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Issue No. 99 (November 1, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Barack Obama: First radical middle presidential candidate?

"Eking out a bare Democratic majority isn’t good enough. What’s needed is a broad majority of Americans -- Democrats, Republicans, and independents of goodwill -- who are reengaged in the project of national renewal"
-- Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (2006)

I don’t know about you, but for me the 2006 midterm elections had become unwatchable and unlistenable-to long before election day. The shrillness, the partisan posturing, the intellectual dishonesty . . . out of that, nothing fundamentally good can come.

There was, however, one bright spot -- one event that was so different from the others that it was truly something rich and strange. I am referring to the October 17 publication of Barack Obama’s new book The Audacity of Hope.

Forget the ink that’s been spilled over the last two years on the Senator’s mixed-race heritage, speaking style, and 2008 Presidential prospects. Just shut all that off for a minute and look at what Obama actually does and says in this book, which appears to have been written by the man himself (with plenty of vetting by his young and talented staff).

I suspect you’ll be as startled as I am. And as heartened.

What he does (The ring of authenticity)

Unlike most national politicians in their political memoirs or campaign books, Obama presents himself as a vulnerable, imperfect, and still-growing human being.

Since most of us are like that too, the effect is empowering. On a great many pages you’ll think, “I’ve been there -- I’ve felt that!”

Obama’s description of his quasi-New Age upbringing is especially engrossing, and his eventual religious baptism (as an adult) has the ring of authenticity.

He mentions, fleetingly, a youthful experimentation with drugs. He lets you know -- without making a big deal of it -- that he spent three years as a community organizer before deciding to go to law school.

He discusses his high-powered-lawyer wife’s ambivalence toward his political career in such detail that you’ll end up worrying whether they can in fact stay together for the long haul.

He worries too. “I attend parent-teacher conferences and dance recitals, and my daughters bask in my adoration,” he writes. “And yet, of all the areas of my life, it is in my capacities as a husband and father that I entertain the most doubt.”

After so many politicians that pretend to be “perfect” and come off packaged and remote, it is a joy to encounter one that merely strives, mightily, to be good.

What he says (Radical middle perspective)

Some reviewers fault Obama for being unclear about his politics. In fact, his political perspective is perfectly clear -- it just doesn’t fit easily onto the old left-right political spectrum.

It can be characterized as “radical middle.” His book fits easily into the recent lineage of radical middle books by U.S. policy analysts, stretching from Ted Halstead and Michael Lind’s The Radical Center to Matt Miller’s The Two Percent Solution to my own Radical Middle to John Avlon’s Independent Nation (see reviews HERE and HERE).

Basically, “radical middle” means that you take ideas from everywhere, and use those ideas to construct public policies that are at once pragmatic and imaginative.

Again and again in The Audacity of Hope, Obama faults Democrats (not just Republicans) for their lack of imagination. He goes so far as to say, “The Democratic Party has become the party of reaction. In reaction to a war that is ill conceived, we appear suspicious of all military action. In reaction to those who proclaim the market can cure all ills, we resist efforts to use market principles to tackle pressing problems.”

Later he says, “Republicans are fighting the [policy] war they waged and won in the eighties, while Democrats are . . . defending the New Deal programs of the thirties. Neither strategy will work anymore.”

When Obama turns to how we should proceed, his guidelines are from the radical middle playbook. This passage could have been taken from my own book Radical Middle:

[Ordinary citizens] are waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point. They don’t always understand the arguments between right and left, conservative and liberal, but they recognize the difference between dogma and common sense, responsibility and irresponsibility, between those things that last and those that are fleeting.

They are out there, waiting for Republicans and Democrats to catch up with them.

On the lower frequencies, Obama is equally radical middle.

When he engages, again and again, in racial truth-telling, you’ll be reminded of radical middle thinker John McWhorter’s Winning the Race (2005), reviewed HERE.

When he champions “the call to find common ground,” you’ll think immediately of the work of the respected and proto-radical-middle organization Search for Common Ground.

When he speaks of the overriding need for good teachers (”the single most important factor in determining a student’s achievement isn’t the color of his skin . . . but who the child’s teacher is”), you’ll hear echoes -- maybe more -- of Matt Miller’s influential chapters on education in The Two Percent Solution, referenced above.

When he speaks of Alexander Hamilton as a founding father who may be more significant for us than Jefferson now (because he understood that “the resources and power of the national government can facilitate, rather than supplant, a vibrant free market"), you’ll be reminded of The Radical Center co-author Michael Lind’s revisionist anthology Hamilton's Republic (1997).

And when he speaks of our democracy “not as a house to be built, but as a conversation to be had” -- and of our Constitution as “designed to force us into a conversation, a ‘deliberative democracy’ in which all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas” -- you’ll be reminded of the new "trans-partisan" political organization Reuniting America, discussed HERE.

Toward the end of the book you’ll be introduced to Obama’s policy director, Karen Kornbluh -- the former director of the Work and Family Program at Ted Halstead’s New America Foundation, the principal “radical centrist” (its phrase) think tank in Washington DC.

Radical middle process imperatives

The first half of Obama’s book discusses what can fairly be called radical middle process imperatives.

Primary among them is to start building a new, trans-partisan majority:

I believe any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we’re in. . . . It’s precisely the pursuit of ideological purity . . . that keeps us from finding new ways to meet the challenges we face. . . . Eking out a bare Democratic majority isn’t good enough. What’s needed is a broad majority of Americans -- Democrats, Republicans, and independents of goodwill -- who are reengaged in the project of national renewal.

At the end of that road is what Obama senses is already fitfully occurring, “a constant cross-pollination . . . , a not entirely orderly but generally peaceful collision among people and cultures. Identities are scrambling, and then cohering in new ways. Beliefs keep slipping through the noose of predictability. . . .”

In other words, for old-style liberals and conservatives, notions like “tolerance” and “don’t tread on me” sum up the ideal. But for Obamaists, the ideal is more ambitious. It is for us to become a new and blended people, 21st century Americans -- which involves learning to absorb each other’s priorities and strengths.

It is a wonderful ideal. And a quintessentially radical middle one.

Radical middle public policies

The second half of Obama’s book advocates many radical middle public policies -- trans-partisan, pragmatic, and creative.

Obama almost always expresses himself in an extraordinarily thoughtful and balanced way.  For example, “Parents have the primary responsibility for instilling an ethic of hard work and educational achievement in their children. But parents rightfully expect their government, through the public schools, to serve as full partners in the education process.”

It is wonderful to watch a national politician thinking complexly and out loud. You really have to read this part of the book to grasp how unusual Obama’s performance is.

But this section isn’t all feel-good thoughtfulness and balance. There are lots of trans-partisan policy specifics. For example:

-- all K-12 teachers should be paid more, but only if their pay is connected to the quality of their teaching, and only if ineffective teachers can be fired

-- “we should end every single tax break the [oil] industry currently receives and demand that 1% of the revenues from oil companies with over $1 billion in quarterly profits go toward financing alternative energy research and the necessary infrastructure. . . . Countries like Brazil have already done this”

-- the “single biggest thing” we can do to reduce inner-city poverty is to “encourage teenage girls to finish high school and avoid having children out of wedlock. In this effort, school- and community-based programs that have a proven track record” should be expanded

-- we should make the juggling of work and parenting easier “by making high-quality day care affordable for every family that needs it”

-- “there will be times when we must . . . play the role of the world’s reluctant sheriff. . . . On the other hand, it’s time we acknowledge that a defense budget and force structure built principally around the prospect of World War III makes little strategic sense”

The audacity of personal authenticity + radical middle politics

I have no idea whether Obama can retain (let alone publicly project) the qualities that are on display in his book as he moves closer to a run for the Democratic nomination.

It would be nice to think that, even in our age of instant soundbites, national leadership can be combined with visible personal authenticity and a genuine and continuous public thoughtfulness.

If it can be, then Barack Obama -- our first truly radical middle national political leader -- could turn out to be a leader for the ages.



For an excellent brief overview of Obama's background and political prospects, see Paul Harris, "Barack Obama: New Kid on the Political Block," London Observer (29 October 2006).  For a suggestive, full-length overview, see Jennifer Senior, "Dreaming of Obama," New York Magazine (2 October 2006).


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