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Posts Tagged ‘toughness’

A year ago I wrote a post called The Viability of Obama, in response to to friends who thought that the United States was not ready to elect a black president (and long before Obama was thought of as anything but a foil for Clinton). So yes, I’m here to congratulate myself. In part. For what I thought might form the counter-currents of Clinton’s weaknesses–anger and eliteness–were effectively turned on Obama.

Back then I thought that a) white guilt might balance out racism (although this is not the same as saying, a la Geraldine Ferraro, that Obama is only where he is because he is black); b) Americans were looking for the reassurance of a certain kind of personality — someone calm and sane; c) that Clinton was in a particularly tricky situation with regard to her own demeanor — because as a woman with a tendency towards a robotic public persona, she might seem fake and even unhinged if she tried force a warmer or more passionate identity, and overly harsh and opportunistic if she didn’t. And I thought that because of this dilemma she was in danger of being branded either as the “angry liberal” (a la Dean) or the distant “elite liberal” a la Kerry.

That’s before I knew that Clinton could combine harshness, tin-throated enthusiasm, and opportunism all in one motley package. So in that sense I was wrong: Clinton’s tough-but-occasionally-teary combo, as badly executed as it was and as see-through as I thought it should have been, helped her. While I saw her attacks and pandering as incredibly cynical, others saw this as “toughness” and “experience.” The same goes for what I see as Clinton’s delusional, entitled persistence. While I see this merely as a desperation for power, others give Clinton credit, once again, for “toughness.”

The Meaning of Toughness — Peace or Aggression?

Here, on the other hand, is what I wrote about Obama:

After their experience with Bush, Americans are looking for a candidate who exudes sanity. (Is “it’s the sanity, stupid” a possible slogan?). It’s not a high standard: please, just don’t be crazy. Obama possesses this un-crazy quality in much greater quantity than any other candidate in the Democratic or Republican field. It’s part of his sincere, calm, and charismatic demeanor. That he is an African American with these qualities makes him a more, not less, formidable candidate.

Obama’s weak spot was being cast as an angry black man — my point was that his calm, sincere, and sane personality (remarkably unpolitical in its way) immunized him to this. Of course I didn’t know how hard they’d try. That’s the significance of Wright, Farrakhan, Ayers, and Clinton’s talk of white voters: one goal has been to convince us that Obama really is that angry black man, still a relatively hopeless task except among there base given recent polling data and the results of Indiana. The other goal became part of Clinton’s meta-narrative: convince party leaders that a black man just can’t be elected in the United States, whatever the primary results.

The narrative of “toughness,” on the other hand, runs at cross-currents to these. On the one hand we have the claim that underneath the calm exterior is an angry black man or at least someone who will create that suspicion in white voters. On the other we have the claim that the calm exterior is a sign of weakness of the elite-liberal sort. Hence we have Clinton’s nauseating talk about 3am calls, obliterating Iran, the heat of the kitchen, her love of god and guns, how she never gives up, and so on.

We can note with sadness that there is an element of self-hatred here on the part of Clinton and her supporters — but I think that’s the inevitable result of identity politics. In this case it’s comprised of a gleeful rejection of qualities more usually associated with femininity — grace and compromise, for instance. In the harsher backwaters Obama is frequently referred to as a “pussy.” In other words, some of Clinton’s more enthusiastic supporters hate Obama precisely because of his opportunity to be … the first female president. Which is to say, Obama’s feminine qualities comprise his strength; while Clinton’s faux-masculine-toughness doth protest too much.

As part and parcel of this theme we watched the shift of Clinton and her supporters to the right: of course, this is what “new democrats” are all about. It’s why, for instance, Clinton voted for the Iraq war; and why Bush, despite his weakness, remains unchallenged by the Democratic legislature; and why the party put up Kerry in 2004. The message of toughness really is: be afraid. Be afraid that the Republicans will out-tough you.

With Obama Democrats seem to be near the realization that tough-talk just is weakness: it’s weakness when Bush does it, it’s weakness when Bush acts on it, and it’s especially weakness when Democrats cower before it by appropriating it. Countries are not made safe by preemptive wars (Germany, anyone?). They are not made safe by bluster. (Similarly, campaigns aren’t always won by going for blitzkrieg early wins, pandering, and generally acting like a macho ass).

Countries are made safe (and sometimes campaigns are won) by deliberate, cool decision making in the face of crisis. That means an openness to discussion, an element of selflessness, and the ability to run a household, to mention a few cliches of femininity that I think apply more to Obama than Clinton. But ultimately it’s a matter of the inherent toughness of inner peace — the kind that opponents have uncomprehendingly tried to brand alternately as cerebral and “elite” or a cover for an angry black man.

In a previous post I noted that Obama’s legislative accomplishments, abilities as an organizer, and the strengths of his campaign went hand in hand, and that his opponents ignored this at his peril. I think that organizational ability is closely connected to Obama’s calm. A recent Newsweek article (“Sit Back, Relax, Get Ready to Rumble”) documents this fact superbly:

Obama was explicit from the beginning: there was to be “no drama,” he told his aides. “I don’t want elbowing or finger-pointing. We’re going to rise or fall together.” Obama wanted steady, calm, focused leadership; he wanted to keep out the grandstanders and make sure the quiet dissenters spoke up. A good formula for running a campaign—or a presidency.

It worked against Hillary Clinton, whose own campaign has been rent by squabbling aides and turf battles.

The ability to do battle is the kind of thing that’s supposed to make you tough. Apparently not:

Team Obama has been a model of tight, highly efficient organization, certainly in contrast to most presidential campaigns. The few tensions that have emerged have been between those who want to stick to the high ground and those who want to fight a little dirtier. (Such debates could intensify in a hard-hitting general campaign.) The campaign has at times been a little slow to fight back.

But Team Obama has been consistently able to outstrategize the opposition, and it does have a plan for the coming mud war.

This might sound like an anecdotal fairy tale if it weren’t for the way in which Obama, a freshman Senator, has methodically seized power in the Democratic party from its entrenched bosses, including the Clintons:

From top to bottom, they have destroyed their opponents within the party, stolen out from under them their base, and persuaded a whole set of individuals from blog readers to people in the pews to ignore intermediaries and believe in Barack as a pure vessel of change. It’s actually very similar to Clinton from 1994-2000, where power and money in the Democratic Party is being centralized around a key iconic figure. He’s consolidating power within the party.

Read on to be reminded of Obama’s deadly combination of organizational and fund-raising genius with his charisma and iconic power. One might wonder why there isn’t more worry about his power than hand-wringing about his chances in a general election, especially in light of GOP weakness.

Witness the recent spectacle in which Obama was greeted as a rock star on Capitol Hill by his supporters, some Republicans, and … Hillary supporters: “The mob scene around him was Beatles-esque.”

So I rolled out this slogan and I’d like to roll it out again, as a tribute to the power of the pacifist personality: “it’s the sanity, stupid.”

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