Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Team of Rivals

As Obama starts picking his cabinet, a lot of news has come out about his love of the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book is about the behind-the-scenes quarrels that occurred between Lincoln and his cabinet members. The lesson of the book is that Lincoln was secure enough to pick people who disagreed with him and would challenge him. It’s typical for leaders to surround themselves with “yes men.” This is a flaw in a lot of leaders I’ve known in various settings.

One of the things about Barack Obama that strikes me is that he is very analytical. He is very good at breaking down an issue and thinking about it from different perspectives. This makes for a very good analyst and consultant and can make for a very good leader.

One of the things I don’t see in Obama, unlike Lincoln, is a very deep reservoir of philosophical thought and reflection. He doesn’t seem to struggle with the very deep questions of human existence. He seems to have a general pop knowledge of philosophy. I think he is, in many ways, a product of his age.

None of this is necessarily a knock against him. It’s just an observation. We’ll see how these character traits play out in his presidency. My sense is that he will probably be very pragmatic with a heavy sense that government should tackle a range of problems. I disagree that government is a good solution provider but I understand why men like Obama appeal to it in this day and age. Whether he is a big government activist remains to be seen. Being somewhat pragmatic, he may be tempered by the negative reactions markets will inevitably have to big-government ambitions. Big government and pragmatism don’t often go hand in hand.

I sense we live in a time where it wouldn’t hurt us to have a president who held deep philosophical thoughts about the big forces in motion that are shaping the world at this time. From the advances of technology and sciences and the moral issues they raise, to changing demographics worldwide, to the revival of fundamental religious belief around the world, to the nature of governments, the nature of good and evil in mankind and how it plays out every day, the challenge of pluralism, truth, and meaning and how it shapes our interaction. It wouldn’t hurt for a leader to see things from a deeper, big-picture philosophical perspective that incorporates thought from times other than your own.

On the other hand, I realize that such a man probably wouldn’t get elected in a modern western democracy. So for now, we have to be content to have a president who is analytical, who seems secure in his own skin, and who is content to read pop history by Doris Kearns Goodwin and adapt some of its banal lessons into his presidency.

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