The Audacity of Persistence

There’s always the question of how you get things done. Some folks will tell you it’s all about having the right attitude – think you can and you can. Anyone who is tone deaf and decided they’d be the next great operatic tenor, and decided that if they had a positive attitude and thought they could be that, and decided to believe that with every fiber of their being, runs up against a brick wall. The same goes for the young woman who inherited a pear-shaped endomorphic body type and thinks that, if she thinks she can, she’ll become a rail-thin elegant runway model in Paris. And few of us will pitch for the Yankees, or land the romantic lead in a big Hollywood movie. The raw material with which you have to work matters too. But a positive attitude is nice. Everyone should have one.

And so there were the Obama “Hope” posters – and the variants, McCain Despair and Alfred E. Newman Hopeless. But the Obama message was uplifting – Yes, we can. He kept quoting Martin Luther King on the Audacity of Hope.

People bought into that, or enough of them did, and he became president. You know the Jerome Kern song from 1936 – the dead middle of the Great Depression – “Nothing’s impossible I have found, for when my chin is on the ground, I pick myself up, dust myself off, start all over again.” People seemed to like that idea that nothing is impossible – hope and change were in the air, or should be. Nothing is impossible – you have to believe that. And the times weren’t that different than the mid-thirties – the economy had collapsed again. And it sure beat that other message – “I’m angry and you should be angry too, and we should stop trying to do stupid things, and you kids, get off my lawn right now.” That was like watching another rerun of the movie Grumpy Old Men on cable – but it wasn’t as funny. John McCain was no Walter Matthau.

But the impossible, even if somehow possibly possible, is never easy, so you got Sarah Palin, one year later, at that Nashville Tea Party convention, giving her keynote speech with her message to Obama – everyone hates you and everything you’re trying to do is going down to certain defeat and we’ll take the country back from mindless grinning idiots trying to do stupid things. And there was her mocking question to the Democrats and any independents or wayward Republicans who had voted for Obama – How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?

Her side – now the Tea Party movement – was riding high. All of America was behind them, and all of America found hope, as a concept, stupid and silly. They were the grounded and adult people, the realists, and hope was for little kids. It was obvious, or she and Fox News said it was.

But of course governing is hard. As mentioned some time back, it’s like herding cats. There was a clever commercial about that a few years ago – from EDS, the systems management company Ross Perot founded and that’s now long gone, having been absorbed into Hewlett-Packard. Managing anything complex, where you need agreement or at least general alignment toward a goal, is like herding cats, And herding cats was even harder than Ross thought it was – those of us who worked in systems management for the successor company to EDS, Perot Systems, knew that all too well. What Obama faced was in the nature of getting things done. There’s hope, and then there’s the hard work of management and consensus.

But consider Searchlight, Nevada, this weekend:

Sarah Palin exhorted thousands of conservative tea party activists assembled in the Nevada desert Saturday to “fire” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats from Congress in the upcoming national election.

The wind whipped U.S. flags behind the former Alaska governor as she stood on a makeshift stage, holding a microphone and her notes as she spoke to the cheering crowd in Reid’s hometown.

The message was the same – everyone hates you guys and everything you’re trying to do is going down to certain defeat. We, the Real Americans, are taking our country back from the oddballs.

But there was Charles Blow in the New York Times with this:

A woman (Nancy Pelosi) pushed the healthcare bill through the House. The bill’s most visible and vocal proponents included a gay man (Barney Frank) and a Jew (Anthony Weiner). And the black man in the White House signed the bill into law. It’s enough to make a good old boy go crazy.

The oddball Hope Team did what Teddy Roosevelt and Truman and Nixon and Bill and Hillary Clinton couldn’t do – the impossible. So much for those she claims are the Real Americans.

But it wasn’t hope that did it. Hope is easy, and often useless. It was the hard work, and attention to detail, and persistence. And a lesson in that came the next day, far from Searchlight, Nevada – the college basketball team America resents, like the Yankees in baseball, the Duke Blue Devils, beat the fast and skilled and always-on-the-edge-of-chaos exhilarating Baylor team and advanced to the Final Four. Coached by the dour and unpleasant Mike Krzyzewski – Coach K – Duke did it by being methodical and focused and keeping to the basics, which Krzyzewski drills into his team with a cold sort of military approach. After all the endless drills on the fundamentals his teams generally have no personality at all – they’re boring and it’s hard to warm up to them, or to him. No one much likes these guys. But they win. Sure they have a winning attitude – that hope thing – but his teams always have something else, absolute discipline.

Obama seems to have that too, as you can see in two related foreign policy stories from the same day. In the New York Times there’s Peter Baker on Obama’s negotiations with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev over that new arms control treaty. And Baker reports that after reaching agreement, Medvedev insisted on bringing missile defense back into the treaty:

“Dmitri, we agreed,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Medvedev with a tone of exasperation, according to advisers. “We can’t do this. If it means we’re going to walk away from this treaty and not get it done, so be it. But we’re not going to go down this path.”…

If Mr. Obama overestimated his powers of persuasion in reaching quick agreement with the Russians, they misjudged how far they could get him to bend. In the end, they compromised on nonbinding language. And so, after all the fits and starts, all the miscalculations, the vodka toasts that proved premature and the stare-downs that nearly sank the whole enterprise, Mr. Obama hung up the phone again with Mr. Medvedev on Friday, this time having finally translated aspiration into agreement.

And in Newsweek there’s Michael Hirsh on why Obama was so upset at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his government embarrassed Joe Biden by announcing a new housing development in East Jerusalem the day Biden arrived for an official visit:

The main reason for Obama’s ire, according to a senior administration official, who asked not to be named, was that Biden had gone to Israel specifically to deliver a message to Netanyahu: the main issue is now Iran and its nuclear program, and we can’t allow ourselves to be distracted by other issues or to jeopardize the emerging alliance against Tehran in support of tough sanctions – an alliance which includes most of the leading Arab states. In particular, Netanyahu – who campaigned for office himself on the primacy of the Iranian nuclear issue – can’t afford to allow Israel’s leading defender on this issue, the president of the United States, to look as if he’s weak or lacking influence… And that of course is precisely what happened. Netanyahu’s government made Obama look bad, undermining the effort against Iran.

And at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum connects the two:

It goes without saying that both of these stories are based on sources who have an agenda. And we don’t know what that agenda is. So take this all with a few grains of salt.

But the connecting tissue here is Obama’s backbone. Domestically, he played hardball to get healthcare reform done this month and he threw down the gauntlet on recess appointments this weekend. Internationally, he played hardball with Medvedev – or convinced him he was playing hardball, anyway – over arms control, and was upset with Netanyahu less over the Jerusalem housing project per se than over the fact that it was a bungle that handicapped his ability to play hardball with Iran.

But he’s a bit like Coach K:

Conservatives are unhappy over Obama’s domestic hardball and liberals are probably uneasy over the international hardball – especially if Hirsh’s report about Iran is true. But they’re opposite sides of the same coin. A good president knows when to compromise, and also knows how to beat up his opponents enough to make compromise possible. It’s still early days, but Obama seems to be developing a pretty good sense for this stuff.

Andrew Sullivan, however, seems to think, as we saw in the primaries in the middle of 2008, Obama already had a pretty good sense for this stuff:

Yes, in the end, he got all the primary delegates House votes he needed. Yes, he worked our last nerve to get there. But, yes, too, this is an important victory – the first true bloodied, grueling revelation that his persistence, another critical Obama quality, finally paid off in the presidency. He could have given up weeks ago, as the punditry advised (because they seem to have no grasp of substance and mere addiction to hour-to-hour political plays). But he refused. That took courage. And relentlessness.

And Sullivan says James Fallows puts it well:

For now, the significance of the vote is moving the United States FROM a system in which people can assume they will have health coverage IF they are old enough (Medicare), poor enough (Medicaid), fortunate enough (working for an employer that offers coverage, or able themselves to bear expenses), or in some other way specially positioned (veterans; elected officials)… TOWARD a system in which people can assume they will have health-care coverage. Period.

Sullivan sees this as the biggest shift in social policy since welfare reform – but involving far more people. And he thinks it will empower Obama abroad “because there is a linkage between domestic success and foreign policy clout.” And Sullivan expanded upon that in an earlier Sunday Times of London column:

Watching the various whip counts going back and forth reminded me of the agonizing, delegate-counting path to primary victory that Obama took. It works your last nerve. It’s like England in extra time at the World Cup.

Imagine the narrative shift if this bill is passed. Obama will not have imposed this monstrosity on the country from on high; he will have ground it through the bloggers, and the pundits will declare a resurrection. The narrative will be about his persistence and his grit, rather than his near-divinity and his authority. And suddenly it will appear – lo! – as if this lone figure has not just rescued the US economy from the abyss, but also passed the biggest piece of social legislation in decades.

There is only one story better than Icarus falling to earth; and it’s Icarus getting back up and putting on some shades.

But this will change the way people see Obama:

The media will fall for it. The public will merely notice that the guy can come back and fight. Even when they don’t always agree with such a figure on the issues, they can admire him.

It’s that hope thing, and that 1936 Jerome Kern tune – “Nothing’s impossible I have found, for when my chin is on the ground, I pick myself up, dust myself off, start all over again.” It gets ’em every time. But it’s more than hope – the song also says work like a soul inspired, ’til the battle of the day is done. Hey, you may be sick and tired, but you’ll be a man, my son. And the woman who mocks him, and leads the movement that mocks him, quit her job as governor of Alaska for no particular reason, other than it seems it bored her. Advantage Obama.

But Sullivan, good conservative that he is, sees a real parallel with Ronald Reagan:

People forget how unpopular Reagan was at the same point in his presidency – and passing a big tax cut was legislatively a lot easier than reforming a health sector the size of the British economy. But like Obama he persisted and, with luck and learning, aimed very high.

It’s not so much the hope, but rather the discipline and persistence:

Obama has bet that this is his destiny. He is extremely cautious from day to day, staggeringly flexible on tactics, but not at all modest when you look at the big picture.

He still wants to rebuild the American economy from the ground up, re-regulate Wall Street, withdraw from Iraq, win in Afghanistan, get universal health insurance and achieve a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine in his first term. That’s all. And although you can see many small failures on the way, and agonizing slowness as well, you can also see he hasn’t dropped his determination to achieve it all.

He is no Sarah Palin. He doesn’t quit. That’s necessary to getting things done.

Of course it’s more complex than that. And that’s explored in the soon-to-be-released book by David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.

The Los Angeles Times roped Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice and the son of the famous David Brinkley, and the author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, into reviewing an advance copy of the Remnick book on Obama, and that review hits on the same things:

“The Bridge” is a towering monument to Obama’s hyper-professionalism when it comes to the art of politics. The president is an unflappable Zen master with a belly full of audacity. Hard work, endurance and civility are inherent in his personality. His greatest strength is that the opposition always underestimates him….

It’s a matter of know how to get things done:

On Oct. 9, 2009, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs woke up at dawn and received startling news from Oslo. President Obama, only 48, had just received the Nobel Peace Prize. Usually, this most prestigious of awards honors lifetime accomplishment (read septuagenarian) or recent diplomatic triumph (read Woodrow Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles). But not this time.

Dutifully, Gibbs called his boss with the mind-boggling international development. Using swear words unprintable in a family newspaper, a curt, disbelieving Obama told Gibbs to essentially “Shut up.” It was too early for scuttlebutt. It took Obama a few minutes to realize that Gibbs wasn’t yanking his chain. …

“It was not helpful to us politically,” Obama matter-of-factly recalls. “Although [David] Axelrod and I joke about it, the one thing we didn’t anticipate this year was having to apologize for having won the Nobel Peace Prize.”

It’s always about getting things done, and not about what people expect:

When Obama delivered his acceptance speech, many European pacifists were baffled at his quasi-martial words. Did he have to use the word “kill”? Or talk of the righteousness of war in Afghanistan? Obama clearly wasn’t trying to sound like Mother Teresa or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Nobel speech, he told Remnick, reflected his “fundamental view” that the world was a “dangerous place” with terrorists who will do vicious deeds and therefore “have to be fought.” This wasn’t the inheritor of Gandhi’s practice of nonviolence. Here was the ghost of Lincoln pledging that war was sometimes moral.

It’s always about pragmatism, and the basics:

Although operating from left-center, Obama is a consummate result-oriented pragmatist who early in life developed an earnest, open-minded consensus-seeking style. A one-man polyglot, he shuttled among Hawaii, Kansas, Kenya, Indonesia, Los Angeles and New York. He hated making enemies. His smile was radiant. He frowned on triumphalism. Nobody could ever accurately satirize him as an angry black man. Rage has been exorcised from his demeanor. Although blessed with a wry, mocking wit, Obama enjoys helping foes find their better nature.

“Barack is the interpreter,” his friend Cassandra Butts says. “To be a good interpreter means you need fluency in two languages as well as cultural fluency on both sides. As a biracial person, he has had to come to an understanding of the two worlds he’s lived in. … Living in those worlds, he functions as an interpreter to others.”

There’s much more – but you get the idea. The man ran on the Audacity of Hope – Yes, We Can! But that was campaign stuff. There’s always the question of just how you actually get things done. That calls for the Audacity of Persistence. And people don’t easily warm to that, if at all. Everyone rags on you. They resent you. And they may flock to the always-on-the-edge-of-chaos exhilarating babe from Alaska who winked as she just up and quit her office, with a smile.

But you win. And you get things done.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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