Saturday, January 26, 2008

Reason Enough?

Last week, my good friend Ronnie, a much more government savvy man than myself, asked me if I'd do a little volunteer work for Barack Obama.

I told him that, while I like Obama and expect to vote for him, it's going to be difficult for me to feel sincere about canvassing or otherwise actively promoting him. I'm suspicious of politicians, and I'm suspicious of campaigning. I did a lot of work with the philosophical aspects of the Daoist Tradition in college, so I worry about anyone that seeks high political office. I have a grandfather with a long political history, so I've heard stories of coaxing poor, rural downstate Delaware voters to the polls by promising them bottles of Jack Daniel's. And I've read and have big love for Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, so most of the time I can't help but look at elections through the eyes of a paranoid drunken political junkie journalist.

I said I was open to the idea, however. If Ronnie could get me truly, sincerely excited about Obama, I'd do it. In order to do that, I told him he needed to convince me that Obama was committed to taking meaningful steps toward a sustainable economy.

Ronnie sent me his thoughts. I went through Obama's Blueprint for Change. I read a few articles. We went back and forth a bit. I did some thinking. And here's where I am so far...

In terms of commitment to sustainability, I like that Obama sneaks "environmental" stuff into his core platform statements. He includes sustainable farming in his Plan to Support Rural Communities. He includes green collar jobs in his Plan to Combat Poverty. And he includes renewable energy in his Plan to Strengthen the Economy. He doesn't take "the environment" and make it a stand alone issue, and I think that integration is important.

Hillary's platform integrates too, however. She ties investment in alternative energy technologies in with Strengthening the Middle Class, and she even mentions "Green Schools" as part of her Education Platform.

Obama and Hillary don't have identical visions when it comes to moving toward a sustainable economy, but I don't sense any fundamental conflicts either. They both present reasonably cohesive plans that include, as they should, some commitment to a sustainable future.

There does exist, however, a compelling argument why Obama might be better suited to making his vision a reality.

The argument started to sink in when I read a post called Executives vs Leaders on Fred Wilson's AVC blog. He cites a Harvard Business Review article and a little Freudian theory, and he identifies Obama as a visionary narcissist and Hillary as a productive obsessive (using "narcissist" and obsessive" as value neutral psychological types). Fred writes: "If you are operating in a dynamic environment when the risks are high, rapid decisions need to be made, and patience is not a virtue, find yourself a narcissist for the job and pair him or her with a productive obsessive." Fred sees big value in Hillary the consummate executive, but his experience with entrepreneurship tells him Obama will have a much easier time hiring productive obsessives to help him get things done than Hillary will have hiring a visionary narcissist to help her lead.

I sent the post to Ronnie, and he sent a New Republic article back. Not only is Obama a visionary, it argues, but the man can attend to operational detail. The article's author, Cass Sunstein, worked with Obama at the University of Chicago when Obama was teaching constitutional law. During their time as colleagues, Sunstein realized that Obama had a rare blend of "visionary" and "minimalist" tendencies. Obama, unlike most constitutional scholars or judges, could both work gracefully with the details of tradition and, when appropriate, throw them out in favor of what's right. Sunstein argues that "real transformations require a degree of consensus," and, as a "visionary minimalist," Obama is uniquely positioned to "call simultaneously for change and reconciliation."

All this leadership theory strikes me as a little bit over the top, but I have to admit that I sense a spark in Obama that I don't sense in other politicians. Maybe it's nothing: a camera trick, some marketing genius. But maybe it really can inspire change. Maybe it can convince people not to hold on too tight to the world as it exists now. Maybe it can angle us toward an economy that promotes and protects the long term interests of the planet and the species.

Here's how Ronnie puts it:

Obama could lead something similar to the Reagan revolution. Reagan’s policies, in many areas, were far more conservative than the American public, but his personality and spirit (don’t ask me why) could build coalitions around whatever his policy happened to be. He could move the needle. Obama possesses a similar, if not greater ability.

I'm still suspicious, but I'm excited. This guy could be really good.