Campaigning For and Being President As Two-Way Learning: A Benchmark

For months, I had an unsparingly complementary appreciation of Senator Obama, and I was ready to give my all – literally – to get him elected president. (I say “literally” because when I heard Obama speaking in my hometown in occurred to me, as it never had before, “I’d take one for him.” That’s how committed I was to his candidacy.) Then, the policy positions of the last few weeks came out: for the FISA exemption, for the AIPAC position, for listening to the commanders in Baghdad, for a variation of the Bush faith based initiative. I thought of Cool Hand Luke’s observation, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

It’s not that I expected Obama to communicate with me about his policy positions, although I certainly hoped he would – even though I don’t wait around for him to call. Instead, it just seemed to me that his campaign – our campaign – would likely improve his prospects for winning if he were somehow to really communicate with this me and all the other me’s whose support he needs in order to be elected and govern successfully.

Let me make this clear: I think Obama can be elected successfully without communicating with me. Heck, even W succeeded at that! And, Obama can clearly govern without such communication. W did that, too… though poorly (including among other arrogances, famously ignoring his own Secretary of State’s admonition about the “Pottery Barn Rule”). But, for Obama to govern successfully, he’ll have to lead the country through a long list of extremely difficult challenges, including several messes that W played a major role in creating, and several other messes that W played a major role by neglecting. And the only way that Obama even might govern the country successfully through all those challenges and messes will be to develop some sort of two-way communication with all of us everyday citizens out here.

I say “only” because in my view, the most difficult challenge Obama will face is—to borrow from Bush-speak—the “division thing”, a problem that, like slavery 150 years ago, was seriously “misunderestimated”. As Sam Nunn argued, Obama needs to “lead[…] people to be able to say, ‘Yeah, that’s the direction we ought to go in as a nation; that’s the kind of nation we want to be.’”

Obviously, there’s no way for Obama to know whether people have come to say that sort of thingunless he and his surrogates have been listening to them. Indeed, unless they have been listening for some time – the longer, the better… say, starting now. I imagine they are “listening”, in the sense of polling, their eyes focused on winning the Electoral College.

But, the country desperately needs leadership: not polls, and not triangulation based on polls. Such passive, non-principled listening would probably only deepen the “division thing”. Obama needs to listen to the public’s nuanced expressions of where they are coming from now. Then, in the manner of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, Obama needs to figure out ways he can lead people to learn how to work their collective way through and beyond the current “division thing” to a collective agreement that is itself at once consistent with his Progressivist understanding of the Constitution, consistent with the principles of his own “un-division thing”, and—I hope—consistent with Martin Luther King’s Dream (if the Bush appointees to the Supreme Court will suffer it).

That is to say, particulars matter: some visions of “un-division” wouldn’t be suitable, no matter how ardently their proponents argued for them. And I personally couldn’t come up with an outcome that would be acceptable to both me and several people close to me in my personal life. I could likely, however, come up with a process for dialoging toward some yet-to-be-worked-out agreement.

Under the right set of desperate conditions—a situation which seems diminishingly hypothetical—they might even agree to participate in such a dialog. People might be willing to engage in civil discourse in order to address these problems because they have learned the hard way of the correctness of Sam Nunn’s characterization of the problems we face as “fundamental problems [that] we’ve got to deal with, including perhaps some sacrifice in the short run in order to have a better future for our children and grandchildren.”


Of course, Obama and his immediate surrogates wouldn’t need to be present for every such conversation. But, he can’t ignore them either. To take a problem seriously today means assigning money to support working on it. Whether as a candidate or as an elected President, Obama would have to fund such an effort: rent halls, train facilitators, develop infrastructure capable of handling (and summarizing) large amounts of information, equalizing access, and many other activities without which this whole effort would collapse.

One final observation for now… In real-world politics, none of us can–or at least, I can’t… and I don’t–expect any candidate to agree with each substantive detail of any progressive agenda. That means compromise is essential, and that means that the benefits of “un-division” inevitably come at the cost of deeply held principle. That could take a lot of effort and resources. I wonder whether we are up to it, whether I am up to it.

Robert A. Letcher, PhD

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D describes himself as “an academic with a disability instead of a portfolio, a writer, and a Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn”.

by Robert A. Letcher, 9 July 2008


  1. says

    Candidate Obama and his supporters used to preach about how Bush’ administration closed its ears and mouth to our allies. These same allies find Obama’s administration equally or even more opaque, unable to listen or even able to deliver coherent (let alone empathetic) one-way-outbound messages and orders.

    However, the real question transcends the amazing inadequacies of de-facto-emperor Obama and his court. Rather, we must question the very notion that a single emperor – even an extraordinary sensitive and well-intentioned emperor – can be expected to listen to (or dialog with) the hundreds of millions of people in his empire, and that sufficient, deliberative and timely decision-making can or should depend on an emperor (and his court) at all.

    It’s time to move beyond infeasible expectations of an oligarchic and hierarchic regime. It’s time for change in not merely the regime’s personnel but in the regime’s overall nature and design. The current erstwhile relatively progressive constitution is now 200 years obsolete, being designed for a population of 3 rather than 300 million, from before the era of mass education and of massive scientific and technological advance including information technology (wherein the speed of information transfer has gone from that of a horse to that of light).

    For the sake of citizen participation (rather than alienation) and of due precaution and of pro-action, it is time for decisions to be considered, taken and reviewed by citizen teams, no longer withheld to a small oligarchy of professional pampered perked politicians.

    • Robert A. Letcher says

      Joe — thank you for commenting on my essay. May i describe my experience reading your first two paragraphs? I began, receptive to your ideas, trying at the same time to learn what they were and to react to them.

      I regret to report that i started to lose that receptiveness at the “period” at the end of the first sentence. In the second sentence, you claimed without offering either a basis for your claim something about how (unspecified) “allies” react to Obama. How did you come by that insight? Your vagueness precludes my researching into whether i can remain receptive to agreeing with you.

      Then in the first line of the second paragraph–WHAM!!!–out of nowhere you shifted to unsubstantiated name-calling. How can you ask me or anyone else to reply to your assertion, “the amazing inadequacies of de-facto-emperor Obama and his court”? Let me suggest some information i would ask you to provide. What counts as an “inadequacy”? How do you distinguish between mere inadequacies and “amazing” inadequacies? What has Obama done that makes him meet your criteria? What have other elected leaders done in similar situations? What do you count as being an “emperor”; a de facto emperor at that?

      Rather than continuing to suggest questions, i would like to characterize your comment as SELF-VALIDATING.

      That’s not a good thing.


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