Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Long Game

Now that I'm on the Obama topic, I can't let it go. These thoughts have been brewing for a while. I know I've been a long winded, blogging fool this week, but bear with me at least this once more, please. And weigh in if you would.

As we've seen from the Presidential race of 2008, President Obama plays a long game and is particularly adept at the rope-a-dope strategy. I was ready to vote for him after the DNC speech in 2004. I remember sitting in my Golf at the top of Sycamore street being so mesmerized by his oration that I would not risk missing any by crossing the street, heading inside, and up three and a half flights of stairs. "Move over Kerry, the hamster rescue was touching, but I wanna vote for this guy". Obama knew better than to be too obvious then, but he laid the groundwork. Then got the rest of us to work like crazy to get him elected last year.

During the campaign, I had a co-worker come by saying "he's got to show some aggression!" and I said, "Are you crazy? The worst thing he can do is show himself to be an angry black man." Not that McCain did himself any favors with the crazy white man display, but if Obama had acted like McCain, he wouldn't have been given any slack or quarter for missteps. And over time, his calm, thoughtful presence showed McCain to be knee-jerk and crazy and not really high caliber leadership material. After years and years of the Bush Administration screaming at us to "Be Fearful!", "Some Evildoer Could Kill You In Your Sleep", "We Must Do Something, Anything Now!", Obama said "calm down and think it through." I can't tell you how much relief his mere demeanor brings me after so many years of batshit crazy on the bully pulpit. And his focus on the future which respects the past.

His speech in Cairo started by saying "Together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress." While using those words in praise of Egyptian institutions, it brought home to me the perfect description of Obama's core philosophy as I see it - the harmony between tradition and progress. It's how and why he speaks to traditional conservatives and liberal progressives and picks up most of the independent "centers". His respect for the past and hope for the future and a desire to make both fit together is something he manages to convey better than anyone else I've ever heard.

I've heard comments about the talk saying "it's only a speech", "it's just words, not action", "Not all of that will happen", or "he's going to need to follow that with action". The first response completely fails to understand anything about how the universe works and in particular how relationships work. The second response is true, kind of - the mere fact of his being in the Middle East, addressing them and us as grownups was an action Bush never did and never could have. It's cumulative soft power whose full effects might never be known or properly attributed that he's building.

Obama got in front of an audience of millions and laid out a possible vision of the future and how we can managed to rub along together without exterminating one another. Whether or not any of his vision ever happens, the vision is now extant. And to the many middle eastern countries with half their population age 15 or younger (think about that for a second), these people will come of age with the knowledge of that vision and Obama's calm example. Whether or not action is taken by Obama or today's 15 year olds when they rise to power, or their kids who are raised on a different vision, I do not doubt that at least some good things will come from this.

During his campaign and almost every speech he can work it into, Obama lays out similar ideals for America and Americans. Those who say that failing to succeed at all the ideals means failure of all frustrate me. It's like saying an olympic high jumper failed because she didn't reach her goal of 7 feet when she won gold on a 6'10" jump. She set the goal at 7 feet because setting the goal at 6'9" feet doesn't get her as far, and still feels like it could be attainable. (Incidentally, the men's record holder at just under 8 feet is named Sotomayor.)

Setting high but realistic seeming goals is the first step to attaining those goals. No, you don't achieve goals without work, without action. But without the goals as a guide, energy is expended going in 80 different directions that would be more effective when focused in only one (or 5) directions. You might achieve something, but it's almost never as impressive as what happens when actions are focused toward a goal or set of goals. You just plain can't do it the other way around. So the campaign and Cairo, they're setting the goalposts so we know which direction to send the team running.

  • Being a materials engineer I can't help but make the analogy with some natural mechanisms both for building, transforming, and sculpting materials. To build a solid out of a liquid, you need two processes - nucleation and growth. Without places of low energy to form around, crystals won't grow. With all the nucleations sites needed but insufficient growth conditions, crystals won't grow. It takes both in a balance. More growth means bigger crystals, more nucleation means more crystals. When pilots seed clouds, they are adding nucleation sites into the clouds hoping that the growth condition for raindrops is there, ready to act, if only there is an accessible place to act upon.

  • Similarly there is fire. A pile of dry sticks won't catch fire without a spark. A spark won't light a pile of wet sticks. Fire needs the dry condition and the spark or it won't go.

  • If you hit anything with enough force, you'll overcome the molecular binding energy and shatter it like a hammer through a window. But if you want to sculpt something like glass or stone, you need to break it carefully. To do that, you need to make one part weaker than the neighboring parts and then apply force there. The force needs to be enough to propagate the crack without being enough to shatter the surrounding area. Applying the force first is useless at best and damaging at worst. But delineating where the force should be applied, then applying the force will crack the glass or stone along the proscribed line. Or maybe it veers off the line a little and the sculpture of an Indian Chief becomes a smaller nosed white settler - it remains a face, but a modified one. I can't sell glass with a chip in it because one day the sun shining on it will nudge that chip and make it shatter - it will feel unexpected but it is predictable.

But you see my point? Direct the force before applying it or you go nowhere. Dry the grass if you want it alight or dampen and hide the matches it if you don't. Growth doesn't happen without have a good place to anchor. In all cases, two potentially unlikely things have to happen in the proper sequence in order to give rise to the desired result. The Cairo speech is the notch at the edge of the glass, the nucleation of the ideas. Actions ought to follow, but they couldn't come first, and they might take years to materialize. And who yet knows who all the actors will be?

This is the stuff I think of when I think of DADT (Don't Ask, Don't Tell), the policy by which we drum decorated, necessary soldiers, sailors, and marines out of the military at a time when it's ridiculous to fire an Arabian translator with a security clearance. Obama moved quickly to quash the top down policy of torture, but on this, we don't hear much. He could just have other things on his plate, but when is there ever a good time to fight for civil rights? It's always concurrent with other challenges. My hope is that he's letting us work ourselves into a frenzy demanding that this archaic restriction on homosexuals be removed by seeing how retarded it is to fire distinguished West Point graduates with stellar service records. At which point our legislators hand him the law and he signs it.

Because we've seen him move swiftly for human rights, it feels wrong to have to wait for this, in this day and age. I have the feeling though, that if the repeal comes bottom up, not top down, it won't come back whereas if he slaps it down, it'll be back after the next electoral turnover. Maybe not, but it happens with every cycle of women's rights with every change of president so the worry is real. Enough people still feel justified in their intolerance of gays that simply going for it might be more trouble in the long run than fighting for it now but taking another year or two. Maybe I'm giving him too much credit and he just wants nothing to do with it, sympathetic notecards to dismissed lesbian soldiers notwithstanding. He doesn't seem super excited about this as a pet project, but it's possible that as he couldn't afford to campaign as a scary, angry black man, he might not yet feel that it's politically feasible to be seen driving the fabulous into the military, but politically feasible to allow it to happen. He's politically canny and smarter than me, but I hope I'm calling this one correctly.

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