Our Conscience-In-Chief

Even before he became President of the United States, Barack Obama was at the center of national conversations on the most contentious moral issues of the day. As a lawyer, teacher, advocate and politician, Obama brought depth and nuance to his personal and public discussions regarding religion, race, and rights--the very issues that stand at the core of what most deeply divides Americans.

Today, President Obama no longer merely debates matters of intense moral disagreements: he decides them. Making presidential decisions is an uncompromising task that has foiled some of his most able predecessors in the White House. So far, President Obama has succeeded where they once failed precisely due to the fact that he can draw from a vast repository of lived experiences. He emerges as a thoughtful, balanced, and respectful leader of conversations.

Not all presidents are able to lead national conversations. Some presidents have made their mark as leaders on the battlefield. George Washington, for instance, was the personification of the constitutional rank of Commander-in-Chief. Other presidents have shown political dexterity in communicating with constituents, allies and enemies. Perhaps the most notable among these is Ronald Reagan, the emblematic Communicator-in-Chief. Still other presidents, namely Bill Clinton, who was widely known as the Empathizer-in-Chief, have been blessed with the flair to feel the pain, to understand struggles, and to share in the joyful triumphs of Americans. And our last president--the first to hold a business degree--was often described as the Manager-in-Chief for his ability to delegate.

But President Obama has other talents. Not necessarily better talents, just different ones, talents that signal all the different strengths he possesses as a leader. His gifts are rhetorical and introspective, and he deploys his graceful eloquence in the service of fostering constructive public dialogue on fundamental questions of right and wrong, fair and foul, just and unjust.

There is more to President Obama than mere rhetoric, however. He is a man of profound substance and sophistication who uses words not only to touch and inspire listeners but moreover, to challenge citizens to aspire to become their better selves. President Obama sees himself as an interlocutor whose responsibilities are, first, to press Americans, and indeed the entire world, to confront the difficult truths of today and, second, to help us all navigate the complicated realities facing humanity. President Obama has therefore come to occupy a new function that presidents past have not: our Conscience-in-Chief.

From his very first days on the national stage, President Obama has sought to bring clarity to enduring questions of dispute and discontent in America.

On religion, President Obama has taken a pragmatic position that recognizes the centrality of faith in the United States, both at its founding and today, while also stressing that the organs of government must remain secular so as not to upset the delicate balance between pluralism and liberal democracy in America. In this way, he invites Americans to weigh tradition and private beliefs with modernity and public values.

On race, President Obama has been courageous in tackling controversial subjects such as the wounds of slavery, the future of immigration, and the continuing need for affirmative action. In engaging these thorny issues, he has lifted the veil that once shielded from view the sharp social pressures that constrain and compel the choices faced by persons of color as well as the corresponding concerns that erect barriers to racial reconciliation.

And on rights, President Obama has pointed the gaze of Americans toward justice and fairness, away from the inequalities of the past. He has championed human rights at both home and abroad, stood up for civil and political liberties, has begun to dismantle the Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell regime, and has delivered the most sweeping social transformation in the modern era by leading the charge to extend health care to all uninsured Americans. And all of this has come in only his first year as President.

The critical point, though, is that President Obama has been cautious to tread lightly on this rough terrain, careful not to speak or act in a way that preempts a broader discussion among Americans about where they stand on these matters of morality. Indeed, his genius has been to cast these questions as matters of moral choice rather than moral imperative, even though he quite clearly holds a personal view on these questions. By creating a public space within which national conversations may unfold respectfully though vigorously, President Obama is doing precisely what we hope our conscience will do for us: to lead us with care and compassion down the right path on contested questions of religion, race and rights.

Crossposted from Race-Talk