Most of the discussion about the president’s Iraq speech has focused on its political importance and the policy implications, but we shouldn’t undervalue its nonpolitical importance to the American psyche.
It was a well delivered, well written Oval Office address that carefully walked the fine line of marking an end to the combat phase in Iraq without a chest-thumping victory lap. The president demonstrated “turning the page” with a gracious shout-out to former President Bush, while reiterating a key Democratic message and promise kept from 2006 and 2008: It’s time for a responsible exit, the war has extracted a heavy price here at home which we cannot, and will no longer, ignore. He appropriately praised and thanked our troops and their families for the sacrifices they’ve made, reminding Americans that we share the strength, compassion, and resilience our troops have shown in Iraq--a spirit and optimism that is uniquely American--which will help us move through these tough times.
The president should do a lot more of that. Not just because it’s good politics but more importantly, it’s good for our country’s emotional recovery. Things have been very tough for a lot of people for a very long time, which continues to take a toll on the overall mood of our country. As human beings we want to be inspired through a bigger idea and imagery like “New Deal,” “Morning in America,” or, “I have a dream.” It's why we wanted President Bush to call on us to do more than shop after 9/11. As a candidate, Obama gave voice to hope and optimism, but as president he has often seemed disconnected from our fears and anxiety. Not for lack of trying to do and explain things to the nation, but an over-emphasis on the intellectual component of leadership and not enough on the emotional.
There’s one incident from the 2008 presidential campaign that offers insight into the disconnect. The “flag pin” controversy, in which Obama’s patriotism was questioned/attacked over whether or not he wore a flag pin on his lapel, was about much more than whether or not he loves America. At the time, Obama made an absolutely valid, true, yet intellectual argument that most of us completely agree with: wearing a pin on one’s lapel has nothing to do with their level of patriotism or love of America. On an intellectual level, most also agree that in the thuggery which has overtaken our politics, to wear a pin--or not to--should be a meritless attack. But, as years of campaigns and numerous studies in cognitive neuroscience have proven, politics is not intellectual, it’s emotional. It’s human nature for voters to look and listen beyond words for signs that a candidate relates to, or “feels their pain.” On the emotional level, wearing a lapel pin of the American flag communicates respect and understanding that the flag holds a deeper value for many, many Americans as a significant symbol of our culture.
Borrowing from anthropology, political strategists also understand that these significant symbols are a critical part of how we as human beings construct meaning; communicate shared beliefs, attitudes, and values; judge; and identify as part of our culture. To be an effective leader is to demonstrate the ability of these symbols to inspire and unify; in politics, to truly be an effective communicator is to know when and how to evoke them. President Obama’s true potential as a transformational leader will depend on his ability to reach out through both intellect and emotion as we transition into the next chapter of our history as a country.
Throughout the program on the National Mall last weekend, Glenn Beck elicited many of these same emotions. It would be easy--and a mistake--for progressives to dismiss these images. Putting aside the flawed messengers—Sarah Palin and Beck--we should recognize that the majority of the roughly 85,000 people who gathered are not ideologues; they are Americans hungry for hope and optimism. While I hate to admit it, Beck clearly tapped in to something that is missing for a lot of Americans who are navigating major cultural, economic, and societal shifts. The “rules” seem to be changing or don’t apply anymore, we are overly connected, while some are not connected at all. Most of us see our lives in a completely different way than our parents and grandparents did. Watching and listening to his address from the Oval Office, it was good to hear Obama not only address the policy and the politics, but also speak to our emotions with realism and optimism. America could use a bit more of that combination right now.