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Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008 03:19 pm

Barack Obama’s confident humility

Senator Barack Obama ran a successful campaign about change, and in many ways his election to the presidency marks a revolution in American politics — but it also marks a return. The Founding Fathers believed in people’s power to transform the world — and themselves — through the shared application of reason. Obama embodies this vision in his characteristic directness and receptiveness to collaboration. If he continues to demonstrate such confident humility as president, he can change the way Americans think about government and the way the rest of the world thinks about America.
Benjamin Franklin was aware of the value of confident humility when, in his Autobiography, he warned against the arrogance that can get in the way of convincing and learning from others:
“[I]f you would inform, a positive dogmatical Manner in advancing your Sentiments may provoke Contradiction and prevent a candid Attention. If you wish Information and Improvement from the Knowledge of others and yet at the same time express your self as firmly fix’d in your present Opinions, modest sensible Men, who do not love Disputation, will probably leave you undisturb’d in the Possession of your Error; and by such a Manner you can seldom hope. . . to persuade those whose Concurrence you desire.”
Franklin suggested that having a productive conversation — whether in one’s home or in the House — requires not just the confidence to assert one’s opinions but also the humility to accept correction. Because it opens us to the reasoning and the needs behind others’ positions, confident humility helps us to gauge whether and how we can find common ground. It enables a naturally collaborative leader, like Obama, to acquire the insight and information to navigate a complex world.
Contrast this kind of leadership with the approach to governing that Americans have endured in recent years, one that celebrates rigidity in thought and unilateralism in action, that equates discovery with retreat and humility with weakness. George W. Bush has governed as if unbending opinion connotes strength of character. It’s no surprise that he’s developed shortsighted and unresponsive policies that undermine the long-term welfare of the American people. The consequences of turning a deaf ear to criticism and advice can be devastating:
• failing to envision the evolving demands — and consequences — of two wars;
• mocking the value of science and investing little in energy alternatives;
• embracing deregulation even in the face of product recalls and financial crises;
• insisting on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans even as levees crumble and bridges collapse.
In front of the Old State Capitol, back in August, Sen. Joe Biden used the word “bluster” to describe Bush’s tendency to talk tough before understanding a problem. The stubborn have succeeded too long in claiming to be stalwart. When swaggering proclamations and saber-rattling replace thoughtful consideration of our responsibilities in the world, the world sees American soldiers, diplomats and even relief workers primarily as conquerors. But if the Obama administration adopts a diplomatic posture informed by confident humility, it can reestablish the U.S. as a trusted ally, secure in the respect it receives because it respects the rules of engagement at the negotiating table as well as on the battlefield.
Obama’s open and inclusive campaign suggested that he believes the American people can rise to the challenge of demanding a government that reflects their bravest, most hopeful, most innovative selves. Simple as it seemed, Obama’s campaign slogan — “Yes We Can! — represented an important commitment to the power of collaboration.
His rationale for choosing a running mate was an early indication that, as president, Obama will approach decision-making deliberately and collaboratively. In August, when asked by Time magazine’s Karen Tumulty and David von Drehle what his choice would reveal about him, Obama responded: “I’m not afraid to have folks around me who complement my strengths and who are independent.” Similarly, in an interview on Aug. 21 with CBS’ Harry Smith, Obama asserted that his Vice President would have to be “an effective partner” who could “challenge [his] thinking.”
It will be refreshing to have a president who believes that working together doesn’t have to mean agreeing, that listening to criticism can open new possibilities. This will be a president whose confident humility allows him to arrive at good decisions because he’s not afraid to test them against alternatives. But the promise of his leadership will come to pass only if he translates the collaborative spirit of his campaign into a government that inspires a rebirth of political communication and enduring popular engagement.
In July, the campaign sponsored over 1,000 “Listening to America” events throughout the country, to give people a chance to influence the party’s platform. These gatherings of friends and neighbors allowed voters in every state to experience the dynamic exchanges that caucuses can foster. They began to establish a culture of comfort with intellectual collaboration, of coming together, not to ratify biases, but to develop a broader, deeper understanding of what other people value. Experiencing thoughtful exchanges with others can encourage more active and thoughtful citizenship. Obama has already signaled that citizen involvement will be a priority in his administration. The new Web site of “The Office of the President Elect” (www.change.gov) includes a “Share Your Vision” feature that encourages visitors to offer a “vision for what America can be” and asks, “Where should we start together?”
Right-wing pundits and politicians love to invoke the Founding Fathers, in pious remembrance of an America that never was — one in which dissent did not exist. In a democracy, there is more to leadership and responsible citizenship than the repeated proclamation of shared assumptions. Obama has spent his career witnessing how involvement fosters the sense of empowerment essential to our faith in democracy. As he begins his presidency, he faces some daunting challenges, but he can reward the hope he has inspired if he builds an administration that values the voices of the people — not just their votes.

Thomas March, a Springfield native who was an Illinois Times intern in 1991, is a poet and essayist. Darcy R. Fryer, a historian of 18th-century America, worked as assistant editor of the CD-ROM Edition of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin. They both teach at an independent school in New York City.

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