Barack Obama came to prominence, and then to power, as a synthesizer. He held himself out as a visionary who could overcome the stubborn clash between thesis and antithesis that has characterized our recent politics.
Recall his frequent insistence that the clashes in our politics are the product of “false choices.” And recall his major speches.
At the Democratic convention in 2004, he purported to synthesize the clash between “Red” and “Blue” America by pointing out that conservatives in Red States have gay friends while liberals in Blue States coach little league baseball. And in his 2008 Philadelphia speech on race relations, he synthesized an imaginary clash between the racism of Rev. Wright and the alleged racism of his own white grandmother.
Obama’s Cairo speech, delivered shortly after he became president, also relied heavily on the language of synthesis. The Jews have been hard done by, and so have the Palestinians, he argued. The synthesis lies in both groups recognizing the other’s grievances, and proceeding from there.
The appeal of this type of rhetoric is obvious. First, Obama was able to cast himself as a reasonable man, capable of seeing both sides of an issue. Second, he was able to cast himself as a decent and charitable man, capable of seeing the good in the fiercest of clashing adversaries. Third, he was able to cast himself as an intelligent man (albeit in the facile manner of a bright college sophomore or a slightly above average law student), capable of finding similarities where lesser intellects can spot only differences.
Finally, and most importantly, Obama the synthesizer cast himself as a problem solver. His seeming ability to identify common ground was not just an exercise in intellectual nimbleness and human decency. For many, it held out the promise that longstanding conflicts might be made to recede. Most controversialists have no idea how sick most Americans are of polemics, and how much they yearn for sensible, bipartisan answers to the questions that divide the country. Obama understood this and reaped the rewards.
As president, though, Obama has mostly abandoned synthetics. On the most important domestic issues, he deferred to the Democratic congressional leaders, thus embracing the thesis rather than looking for a synthesis. Only when it comes to war – the area least amenable to difference splitting – has Obama synthesized conflicting positions in a serious way. Unfortunately, the resulting policy – fight like heck for a year or so and then begin withdrawing – is not serious.
To make matters worse, Obama has been a polemicst, not a synthesizer, in high-profile controversies that do not directly implicate the presidency. Recall, for example, how he mindlessly took the side of his friend Skip Gates after the professor managed to got himself arrested by a Cambridge police officer. Obama did not look at the competing merits. He simply assumed that the white officer was in the wrong.
The “beer summit” was Obama’s effort to recast himself as a synthesizer. For this reason, as bad as the optics were, it was worth holding.
Finally we come to the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy. Here, the synthesis could hardly be more obvious – the imam and company have the right to build the mosque there, but it’s a very bad idea.
Moreover, President Obama could truly be the president America thought it was electing if, beyond simply articulating this synthesis, he tried to implement it by holding another “summit” and trying to talk the imam into locating the mosque in another spot in Lower Manhattan. There’s little chance that Obama could succeed. To the imam and those whose interests he represents, putting the mosque at Ground Zero isn’t a bad idea; it is the point of the entire enterprise. But a president obsessed for more than a year with trying to extract concessions from the Israelis might reasonably devote an afternoon to trying to have the mosque relocated. I would argue that the 9/11 victims and their families deserve that much.
But Obama did not embrace, even intellectually, a synthesis in this matter. Rather, he came down squarely on the side of the imam. He spoke up on behalf of his right to build the mosque on “hallowed ground” without ever suggesting that doing so might be wrong or misguided. In fact, he implied that putting the mosque at this spot was a favorable development because our willingness to have it there reaffirms who we are as a people and drives home the contrast between our values and those of jihadists. Obama even claimed that the show of respect towards Islam implicit in the building of a mosque at Ground Zero is one reason why we will win the fight against al Qaeda.
Obama has since “clarified” his remarks, as he did in the case of Professor Gates. But this time the clarification is not a synthesis. Obama still endorses the thesis that the iman has the right to build the mosque at Ground Zero. And he still declines to endorse the thesis of the mosque’s opponents – that putting it there is a very bad idea. On this, he professes agnosticism. Nor does Obama seem to have any intention of mediating, as he eventually did in the Gates case.
Obama, it is clear, masqueraded as a synthesizer in order to gain power. He took advantage of America’s yearning for a president who will bridge our divisions. He never intended to be such a president. Rather, he intended to be the agent for one side of the debate — a side I think is properly viewed as the antithesis to the traditional American narrative that we are good country with a good economic system.
It will be quite difficult, I suspect, for the American electorate to forgive Obama for his deception.
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