I had an opportunity to watch David Letterman interview Barack Obama on Netflix the other day. I can’t recall the interview’s length but Obama is such a captivating figure it didn’t really matter. I was forced to recall his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention that thrust him into stardom. Without that speech, he’s not President in 2008.
And I’ve been thinking about how words move mountains and are even more powerful than brute strength. Speaking of, also on Netflix was a documentary on the strongest men in the world. One guy lifted over one thousand pounds. But Obama was able to lift millions and lift himself to the most powerful position in the world because of how he was able to express words and connect.
His ability to convey a message to another human being better than most human beings enabled him to reach heights attainable by only a select few. Partly why I voted for Obama in 2008 was because I thought when he left office he would be known as “the great communicator”. In 2018, the moniker reserved for Ronald Reagan is still safe with him, sadly.
Obama – in my opinion – is one of the most disappointing presidents I’ve lived under. I know that’s an angering statement for some who swoon at the mention of his name. Some are as starry eyed today as the speech in 2004.
Obama’s greatest attribute hid a weakness he shares with just about every other politician, an inability to bridge the ideological gap of America. Heck, in this speech he talks about us not being a liberal America or a conservative America, but a United States of America. A feel-good sentiment if I’ve ever heard one.
It was a rousing speech and as he ran for office in 2008, he ran on a theme of Hope and Change. Even now, it stirs me to watch his 2004 speech. And he captivated a nation. All of this was on display again in his Letterman interview.
Sadly, speech making does not make you a good president. Obama’s presidency did not reduce the partisanship extant throughout the country. In fact, it did the exact opposite and we became even more polarized.
I didn’t think that was possible, but consider the fact that Donald J Trump is the successor to Barack H Obama. On the surface they seem like polar opposites with Obama’s easy confidence contrasted with Trump’s paper thin poise and forest thick narcissism. But while Trump’s polarization is overt, Obama’s was much more subtle.
For instance, by the end of his presidency as he was stumping for Clinton, Obama simply was a well-spoken pitchman for the Democrats (see here: https://www.politico.com/story/2016/10/obama-donald-trump-rise-229780) blaming Republicans. He was not the unifier from 2004/2008 we all hoped he would be. I’m hearing those of you who are saying shame on me for believing it in the first place. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
And for those of you who support him and are angry with me as a black man for chiding our one black president, just ask yourselves if we’re more polarized today in 2018 than we were in 2008? And when you answer yes we are, you cannot shirk blame from the man who was president for most of those years. And if you say, no we’re not let me remind you that Donald J Trump is our president.
So what do we do?
I’ve considered that one day someone will rise up akin to the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ghandi and push the country forward. Those people tend to get assassinated and are few and far between but they do change the world. However, perhaps the change I wanted someone else to bring (see: Yay Obama 2008!) is the responsibility of you and I.
If we truly want a less polarized nation, we need to begin to speak and act in less polarizing ways ourselves. What’s that mean? Maybe we don’t say, “every Republican is a nutjob” or “liberal is a bad word roun’ these parts”. Maybe every single thing Trump does isn’t an incarnation of what the devil would do were he in office (and no, Trump is not the devil, sorry.)
If you’re pro-choice maybe think to yourself, “hmm, this pro-life person isn’t crazy, I wonder why they believe what they believe. Let me ask them a question.” Or if you’re someone who believes you have a right to own every kind of gun known to man say, “hmm, maybe these people who don’t want me to own all these guns have legitimate safety concerns. Let me hear what they have to say.”
The reality is, if we want to become less polarizing we need to listen. In his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, habit number 5 is this – Seek first to Understand, then to be Understood. So, when talking with someone try to understand their perspective before we start spouting ours. Also, don’t demean their perspective even if it is diametrically opposed to our own.
Easy? No. It wouldn’t be a habit of highly effective people if it were easy.
If we want less polarization and a nation that works together (cue Kumbaya chorus) to face 21st century challenges, asking more and assuming less is our way forward. If we’re comfortable name calling and staying within our own ideological bubbles, we’re going to be passed by nations (cough, China) who have less freedoms but more unity because here in the states we’ll tear one another apart.
Our children’s children are going to only wonder what it was like when America was leading the world because their America will have been left in the dust by other countries who recognized that it’s more important to focus on what brings people together than what tears us apart.
Let’s expect more.