Obama’s two unnoticed gifts

There are two little noticed aspects of Obama and his family that I think bode very well for America.

The first is Michelle. She has, from the outset, been adamant that family came first. She demanded it of Barack, and I think it was a sine qua non of her willingness to embark upon this shared political journey. I believe she will carry this commitment into the White House.

What this means is that we will have, for the first time in memory, a First Mother who has taken that role by choice. None can doubt her talents in other areas, and she will surely choose a social cause to champion, as all First Ladies do. But I truly believe that, shining through her involvement in whatever cause she may choose, will be her commitment to raising a healthy, well-grounded and well-rounded family without hiding them from public view.

You can already see it in the girls — they are not little smiling automatons or perfectly drilled political children. They are just kids, looking with wonder at the circumstances in which they find themselves, and sharing that wonder with us all. This is a reflection of strong and steady parenting: the children can be trusted to be themselves in a public setting without fear that the selves they show will be either ill-mannered or inappropriate. Like Barack, like Michelle, they are comfortable in their own skins. My guess is that the Obamas as a family will work their way into our cultural consciousness as an honest antidote to the juvenile abusiveness of laugh track TV families, and offer a model of civil behavior to us all.

At the heart of this, as it should be, will be the strong and powerful presence of Michelle. She will be almost a post-feminist figure, not balancing motherhood and a profession, but intertwining them in a way that shows the two of them to be complementary parts of a fully realized human being. If she can do this, she will advance the cause of feminism in a way that will be equally as significant as Barack’s contributions to advancing the cause of post-racial identity.

The second contribution is potentially equally as far reaching. With the arrival of Barack, we have the return of “cool” as a viable expression of personal identity. Between gangster aggression, television talk show screaming, and glowering athletes, we have become a culture that values “hot” in the McLuhanesque sense of the term. Especially in the African American youth culture, which serves as the vanguard for popular cultural forms and identities for almost all of American youth, the idea of a “cool” identity has fallen out of favor. In its place we have lionized a “hot” aggressiveness.

Barack appears to have the capability of changing this. All through the campaign, when attacked, he either embraced and then neutralized the attack, or calmly staked out his considered position and held to it without either aggression or rancor. He respected his opponents, laughed at his own shortcomings, and made civility a virtue. In short, he modeled a measured and worthy manhood.

If, through some bit of cosmic grace, we should have found at this moment in time a woman who can model a resolved and caring motherhood as well as professional excellence, and a man who can show that strength is in embracing rather than in posturing and confronting, we will be standing in a rare shaft of historical sunlight.

At least until shown otherwise, I choose to believe this is true. It will show an America that has come of age, not merely racially, but psychologically. The young country that has so attracted and confounded the rest of the world in its agitated struggling for an identity to match its sheer physical power, will finally be able to lead by example rather than by force.

I once wrote in Letters to My Son, “Strength based in force is a strength people fear; strength based in love is a strength people crave.” The Obamas raise the very real possibility that we will manifest a strength based in love. If this is the case, their presidency will reverberate far beyond the confines of political action and discourse. They will, in effect, redefine what it means to be an American. It is, to my mind, a redefinition that is long overdue.


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14 comments

  1. Steve Blower says:

    Thank you for these thoughts.

    As an English person, I have also rejoiced that the Americans chose President Obama, as have so many people all around thw world.

    May I adapt your last paragraph and say, as well,

    If this is the case, their presidency will reverberate far beyond the shores of the United States of America. They will, in effect, redefine what it means to be a loving soul, a loving family, an example to the world. It is, to my mind, a redefinition that is long overdue.

    Thank you.

  2. Sherri says:

    Re: Obama’s two unnoticed gifts …..

    Thank you for so eloquently expressing the thoughts I have been thinking. I work in adult education, and see many of today’s disconnected youth desperately in need of the role model that this family could provide. Many are kids that have dropped out or been thrown out of school, or are in the juvenile system. Thanks, as always, for your beautifully written insights.

  3. Eric Read says:

    Good words to show us something that has been missing too long from the White House and other leadership positions in our society. I am excited to see where this will lead us as a people and as a nation. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Meredith Neria says:

    I like that we have a family in leadership that is not afraid of differing points of view and who know how to express their beliefs and stick to them while respecting the beliefs of others. That he respects Michelle’s judgment and listens to her reassures me and if they will be setting some trends, hopefully that will be one that catches on with a great many of us.

  5. Terry Waldrop says:

    One of the things that caught my attention early on in Barack Obama’s campaign was how he handled himself when attacked. Rather than respond in like aggression, he remained calm, collected.
    While he didn’t hesitate to speak out against his opponents’ policies, I don’t recall him ever attacking his opponents’ character though his was called into question time and time again.

    And being as we have, as you say, “lionized a ‘hot’ aggressiveness,” people questioned his “steel,” his ability to react decisively “should the call come at 3 a.m.” It’s really a shame that we equate aggression with strength when aggression is actually born of fear. And strength based in force, unlike strength based in love, does not gain loyalty and respect.

    I see in Barack Obama a true leader, a man who knows his heart, who lives by what he holds to be true in his heart. That is his strength. It was my father’s strength as well. I guess that’s why I recognized it in Mr. Obama, and why I stopped to listen to what he had to say.

    As for Michelle Obama, her own strength compliments her husband’s. Together, I believe they are a force that can help bring about a change in attitude in ourselves, our families, our communities, our country, our world, that it is better to lead by “power of example rather than example of power.” At least–like you, Mr. Nerburn–until shown otherwise, this is what I choose to believe.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts that were, as Sherri said, so eloquently expressed.

    Blessings!

  6. Paolo Ianieri says:

    Dear Nerburn,
    i just finished reading Neither wolf nor dog and when I saw your website at the end of the book i decided to come and have a look at it.
    I heard about your book from a photographer I know who, like me, has a big interest in Native American culture, history and way of thinking. He was fascinated by it and warmy suggested it to me. It took a while to find it, as I live in Italy and seems like it has not been distributed here. But a friend from Canada ordered it and gave it to me as a present a while ago.
    I have read and savoured every page of it. I have thought about it, re-read many passages, spoken to other people about it. From the deep of my heart I can say it is one of the best books I have ever read. And for this I would like to thank you.
    So I was coming here to see if there was a way to contact you and thank you for this great gift I received and have seen that this site is a really alive blog.
    I will take time to go through it, but I started from the last post you wrote and at the end one thought occured to my mind: will such a change ever be possible in Italy? will we ever be able to see politicians who can give trust to the people rule our country? or our loss of morality will send us deeper and deeper underground?
    I wish you the most wonderful Sunday Nerburn
    Paolo

  7. Terrence Shaughnessy says:

    I’m much appreciative of your insights on the Obama family and my sympathies align with yours, especially the hope I feel these days. One of the benfits of modern technology beeming our governmental activities into our homes is that it really is fairly easy to read body language and size up politicians beyond the handlers and spinmasters. The Obamas are refreshingly and amazingly authentic. I’m most struck by Barack Obama’s sense of indifference to personal power. The Jesuits talk of indifference as a spiritual gift to ascribe towards whereby the seeker, through discernment practices, learns to come to an internal place of indifference, ie, “to accept either a long life or death, riches or poverty, etc.”. I sense in our President a deep well of indifference as described & manifest in an equanimity that is very alluring. This seems to be present to degrees in his family. I also observe that Obama’s adulation of Abraham Lincoln is a reflection of his committment to governing from a centered place and that he has demonstrated that committment in his cabinet selection. We desperately need this kind of reasoned leadership, most especially after the scourge of the Bush years. We are moving forward with great possibilities in mind and the starting place is with the Obama’s!

  8. David Levine, D.O. says:

    Thanks, Kent. Lovely and pertinent insights. I just returned from West Africa where I read Dreams From My Father. I was deeply impressed by Obama’s literacy, insight, sensitivity, and deep sense of humanity. His readiness to self-evaluate and self-criticize — attributes long missing in the White House — makes me even happier that we have elected him our president.
    I watched the inauguration in a room full of Africans, some crying openly (as I was). For the first time in eight years I was proud to be an American.

  9. Kent,

    Thank you for your eloquent words and clear insight. It wasn’t until President Obama was elected that I ever considered attending an Inauguration in person. As the words announcing his win scrolled across the TV screen on November 4, 2008 I knew I had to go to Washington, D.C. to celebrate this historic shift in world history.

    As an African American I was especially proud not only for Obama’s achievement, but for the sacrifices of my family and ancestors before him that made this moment possible. What moved me most was watching groups of celebrants from all corners of the globe not only rejoicing, but in recognizing the significance of this moment.

    The two strengths–Michelle and Barack’s “cool” are familiar qualities to me in many successful Black families. Such families haven’t been famous, and thus were not known by a wide public, but they have been successful all the same. I am thrilled that in our new First Family we have the two strengths be revealed for the world to see.

    Thanks for pointing this out to us.

  10. Craig Eilers says:

    Kent,
    I appreciate you commentary and thoughts on Michelle and Barack Obama. Although I did not vote for Barack, I feel that he and Michelle are very fine people and I am proud that he is now our president.

    I just finished reading ‘Neither Wolf nor Dog’ and it has had a profound effect on me. I am sixty years old and have lived in Yakima, WA, my entire life. Our community borders the Yakama Indian Reservation. I have seen first hand the way my white fellow Americans treat Native Americans and it sickens me to my core. Although my political views tend toward those of an independent conservative, I am very concerned that our country will continue to struggle until we as a people can find a way to seek forgiveness from those we have transgressed against for so many years. I hope to do my part in the years ahead to further this cause. I thank you for the work you have done on behalf of the native people in our country.

  11. Inshirah Barbour says:

    I have to say that I read your book as an assignment for class. Living here in America my heart has always been torn waiting for death and trying to find peace. In a way your book has given me hope. That there are people who do know right from wrong. I do want to say that Obama has shown in his position that there is a right way to behave and has emulated it so far to perfection. I’m grateful that a leader in our country has finally shown that triumph may not always be there but there is a time for justice MAY IT BE TODAY.

  12. Katie says:

    I found your site through Stumble. I was one of the people who read your cab driver story, but for some reason I didn’t come to your website at that time.

    But here I am.

    And your amazing, contemplative insights into our world give me hope and fill me with wonder.

    May you be filled with the light you so freely give.

  13. While looking for a story tonight to share on my blog I came across your story about the taxi ride and the old woman. I loved it. It spoke to me.

  14. Meredith Neria says:

    Dear Kent, well here we are once again, choosing a President. Many events have taken place these past few years, but I feel that your assessment of our First Family is very much accurate and still holds true. Not everything has been perfect, but then we shouldn’t expect that, we are each and all responsible for striving toward perfecting our nation.
    It’s good to be able to look back and be pleased with the course we have followed and to be hopeful about our future.
    thank you for giving us food for thought 🙂

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