How to be Rational in an Irrational World or Why I Still Believe in President Obama

Friends, it's true.  I finished Les Miserables on Sunday.  There are things of beauty amidst all the talk (all. the. talk.) of  Waterloo and prostitutes and justice and sewers and nuns and their convents, and perhaps I'll share them one day.  But that day ain't today.

Because today, the Democratic National Convention kicks off, and I am taking this opportunity to explain why I support the President in his reelection campaign.  I hope you will forgive the politics if that is not your favorite bag of doughnuts.  I will return to the bookish talk promptly.

Exhibit A: Harper's Magazine September 2012 issue.

Besides holding within its covers a 1947 contract between Kurt Vonnegut and his wife regarding household duties AND a 1915 pamphlet on "The Sexual Habits of the Adelie Penguin," which included the following phrase: "these unmated cocks congregate in little "hooligan" bands," this issue also includes a somewhat unflattering commentary by Thomas Frank called "Compromising Positions."  In it, Frank makes the argument that Obama's presidency has failed because of his too great commitment to political compromise.  He writes
The president is a man whose every instinct is conciliatory.  He is not merely a casual seeker of bipartisan consensus; he is an intellectually committed believer in it.  He simply cannot imagine a dispute in which one antagonist is right and the other is wrong.  No, there is always something honorable about both sides, some concession to be made by each.  His presidency has been one long quest for a "grand bargain," as he has sometimes put it, between red and blue.  (6)
The rhetoric is a bit charged here, but the driving point is Obama believes in considering a situation from all reasonable sides.  He is an intellectual and is open to learning from others and to new experiences (one of the markers of a Liberal mind - see Jonathan Haidt's TED talk on the subject here.  It's fascinating).  Some would say someone that devoted to compromise can't do the job of the presidency, isn't strong enough to Git R Done.  I disgree, and here we find Why I Still Believe in President Obama #1: I want to vote for someone who will lead by weighing the issues rather than one who will merely follow a party platform or public opinion poll.

Exhibit B: Time September 10, 2012 issue.

This is the "Special Convention Issue," but it is not all sunshine and roses from a left-wing media outlet.  In fact, one of the Commentary pages is granted to Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, a conservative outfit that includes such headlines as "Racist Dog Whistling: Only Liberals Can Hear It" on their web page.  Lowry asserts that Obama was lying when he made his now-famous 2004 DNC speech, especially regarding his desire for unity across political and social lines.  Lowry writes
Upon his election, Obama acted as any ideologue would.  He pushed as much through as often as possible when he had maximal power, without seriously compromising on anything until the Democrats lost control of the House, after which he cut a deal to extend the Bush tax cuts. ...Obama blew up his debt deal negotiations with Republican House Speaker John Boehner because he didn't want to be caught settling for less in tax revenue than what congressional Democrats wanted. (20)
After reading the Harper's piece, I was struck with the dissonance jangling between these two views.  How could Obama be both committed to compromise and a tyrannical ideologue?  As has been so often the case lately, most of Lowry's piece is vague and damning and riddled with false statements pronounced as fact.  The worst of those is the bit about not wanting "to be caught settling for less in tax revenue than what congressional Democrats wanted."  Here is the overwhelmingly neutral USA Today on that issue when it happened:
"It is hard to understand why Speaker Boehner would walk away from this kind of deal," Obama said.
Obama said he was willing to "take heat" from fellow Democrats on big program cuts, but Republicans decided to "walk away" in order to avoid higher taxes on the wealthy.
"There doesn't seem to be a capacity for them to say yes," Obama said.
At a news conference following Obama's comments, Boehner said the White House "moved the goalposts" by demanding $400 billion in additional tax revenues, on top of $800 billion to be realized through tax reform. White House officials said they were always willing to negotiate that additional $400 billion.
I am disappointed with Time for publishing this piece because there will be those that accept it as truth.  This issue of truthiness is not just a good Colbert bit.  As Sophia A. McClennen writes in a HuffPost piece:
When Colbert first described truthiness his hope was that he could encourage the U.S. public to expect the truth from the nation's leaders. Colbert's truthiness was a joke -- but it was a joke that was meant to be taken seriously. In the world of satire the idea is to mock in a way that makes a difference. First we spot the truthiness and then we do something about it.
The worrying trend today is that even when there is abundant evidence of lying, there are no repercussions. It's a case of lying and loving it. And it needs to be stopped. If on Election Day we no longer care about the difference between truth and truthiness, then the joke will be on us.
And this is where I start making my way to Why I Still Support President Obama #2: I want to vote for someone who believes that facts and truth and right and reason are the path to good policy and therefore good government.  In the extended piece on Obama in Time, here is what the President had to say on this subject: "I believe that if you do the right thing, then public opinion will eventually follow.  But public opinion doesn't always match up precisely with the election cycle, right?"  The article also quotes his campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki: "If he could sit down with each person in America to explain his policies, he believes he would win the day."  You notice he doesn't say if he could just chat with each person in America.  He says he wants "to explain his policies."  He believes that if voters simply had the facts, they would see he has some powerful work he wants to get done, and they would want to help him get it done.

In the descriptive bit at the beginning of that same Time article, journalist Michael Scherer talks about the tray the President's aide has placed across from him.  It holds "the two novels he is reading at the moment: Home by Toni Morrison and Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward."  Why I Still Support President Obama #3: I want to vote for someone who reads often, reads widely, and believes in the power of beautiful words carefully crafted.  I don't feel this way just because I like books, however.  There are much more important reasons, and I think Yann Martel says them all better than I could in this Big Think video.

Exhibit C: Les Miserables.

Toward the end of the book, the narrative takes us through the streets of a Mardi Gras carnival:
In the good humor of that winter of 1833, Paris had disguised herself as Venice.  We no longer see such a Mardi Gras nowadays.  Everything being a constant carnival, there is no carnival left. (1367).
That's us.  That's politics.  That's our society.  Everything is such a crush of clowns and deception and trickery and masks that we no longer see it as a carnival at all; it is just life.  And I refuse to give way to that irrational world.  In the Time article, David Plouffe (who managed the 2008 campaign) says of Obama, "He is a very rational person, so when you're faced with irrationality that can be a jarring thing."  Why I Still Support President Obama #4: I want to vote for someone who cares about being rational in an irrational world.

There are many, many more reasons.  But this post is epic enough as it is.  If you are still reading, please feel free to comment below.  And, as always, feel free to disagree with me.  I would love to learn from your view.


  1. Ah, the theater politic! Hence why my Poli Sci degree remains unused...and this woman is wholly apathetic in that I don't want to actively participate in campaigns...

    However, with that said, I still vote and educate myself on the policies supported by those representing me. Unfortunately, I don't think I'm in the majority. Part of the problem with the political system is that we are too busy being talked to about candidates and not told what their policies are or what their plans are or provided avenues that are not steeped in rhetoric to learn about these policies.

    The system is broken in many ways, especially in how campaigns are paid for by the big money machines.

    1. I like that idea about accessibility, Serena. Those avenues not steeped in rhetoric are important, even though this rhetoric teacher sometimes forgets that.

  2. Way to lay it out there. I really do want to listen to all sides and try to when it seems like it might actually be constructive. But, one side in particular seems to be more and more dogmatic, much to our country's detriment. In general, though, I am disappointed that neither side seems to be interested in bridging the ever growing polarity in this country; rather, they are intent on framing every issue as an us versus them. It is shameful. This is a country of great ideas and ideals and someone needs to step up and lead and help us remember that so we can begin to push forward on so many things. I like that the President is reasonable and rational and a reader, but I do so wish he would have the guts to challenge us all to be better than we are now.

    1. I'm not sure I agree, Scott, about neither side being interested in bridging the gap. I see the Obama administration as having tried that route and being still terribly willing to engage but recognizing that it is currently impossible. As that Times article noted, I think that leadership, that power play, is what he's been using these last several months and what we'll see more of in the 2nd term. However, I do agree with how disheartening the national discourse is at present. It makes me sad.

  3. Sara,

    I enjoyed your post and will be supporting the same candidate as you in the upcoming election. I have read articles about how despite the preponderance of fact-checking groups started by mainstream newspapers, it still does not stop campaign groups from running deliberately false ads that upon further scrutiny, appear only to be approximately 50% true in their content. I will say I do not know how President Obama continues to work in an environment every day where he has to confront such strong irrational elements and by irrational, I mean Tea Party funded Republican candidates elected to the U.S. House in the fall of 2010. Both from what I have read and from what I personally witnessed until I left D.C. in July of 2011, no other group of uncompromising, irrational ideologues have every broached the steps of Congress before. Even veteran Republican congressman have tried to speak to this fire-breathing tea party types about how the legislative process works and that a key part of that process is compromise. What does it say about the current Congress that a moderate Republican U.S. House member from the Ohio, elected in the same year as the current speaker, John Boehner, with whom he is good friends, resigned in the past month or so despite having won his primary election and despite the fact that he would easily win re-election. He was so tired of the toxicity of Congress and the complete inability to get things done, he decided it was not worth sticking around.

    I am approximately a few weeks into my second year at Montgomery Academy and feel a little more familiar with the rhythm of the place. I am teaching three new classes this year, so my summer was not exactly restful. I am teaching a history writing course to all freshman, an elective on the 2012 election, and A.P. U.S. Government and Politics in the fall. It will be my first time teaching for an AP course so I am grateful for the professional growth it offers me as well as the other courses I am teaching. I am very disappointed that only three students are taking my elective course on the election. It certainly limits group activity and when two of them are absent, which happened the other day, not much can get accomplished. I have planned a field trip and have some good speakers lined up. My hope for each of them is to deeply reflect upon their own personal political beliefs and why they hold them. Coincidentally enough, I just watched the TED talk by Jonathan Haidt yesterday and am planning to show it in the course at some point. Very interesting, indeed. The school has given iPads to teachers so I am really enjoying TED and some other apps right now.

    How is your new house coming along? I hope it has been a mostly smooth transition. Do the kids like it? Do they like their new school? How is the commute treating you and Joel? I hope your new semester at UTC is going well. I presume you are still teaching the Western Civilization course. On a side note, I congratulate you on reading the unabridged version of Les Miserables. I read the abridged version in high school and it remains my favorite novel. It is also my favorite musical by far.

    I did see the Lawrences briefly this past June in NC while John was studying for the bar exam. They told me about their moving to Chattanooga. Do they live near you guys? I hope you have had a chance to see them.

    I am sorry it has taken me so long to discover this blog. I am considering making a trip up to Chattanooga around Columbus Day weekend and will let you know if that happens since it would be wonderful to see you, Chloe, Nate, Finn, and Joel. Please be sure to tell Joel I mentioned Finn before him. I know how much he loves that dog. Again, my best wishes to all of you and with hopes of seeing you soon.

    All the best,


    1. TADD! So glad to hear from you - here or wherever I find you! We are well, the kids love the house and their new school, and the house is coming along - slowly but it is coming. Thanks for filling me in on your goings on and for reading the blog. I do hope we'll see you in October if you make the trip.

      And ps: those three students are pretty lucky.

  4. Saw this today and thought of your post:

    1. Love it. Thanks for the link, Scott. My favorite part: The Reasonable Person Theory of Government. I share this flawed theory, I'm afraid.