasks in the months ahead—finding common ground with a Congress that seems viscerally opposed to much of his agenda.  However, the “Great Convener” article caused me to reflect on Obama and the question of authenticity.

Whatever one might think of President Obama and his political views, I am tempted to say that we should all admire the authenticity of his approach to governing.  In breaking the mould of the “President-Hero”, in saying “This is who I am, not a heroic figure, but a man of consensus and compromise”, he shows the world his true nature.  He embodies his story.


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