The Courage to Lose


He preached the audacity of hope to crowds across the country. He wowed Americans, young and old, with rhetorical flair and a seemingly singular capacity for breaking down barriers of race, class, and ideology. But as spring turned to summer and the pundits began to question whether his new brand of politics was viable in the general election, Barack Obama got scared. He went on a patriotism campaign. He promoted hundreds of millions of dollars for faith-based initiatives. He voted to extend eavesdropping authority to an administration that has systematically eroded civil liberties. And in the smallest act that spoke the loudest, the ubiquitous American flag lapel pin, which he courageously and reasonably declined to wear throughout the spring, became a permanent fixture on his collar. Obama may have had the audacity to hope. But he also lacked what so many politicians before him have: the courage to lose.

Obama entered the Democratic race for the Presidency as a first-term Senator. Experience was not his forte. He was not a member of the foreign relations committee, nor had he ever represented the United States overseas or in any diplomatic negotiations. Foreign policy expert he was not. Luckily for Obama, leadership in America has never been exclusively about what you have done, but instead has focused on what you can accomplish with a combination of intelligence and inspiration.

Obama’s promise was change. 19 million Americans voted for him during the primary season. Those voters rejected candidates with more storied resumes because they believed in this man-the content of his character, as Dr. King had long ago dreamed, being the metric by which he was judged. The problem was that Obama himself not been convinced by his own rhetorical flourishes that he was worthy of the office to which he aspired. Simply put: Obama lacked self-respect, and this tragic weakness, an affliction not uncommon to those students who traverse this campus, led Obama to pooh-pooh the very reasons voters rallied to him in the first place. Voters did not care that he was a first-term Senator. They did not care that he had not chaired sub-committees or co-sponsored dozens of bills. Voters cared about who Barack Obama was, not what he was.

Obama’s weakness led him to surround himself with an entirely unimaginative set of partners, including his running mate, Joe Biden, a white male from a Northeastern state who had been in the Senate since Obama was in high school. The press applauded such a pragmatic choice. The New York Times proclaimed Biden, “a critical strategic choice.” Politico declared, “there are few more seasoned practitioners” than Joe Biden. And one CNN commentator proclaimed, “This choice shows Obama wants to win-he’s not just running to make a point.” Democracy’s heart just skipped a beat.

I suppose I should not ask since when has American politics been about winning. After all, the New Yorker, in its infamous issue depicting the Obamas in the Oval Office, declared, “Obama, it turns out, is a politician. In this respect, he resembles the forty-three Presidents he hopes to succeed, from the Father of His Country to the wayward son, Alpha George to Omega George. Winning a Presidential election doesn’t require being all things to all of the people all of the time, but it does require being some things to most of the people some of the time.”

At its core, the idea that the goal is to win a Presidential election is wrong. True leadership requires the courage to be yourself in the face of political pressure to do otherwise, unapologetically showing that you are, in fact, a person. In effect, what I am calling for-what democracy needs to thrive-are candidates who have the courage to lose.

Some day there will be a candidate who has the courage to be himself. Maybe he’ll win (I believe he will dominate), maybe he’ll lose. Either way, democracy will have won, because for the first time (apparently since the Founding, if you believe the New Yorker), the public will have had the opportunity to choose between two people, flaws, failures and all, and not two automatons constructed by political consultants and focus group pollsters.

At the beginning of the campaign, I thought the divinization of Barack Obama was ridiculous. I was wrong and I should have known better. Barack was not beloved like a God. He was beloved as a person. And with every thoroughly calculated and programmed step, he has become a bit farther removed from you and me. He becomes a robot-incapable of responding to anything before consulting his makers: the political pragmatists and pollsters.

President Bush has made more than his share of mistakes during his eight years in the White House. But as January 20, 2009 approaches, I find myself increasingly nostalgic about his term in office. No, I will not miss his policies or principles, but I will miss the inviolable humanity which emerged from the bloopers, misplaced jokes, and bone-headed misconceptions (think Vladmir Putin). Indeed, the one thing you cannot take away from George Bush is the fact that he was a person-a man who, for many days during his presidency, seemed to want to run away to Crawford and be done with the whole thing. I will sincerely miss that.

There are a few weeks left for Obama to right the ship. Here’s hoping he takes off the lapel pin, fist-pumps supporters across America, embraces his multi-ethnic roots as a source of strength, not shame, and once again becomes the person his supporters fell in love with. And if he does not, the choice people will make at the ballot box will be blind and, regardless of outcome, the only true loser will be democracy itself.

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