Obama's pitch

The president's personal narrative is central to his national and international visions

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The Gazette, Sunday, July 19, 2009

Wearing his Chicago White Sox jacket as he threw out the first pitch at the all-star game the other night, Barack Obama was making an important statement - that he was from the South Side of Chicago. The Cubs, losers for a century, are from the North Side.

The personal narrative, who he is and where he comes from, has always played to Obama's advantage. He drew on it again Thursday night in an address to the 100th anniversary of the NAACP in New York, telling black parents there were "no excuses" for failing their children and holding himself up as a role model for their kids.

"No one has written your destiny for you," he said, speaking to "all the other Barack Obamas out there."

In the simplest and most eloquent terms, the messenger and the message are one. Like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, Obama is a rhetorical leader, bidding to become a transformational one. And he's discovering that the American presidency is what Theodore Roosevelt called "a bully pulpit," one that has global reach. He even took his message of responsibility to Africa, telling the parliament in Ghana; "Yes, you can!"

Six months into his presidency, it's clear that this is a man in a hurry, at home and abroad. His domestic agenda is dauntingly ambitious and probably overloaded. His global agenda is a sweeping reassertion of American leadership on everything from nuclear non-proliferation to climate change, from the Middle East to engagement with the Islamic world. U.S. presidential scholar Richard Reeves has observed that "the president's role is not to run the country, it is to lead the nation." Yet one of the interesting things emerging about Obama is his management style - considered, consensual and cool.

In Renegade: The Making of a President, an important new biography by former Newsweek writer Richard Wolff, Obama shares a sense of his new job in an Oval Office interview. "I'm the captain of the ship. I am not the builder of the ship...I can't steer the thing faster than its capacities, and most importantly I don't control the weather or the oceans. On the other hand, given what the oceans are, what the weather is and what the constraints of the ship are, I can be a better captain or a worse captain. And my job is to be the best captain I can be."

Well, the economic weather couldn't be stormier - Obama inherited the worst global recession in three generations, as well as the U.S. financial meltdown that has resulted in Washington nationalizing both Detroit and Wall St. The $50-billion bailout of the auto industry is in addition to Obama's nearly $800-billion recovery package, on top of the $800 billion in bailouts approved by the Bush administration, plus higher entitlements and lower tax receipts, not to mention the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All of which brings the U.S. federal deficit to at least $1.75 trillion this year, nearly 13 per cent of GDP. By comparison, the Canadian deficit is only two per cent of GDP.

In spite of these numbers, Obama is pushing ahead on health-care reform, as well as complex legislation on climate change, neither of which is exactly revenue neutral. It's an interesting insight into Obama's management style that he's allowed Congress to take the lead on these two issues, as well as shaping the fundamentals of the economic recovery package.

It's expensive, messy and often problematic, especially when the protectionist propensities of his fellow Democrats are factored in with, for example, the Buy American procurement provisions of the recovery bill. But at the end of the day, Obama is the captain of the ship, steering it in the direction he wants to go. His job is to inspire confidence which, with pent-up demand, will spark an eventual recovery.

Similarly on foreign policy, the sweep of his ambition was apparent in his April speech on arms control in Prague, and his June appearance at Cairo University. The Cairo speech was a landmark occasion, with an African American president, with Muslim roots on his father's side, reaching out to the Islamic world. He was at once celebrating Islam's contributions to civilization, and challenging it to engage with the modern. And then, as he told the parliament of Ghana, he has the blood of Africa in him.

And once again, the narrative not only shaped the story, but helped explain the policy.

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