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Obama at War With Niebuhr

I want to reinforce Jonathan’s excellent post on the efforts under way by the Obama campaign to begin a “ferocious personal assault on Mitt Romney’’s character and business background.”

The Politico story quotes a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House as saying, “Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney.” And Smith and Martin of Politico report Obama’s aides “are increasingly resigned to running for reelection in a glum nation. And so the candidate who ran on ‘hope’ in 2008 has little choice four years later but to run a slashing, personal campaign aimed at disqualifying his likeliest opponent.”

In fact, Obama does have a choice. He could do what he promised he would do during the campaign, which was to elevate American politics, build bridges of understanding among people of different views, and reject the “politics of personal destruction.” He could run on his record. He could run on the future. He could run on a raft of ambitious policy proposals to strengthen our nation.

He could do all sorts of things. The point is, there’s nothing forcing Obama to resort to political brass knuckles, personal attacks and religious bigotry in order to win re-election. Let’s just say it’s not the kind of approach Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Obama claims as his “favorite philosopher,” would endorse.

In one of his journal entries from 1928 (found in Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic), Niebuhr wrote, “There is a discouraging pettiness about human nature which makes me hate myself each time I make an analysis of my inner motives and springs of action.” Niebuhr went on to write, “[A Christian] might well learn, better than I have learned, to be charitable with those who have made their adjustments to the right and to the left of his position. If I do not watch myself I will regard all who make their adjustments to my right as fanatics and all who make them to the left as cowards. There is a silly egotism about such attitudes.”

Elsewhere, Niebuhr wrote it is much easier to adore an ideal character than to emulate it. Which brings us back to Obama. He ran as a man of Niebuhrian sensibilities. But he turns out to be an individual who will embrace a discouraging pettiness in order to further his own extraordinary personal ambitions. If Obama has to unfairly destroy people to remain at the summit, so be it. It is, after all, the Chicago Way.

Obama may or may not come to hate himself for the path he has embarked on. I have come to believe, rather against my initial hope and expectation, that Obama is a man of boundless cynicism. So I rather doubt Obama will begin to question the wisdom and ethics of his ways. Perhaps I am wrong. I certainly hope so. But if I am right, it will be quite interesting (and revealing) to watch how journalists who once praised Obama for his message of “hope and change” deal with a man who stands to become–apparently with some relish–a political assassin.

 



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