I’ve almost deliberately avoided pushing politics on both my blog and my everyday life. It’s pretty clear from those who know me who I supported for the presidential election and I’m happy to talk about the political race as a sort of abstract, intellectual game. Part of the reason was because of the overwhelmingly uniformity of the social group that I hang out with. Virtually everyone I knew was not only voting for Obama but considered it unthinkable to vote for McCain and I always feel slightly uneasy giving people more reasons to believe what they’re already convinced they believe. But now the elections are over, I feel more comfortable talking about why it is that I supported Barack Obama even though I was unable to cast a ballot for him.
There are two stories about Barack Obama that convinced me that not only was he the right candidate, he was one of those once in a generational figures which people are lucky to have the opportunity to vote for. The first was about how Obama left Harvard Law School with the world as his oyster and, instead of choosing a position of money, power or influence, he chose instead to work as a community organizer in Chicago. Cynicism is a lens that so pervades politics in America that a significant amount of people even had a hard time being able to interpret this for what it was. “What’s his hustle?”, “What’s he trying to do?”. The truth is there simply was no hustle, there could not have been a hustle. Barack Obama was then and is now an idealist, not a cynic. When he speaks, he means the words. When he is running for president, he is not doing it for the position of president but because he believes that he can do genuine good in the world.
That being said, unlike many, I do not believe that this is an especially rare trait and I believe it’s equally obvious looking at John McCain’s record that he is also an idealist and, indeed, I believe that much of the political machine is made up of idealists.
The commonly accepted wisdom within American politics is that the political establishment has failed because it’s made up of people who want only the best for themselves, not their country. This is certainly an attractive view to take and one that seems to explain the set of facts but I don’t think it holds water. Instead, it seems obvious to me that idealism is not enough. To merely want to do good is not a sufficient pre-condition to doing good and the path to genuine positive change is narrow and paved with good intentions.
Which is why the second, much less known story is one which played and equal role in convincing me. Very early in the primary campaign, Obama gave an interview at Google in which he was asked by the CEO Eric Schmidt how he would sort a million 32 bit integers. Obama, unsurprisingly, doesn’t know the correct answer but he does managed to give a reply which shows a remarkable amount of inside knowledge of CS culture. In other words, Barack Obama knew how the two facts and one joke. It may seem a small thing to know but in order to have been in a position to give such a reply so confidently gives us a picture of Obama’s mind and what he values.
Obama is someone who knows about two facts and a joke. He’s someone who is relentlessly intellectually curious and, what’s more, revels in seeking out experiences different from his own. Obama was a lawyer, there’s no reason why he would ever need to talk to computer scientists or deeply engage with them. And yet he did and to the level where he not only learned who they were, he learned their culture.
It’s easy for me to understand why people are virulently agains Obama. The criticisms against him: that he is vaguely uplifting and full of gloss is one that I can understand someone making. Because so much of what he says are powerful words that others have reverse engineered and pumped out as ersatz noise. In his acceptance speech tonight, he talked powerfully, not about what he had done but what still needed to be done. How humility was needed and this was merely the offer of greatness, not greatness itself. He talked of unity and the mutual desire of people regardless of party to make America great. I trust Barack Obama with those words, not because of the words themselves but because of the thinking and worldview that backs up those words.
Many people have tried to make the world a better place. Included among them some of the vilest dictators and despots in history. Merely wanting does not make it so, you have to be good at being good as well. And I believe that Obama’s intellectual fortitude and desire to not be enmeshed inside an ideology or party or world view is what will make him to be one of the greatest presidents in living memory.