Philosophy, Politics

Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Creativity

I watched the President’s speech in Arizona last night with a fair measure of pessimism. Facing the highest of expectations after half a week of intensive, overheated public debate (fueled by an ever-quickening news cycle), Obama seemed sure to disappoint. No one could match the hype.

Of course, if you watched the speech last night, you know that I was wrong. In the vein of the best of the American political tradition, the President stepped up and moved beyond politics—it was transcendent in the only meaningful sense of the word. For such an effort, only Lincoln’s words will do: President Obama called us to be great, to live up to “the better angels of our nature.”

Lincoln’s crisis was surely greater. As he ended his First Inaugural with these words, the Union was dissolving. His attempt fell on deaf ears across the South—angels fell silent and humanity’s demons ruled the next few years.

But the magnitude of the national crisis involved isn’t what matters in evaluating Obama’s speech.

What matters is the depth of the wisdom behind it. What matters is the understanding of humans that this speech implies. Start with Andrew Sullivan on this: 

I am glad that the president has said we should debate the manifold ways in which we can help prevent this from occurring again; but that we should debate these things in a way that is worthy of the victims, in a way that would make them proud. It’s an elegant threading of a very small needle. Watching Christina Green’s parents as the president speaks brings home the enormity of this crime. Making her brief nine years of life the focus for hope and inspiration is a lovely peroration.

The President’s focus on Christina Green was absolutely the key to the speech, all other rhetorical elements aside. He spoke of her civic pride, of her dreams and aspirations, and above all, of her hopefulness. He spoke of the “magic” of childhood as evidence for how humans rebuild from tragedy.

And in Christina…in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic. So deserving of our love. And so deserving of our good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.

This is the true genius of the speech, but in a very specific sense. This isn’t the genius of a political strategist or even of a statesman. It’s a religious or even a metaphysical sort of genius.

Let me try to explain what I mean. Taking the podium in front of thousands (but really, millions) of scared, confused citizens, the President made a case for a deeply theological understanding of human beings. Start with sin. Obama repeatedly stressed that crises like the Arizona shooting are inexorable proof of the presence of evil in the world. For many of us—and perhaps progressives are particularly susceptible to this disease—we too-easily imagine that with one more legal or institutional tweak, we might solve many of our political problems for good. Americans are a can-do people (a truism, I know) which leads us to think of politics the way that we think of vaccines: with a change in strategy, we might end racism just like we ended smallpox. The President refused to indulge the audience in these sorts of illusions. This is not our final national tragedy. We will hurt and be hurt again.

But there is actually something reassuring about this, about recognizing that evil and tragedy are always with us, and are always part of us. Humans are proud, they are destructive, they are suffering creatures. Admitting this only leads to despair if we imagine that evil can be excised from life—that sin can be overcome and eliminated from human life. If we accept that evil is always with us, any happiness we achieve will be that much more secure. (As a sidebar, it’s worth noting that this message has long been a consistent thread in Obama’s public rhetoric.)

Even if knowing this can be reassuring, it doesn’t always feel that way in the moments immediately following tragedy. This is why Obama’s emphasis on Christina Green and childhood is crucial. If humans are destructive, if the human condition is ultimately shot through with tragedy, this doesn’t mean that there is nothing to recommend existence. Humans are destructive, but they are also creative. In deeply theoretical terms, human mortality is balanced by human natality. In fact, these two faculties are intertwined. Each move to create and renew is imbued with failure and destruction. Every human pursuit of the good carries the risk of evil—perhaps the certainty of sin. This is why we find the hopeful aspirations of children so encouraging.

At its base, this is what makes Obama’s speech truly great. In the face of horrifying tragedy, humans need reason to believe in the “better angels of their nature.” It is not enough in such moments to chant “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” No, when shocked and scared, humans yearn for reassurance that the human condition is redeemable (which is party of what makes the notion of “Christ as Savior” so important and compelling to so many of us).

If this sounds deeply Christian, that’s because it is. When Obama listed Reinhold Niebuhr as his favorite philosopher, that was an honest and revealing choice. Last night, Obama took it upon himself to remind us of the beauty and possibility of our condition.

Are you a cynic about the state of the world? In his speech, the President admitted that you have right to be. Should you despair? No, he said, and here’s why:

I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

That’s as patriotic, as wise, as profound a call as you will find anywhere in American politics. If you’re not comforted by the hopeful convictions of children, I suspect that you are beyond comforting.

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19 thoughts on “Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Creativity

  1. In the spoken word he said – I want to live up to her expectations.

    Which to my mind is even better than what was prepared.

    Posted by Thomas Meixner | January 13, 2011, 4:48 pm
    • Thomas, you are correct, and I agree completely. With the version he spoke, Obama humanizes himself and creates a direct personal connection between himself and Christina. It also could serve as a reaffirmation of the “Hope” message to his more liberal constituency, many of whom childishly assumed the 2008 Democratic “mandate” would enable vast, sweeping “Change” in just a year or two and are displeased with Obama’s compromises. He expresses his desire to live up to their expectations, but the President simultaneously chides those on the far left for their disillusionment (which ultimately aided the Republicans in 2010) and makes a Kennedy-esque entreaty for them to become involved again. Just some thoughts…I’d be interested if anyone else sees that, too.

      Posted by Alex Rosati | January 15, 2011, 1:49 pm
  2. Well-stated, and I was also most affected by the passage about seeing public service through the eyes of a child. Two problems with the blogger’s take, however. The first is theological, and I’ll set it aside except to note that “excision of evil” can be handled in a very different manner more in keeping with the prophetic/messianic tradition back to the origins of monotheism as I understand them. The other problem turns right back to the outstanding issue that has seized and troubled so many people over the last week in trying to understand a connection, if not causal than correlative, between the atrocity and an extremist impulse which, if not only or even primarily political, still has a share in politics. I won’t try to write an essay here, I’ll just ask how many on the far right, which we can define as the Palin bloc provisionally can hear these words and remain untroubled:

    [S]he saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model.

    Don’t they hear stealth “statism” in those words – whether they should or not? When they hear the President call for unity, they immediately assume – and I think they may be right, though I disagree it’s a bad thing – that he means unity with and within the national/cultural state that includes a public administration and government obligated to seek the good however imperfectly.

    A reflexive and all-embracing hostility to the state/statism leads the far right toward the ultra-right (and ultra-left): It’s a self-contradictory and philosophically untenable position for anyone who aspires to be accepted within the mainstream of politics, which is a long way of saying that it’s insane. Loughnerism is in that sense a pure form of extreme libertarianism, overlapping anarchism. Of course, libertarianism at this extreme comes into conflict with “standards” of any type. His act was incivility itself, so naturally makes us wonder about the spectrum of civility. Loughnerism also includes an attitude toward language reminiscent in part of literary avant-gardism, but also of populist anti-intellectualism, its suspicion of “correct” speech, and its affection for leaders who are virtually incapable of it – who likewise speak in sometimes bizarre ways, leaving the rest of the country scratching their heads and playing their inappropriate, incoherent, and contradictory statements over and over again.

    Posted by CK MacLeod | January 13, 2011, 5:25 pm
    • CKMac-

      Thanks for a very thoughtful comment. I’d answer your core question with the sort of hopefulness that I thought the President aimed for in his speech: I’m not cynical enough to see the Right dismissing those words. You may be correct about the most extreme fringes, but I think (or rather, I “hope”) that a large majority of conservatives are too proudly patriotic to fall into the wholesale Loughnerism that you’re depicting here.

      In any case, it’s a question of hunches about American conservatism, and you may be right. I hope you’ll permit me to say that I hope you’re wrong. After all, if you are, we’re in much darker times than I’m suggesting in this post.

      Thanks for reading!


      Posted by CPW | January 14, 2011, 4:32 pm
      • Well, I look at the responses of Limbaugh, Malkin, Levin, Palin (the last would do herself a world of good by warmly praising Obama at Tucson like her running mate did today in the WaPo), as well as the responses of some of my former colleagues on the right (I confess that I’m a recovering con): I’m less hopeful about their faction, though more hopeful about the times since I see “Tea Party America” isolating itself, stripping itself down to a rump or remnant that is already wondering why what worked for them in ’10 is already “backfiring” so dramatically in ’11.

        Anyway, let me return your cordial words and than you for your post. I ended up incorporating my comment/your post in a longer piece on Loughnerism (tracked back below) . I’ll be adding your blog to our blogroll, too, FWIW, and will try to stop by more often!

        Posted by CK MacLeod | January 14, 2011, 5:35 pm
  3. Very nice article, and nice to see someone point out that the collocation of “godless” with “liberal” in American politics is often unfounded.

    Posted by Jaime Nichols | January 14, 2011, 7:00 am
    • Exactly! I’ve spent too much time with EJ Dionne to let that sort of rhetorical insult go unchallenged.

      God bless!

      Posted by CPW | January 14, 2011, 4:32 pm
  4. nice……………………………………………………………………………..^_^b

    Posted by faza | January 14, 2011, 10:42 am
  5. Brilliant and thoughtful analyis. Thank you for putting things in perspective.


    Posted by anil Malhotra | January 14, 2011, 12:18 pm


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