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Have We Missed the Key to Obama's Leadership Style?

If Obama's core value is unity, Democrats should know better than to expect him to fight their partisan fights for them. While he may disappoint them, they can also learn to respect the fact that he's being true to himself.
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I'm starting to suspect we've all missed the real story behind Barack Obama's leadership style. His recent actions may not have been driven by calculation or centrism, as most people thought, but by something else. He may have a core value that's new to our political process -- one that exists on a different plane, grounded in a web of personality, spirituality, and culture.

I had to think back many years -- and many thousands of miles -- before I remembered where I'd seen his kind of style before:


When I did some work there nearly twenty years ago I encountered some of the same traits we're seeing in Obama now: The urge for consensus. The courtesy toward all parties, no matter how strong the disagreements. The nearly-holographic quality of appearing different to different observers. The centeredness and self-control.

It may be coincidental. Or it may be the result of growing up with Hawaii's Pacific Rim influence. But Obama's management style resembles the classic Japanese model. And, at least historically, these haven't just been behaviors. They're living embodiments of a spiritual perception which says that all humanity -- all existence -- is interconnected and equal.

The operative word, the core value behind this behavior, is unity. Unity means preserving the integrity of a social group. Where elections and debates emphasize process, and policies focus on outcome, unity creates an emphasis structure. That's unfamiliar to us.

People who value unity will always choose structure over process, or even outcome. If Obama's core value is unity, Democrats should know better than to expect him to fight their partisan fights for them. And while he may disappoint them, they can also learn to respect the fact that he's being true to himself.

Obama's been frustrating observers across the political spectrum lately. Progressive bloggers are debating whether he's driven by cynicism or centrism, while the rightwingers at Human Events claim there's a "Secret Plan Behind Obama's Move to the Right!"

They're all missing the point. He's not moving to the Right. His political architecture isn't built on the old foundation of Right vs. Left -- or on Right vs. Wrong, for that matter. It isn't even binary. When it comes to policy he inclines toward the progressive position, but he's not thinking in terms of "winning" or "losing." His goal is group unity around the best possible realistic outcome. That means assess the situation, get what you can, then move to bring the parties together around a new consensus.

We can speculate on why Obama might be driven by unity. Family history? Community organizing? Christianity? That Pacific Rim upbringing? We can't know for sure. But if the model's right Obama's highest loyalty will always be to the nation as a group, and he'll sacrifice partisan interests to preserve its cohesion. He won't get overly attached to any specific policy position. In the end, he'll make his assessment about what he can get and then default to the unifying position.

He won't "bring the fight to the enemy" where the GOP is concerned, either. In fact, he doesn't necessarily even see an enemy -- just fellow group members with whom he must eventually reconcile. He will be able to inspire and lead -- but he won't be able to inflame and arouse. He will never be a firebrand. (Interestingly, despite his ability to excite a crowd he struck me as cool and analytical -- "clinical" was the word that came to mind -- the one time I saw him in close quarters.)

If I'm right, how should progressives respond? First, by making their voices heard through groups like Get FISA Right. Don't stop now. A consensus-builder's process will always be influenced by groups like this. Secondly, by not taking it personally when he moves on. Recognize that it's part of his style: He believes he's done all he can do (whether you agree with him or not -- in FISA's case I don't), and that now it's time to bring the group together.

In some ways Obama's novel values could be extremely valuable, even transformational, for our political process. But they could also lead him down some blind alleys and leave him open for sucker punches. So far he's been impressive at dodging those punches -- but where the Right's concerned, we ain't seen nothin' yet.

Still, I wouldn't bet against him.

Obama's unific style has sometimes disappointed me. But I've also found it fascinating to watch. And it's given me an opportunity to re-examine my own style, which has been rewarding.

Two factors are making this election historical: the political power of the Internet, and Obama's management approach (whatever its origins.) That gives us a chance to relate to a politician in new ways -- by detaching from him, studying his leadership model, and then interacting with him tactically and strategically.

Strangely enough, I get the feeling he'd like that. More importantly, it's a good exercise for us.After all, the best thing we can do politically is to become smarter and more flexible. That makes each of us more capable of supporting our most important value - whether it's unity or something completely different, like freedom. Or justice.

But whatever your core value, we can agree on one thing for unity's sake: It's going to be an interesting year.

RJ Eskow blogs:

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