Getting to bipartisan compromise is a tough challenge in today’s political climate. Those that preach moderation are frequently ignored in favor of those who propose more dramatic and, therefore, “newsworthy” ideas. Congress – the House of Representatives in particular – has become increasingly partisan thanks to gerrymandering on behalf of both parties and the 24 hour news cycles which promotes conflict and confrontation. So, what is a politician to do? While there is no easy answer that will eliminate the partisan rancor that permeates our discourse, I believe that Senator Obama has made some real inroads and presents a very valuable lesson to other leaders who seek to promote bipartisanship in an environment that tends to dismiss compromise.
Granted, many of Senator Obama’s policy ideas do come from mainstream democratic thought. However, what differs between him and many other political leaders with similar policy ideas is his ability to present these ideas in a way that is compelling to those of very different backgrounds and political beliefs. Just as Reagan had fundamentally conservative ideas but was able to present them in a way that appealed to a much wider cross section of society, so has Senator Obama shown a unique skill in being able to appeal to a broad cross section of American society.
So, what is the key to his success? There are many. However, one of my observations is that Senator Obama presents his ideas in a context that does not seek to denigrate those who disagree. Rather, he frequently acknowledges those with whom he might have fundamental disagreements. This is not to say that he agrees with them, but simply by acknowledging those ideas, he presents himself as a more open-minded and a more even-handed leader. And this isn’t just a show. I am increasingly convinced that this is truly the way he approaches problems. One of the keys to compromise is acknowledging that even though you may hold very strongly held beliefs, that well meaning people hold equally strong beliefs on the other side. The first step in solving a contentious problem is acknowleding the concerns of those who disagree. Senator Obama has shown that he recognizes this important fact. A couple of examples:
Senator Obama is clearly a pro-choice candidate. However, in a recent speech on abortion, he spoke about the need for pro-choice forces to acknowledge the moral issues involved:
The mistake pro-choice forces have sometimes made in the past, and this is a generalization . . . has been to not acknowledge the wrenching moral issues involved… And so the debate got so polarized that both sides tended to exaggerate the other side’s positions. Most Americans, I think, recognize that what we want to do is avoid, or help people avoid, making this difficult choice. That nobody is pro-abortion — abortions are never a good thing.
When speaking on the issue of race, although he raised the issues of inequality felt by many African Americans, he also acknowledged the feelings of many white Americans who feel they are unfairly scapegoated:
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
Senator Obama presents himself as a leader with strong convictions who is also open to considering opposing views. Rather than simply dismissing those opposing views as is the case with many political leaders who fear that providing any legitimacy to an opponent is a sign of weakness, he acknowledges them. The American public is looking for a principled leader who does not change ideas with public opinion poll of the day, but also one who is not so dead set on one path that he/she simply dismisses contrary views.
President Bush also presented himself as a leader with strong convictions who was not swayed by “opinion polls”. His fault, however, lies in his dismissiveness towards opposing viewpoints. Senator Obama presents a sharp contrast.
This is not to say that simply acknowledging opposing viewpoints is the magic cure for partisanship. It certainly isn’t. However, I would argue that it’s a useful step in the right direction. Many leaders could learn from Senator Obama’s example that understanding and acknowledging an opposing view is not a sign of weakness, but rather, a sign of strength.