President Obama’s “tax deal” of recent days has produced a significant response. Republicans have expressed smug delight that he has “finally decided to work with them,” as they chuckle at their success in adding another score to their midterm election “victory.”
Members of his own party and prominent voices in the mainstream media, who have typically shared his clear resistance to giving a costly and unproductive tax benefit to the wealthiest among us, lament that he has “caved” or compromised on a clear pledge, abandoning the crusade against the opposition’s pet tax advantage.
Indeed, prophetic voices have named the injustice of this tax break for the rich for what it is. (See Wendell Griffen’s Dec. 9 column.) But the question remains: What does a leader with integrity do when faced with unmovable obstruction?
While the question is being debated whether the president has been beaten or given up without a fight, I have wondered if we might be seeing the influence of two of his philosophical mentors: Abraham Lincoln and Reinhold Niebuhr. While the Republican strategists seem to be listening to such guides as Karl Rove and Dick Armey, Obama seems to be picking fruit from a tree with deeper roots.
During the campaign, it was reported that Obama was reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” The book details Lincoln’s remarkable ability to discern the complexity of the issues that divided the nation 150 years ago, even to the point of civil war, and to work with sharply conflicting perspectives toward the preservation of the union.
It also emphasizes that two years into his first term, public and professional political opinion was very critical of his leadership in dealing with the problems he inherited from the 30 years of struggle with the slavery issue and his predecessors’ lack of attention to it.
Lincoln’s genius, according to Goodwin, lay in his ability to keep his focus on what would be in the best interest of the nation, even those parts of it that had rebelled. Seeking to act for the well-being of the whole can displease both sides of a partisan environment, and Lincoln evidently did that, until some significant turns in the war rallied opinion back to his side.
In 2007, David Brooks of The New York Times reported on an interview conversation with then Senator Obama, in which Brooks asked Obama if he had ever read Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama replied with a 20-minute analysis of Niebuhr’s thought on the nature of politics and the human situation, leaving Brooks stunned by the depth of his understanding of 20th-century America’s most influential public theologian.
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Niebuhr’s genius, by many observers, was his emphasis on the importance of bringing the ideals of a moral and theological perspective to bear on the realities of an ambiguous and estranged world, without giving in to either idealistic illusions or cynical despair.
He was both an idealist in terms of vision and purpose and a realist in terms of the world in which he lived and worked. His critique of pacifism at the threshold of World War II was not a rejection of a commitment to peace, but a recognition that the quest for it would not be without conflict in an imperfect world.
Many have decided that a political party that has as its stated objective the defeat of a sitting president and the enhanced enrichment of the wealthiest class of citizens does not deserve to be taken seriously. But a president has a constitutional responsibility to work within a system of which that party is a part, and in which it has the constitutional opportunity to obstruct as well as cooperate.
Given that, a Lincoln or a leader following Niebuhr’s guidance would most likely seek to do what is possible with the realities of a situation, protecting the union and its people as much as possible from further damage, keeping a clear focus on the direction needed for a restoration of health and wholeness.
Whether a particular predisposition and effort to work for partial solutions on the way toward a greater goal is a sign of weakness, as many have suggested, or of wise leadership, time will help us know. There is always the risk of a compromise that abandons one’s ideals and values and results in further damage.
But a desire and a capability to navigate around the icebergs of obstructionist interests rather than to ram them head-on seems worth considering when the water is as deep and cold as it is. There are lots of passengers on the ship who need safe passage to a warmer clime.
I’m getting old enough to tend to put my money on the perspective of a Lincoln and a Niebuhr, with the hope that, with time and continued effort, enough of the American people will come to embrace its value as a guide for our journey.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.