Restraint

Restraint

Here’s an interesting piece by Jay Newton-Small at Time:

“Almost two years ago, in the first months of Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency, whenever the Illinois senator would get crowds going he would intentionally dial it down a notch. I remember seeing him in Columbia on his first trip to South Carolina in February 2007, six days after announcing his candidacy. When the crowd started chanting, “Yes, we can,” to his riff on Civil Rights, Obama abruptly changed the subject to labor’s right to organize. It was clear he was making a conscious effort not to be perceived (or pigeonholed) as the same inspirational speaker they saw at the 2004 convention; he wanted to introduce himself and tell his story, but most of all he wanted people to realize that there was substance underneath all the style. Indeed, what he wanted was the reaction he often ended up getting from many who came to see him on the stump during the primaries: “He wasn’t what I expected.” (…)

In this 20-month long campaign I have seldom seen Obama bring the full power of his oratory to the biggest possible crowd his campaign can build. That is, until this week. As the long campaign nears the end, the campaign has stopped shying away from such huge audiences, and the crowds have been stunning: 100,000 in St. Louis, 75,000 in Kansas City, 100,000 in Denver, 45,000 in Fort Collins, Colorado, 50,000 in Albuquerque. “We want to see and touch and talk to as many people as possible,” says David Axelrod, Obama’s top strategist. “This is momentum time.””

One of the things that has made the McCain campaign’s harping on Obama’s celebrity, “The One”, etc., so surreal to me is that like Newton-Small, it has often seemed to me that Obama is deliberately not using his rhetorical gifts as much as he might have. There are exceptions to this: his speech on race is the obvious example. But he has often seemed to me to be quite deliberately downplaying his sheer oratorical force in favor of substance and solidity. It’s as though he’s thinking: I could use style and eloquence alone, but I’d prefer something more durable, and more respectful.

That’s one thing that makes him such an interesting politician to watch: most politicians do not deliberately refrain from using whatever gifts they have. If they can go with eloquence, they do. I think Obama made the right choice. It allowed for a lot more real substance, and gave him the chance to make his case on a much more solid basis. That also made it a different case: calling for a change in the way we practice politics looks very different depending on whether or not the person who makes it also talks substance, addresses voters’ genuine concerns about the issues, and generally treats us as adults.

But it also shows a sense of how to pace a campaign. I have wondered for years why politicians are so obsessed by the daily news cycle: most of the biggest stories on any given day will have been forgotten by most voters within six months. It’s a real relief, after years of watching politicians grab as hard as they can for each micro-advantage at each moment in time, to see someone with larger sense of what matters: of the arc of a campaign, of when you can afford to hang back and let your opponent wear himself out, and when you need for everything to come together.

It also shows a lot of confidence. Not the kind of arrogance the McCain campaign complains about, of which I have seen very little evidence, but the kind of confidence that allows you to play a long game, rather than clawing for every apparent advantage, no matter how insignificant or counterproductive in the long run; to hold back sometimes; to choose understatement; and to keep your eyes on the prize. That, and discipline and self-restraint.

Obama doesn’t play the game the way it is usually played. He also seems to have an unusual personality for a politician: early on in Dreams From My Father, he writes: “I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew.” Immediately afterwards, he tells the story of an elderly man who lives in his building, who he sees sometimes, helps with the groceries, but who has never said a word to him. He thinks of the man as a kindred spirit. Later, the man is found dead; his apartment is “neat, almost empty”, with money squirreled away throughout. It’s clear, from the way he tells the story, that this seems to him to be one of his possible fates, and though his description of the man is kind throughout, it’s also clear that Obama thinks: his fate is to be avoided.

Ask yourself when you last heard of a politician who had to warn himself away from solitude, or who saw dying alone, without friends or family, as among his possible fates. Imagine how unlikely it is that, say, Bill Clinton ever thought: I have grown too comfortable in my solitude. Politicians normally crave attention. Obama seems to me not to. That’s probably one reason why he can afford to underplay his hand sometimes, and to hold back. And it’s certainly part of what makes him so interesting.