The Pathos of the Rational Leader: Goldberg’s Obama

“It is literally in my DNA to be suspicious of tribalism,” he told me. “I understand the tribal impulse, and acknowledge the power of tribal division. I’ve been navigating tribal divisions my whole life. In the end, it’s the source of a lot of destructive acts.”


“Every president has strengths and weaknesses,” he answered. “And there is no doubt that there are times where I have not been attentive enough to feelings and emotions and politics in communicating what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

From: The Obama Doctrine – The Atlantic

Time permitting, I will have more to say on Jeffrey Goldberg’s long article on “The Obama Doctrine,” or at any rate I expect it to remain a key reference for anyone trying to think through the meaning of the Obama presidency and of this world-historical moment. For now I will say that, to me, among the most interesting passages in this piece, which qualifies as a “must-read” if anything in contemporary magazine journalism can, are those which feature Obama’s self-analysis, especially his denunciation of tribalism and his confession of his own excessive rationalism. These two aspects of Obama’s worldview are connected or at least parallel, yet at the same time dysfunctionally separate – complementary and conjoined, but impossible for Obama himself to bring together effectively.

The President seems to understand, rationally, that his rationalism will be dissatisfying to those who seek or need to derive a perhaps irrevocably non-rationalizable – not merely rational – meaning from political allegiance or identity. Yet he needs those people; or, in other, capitalized, words: The President needs the People. In the form of a question: How can a nation survive, can its institutions function, can it prosper and triumph, can the People experience or aspire to satisfaction, without recourse at some point to such “tribalism”?

The President cannot answer, because no one can. His perhaps “literally” congenital inability to understand the Middle East as focus and root of a positive American Judeo-Christian or “tribal” identity (a “present absence” embodied in his interlocutor!) would be of a piece with this confessed flaw, in a way that his most ardent critics are rarely any better at explaining, and that his most ardent supporters may remain unable to recognize as a flaw.

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9 comments on “The Pathos of the Rational Leader: Goldberg’s Obama

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  1. I think sometime longago here I made some other comment similar to this: The history of the colonies/independent US can be read as partially, but significantly as a continuing war against tribalism – a tribalism that is not metamorphic but literal, as the literal and explicit structure of governance.

    • The overarching “Declarationist” ideology – “all men… created equal… with certain inalienable rights” – is anti-tribal, but is precisely as inadequate to questions of sovereignty or practical governance as reason is for the derivation of sentiment: replication of the liberal(libertarian) praxis problem. The abstract solution – tribe of anti-tribalists – seems to work as ideal up to a point, but is vulnerable to exposure at all times as objectively merely the cover story for white or European colonialism or imperialism, even when inspired by communist revolutionaries and implemented by non-Europeans.

  2. Further on Obama’s peculiar ME blindspot from Max Boot:

    In some ways, the most amazing part of Goldberg’s article is his account of how Obama, who had essentially no exposure to the Middle East before becoming president in 2009, had the temerity to lecture Netanyahu, who has lived in the region his entire life. After Netayanhu tried to explain Israeli thinking to Obama, the president curtly cut him off: “Bibi, you have to understand something,” he said. “I’m the African American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do.”

    It is harder to find a better encapsulation of Obama’s overweening arrogance: He thinks that his life story, which has nothing to do with the Middle East, gives him a greater understanding of the subject than the prime minister of Israel possesses.

  3. I’m not sure what the relevance of the Boot article is. It makes it sound like O was saying how he grew up gave him an understanding of the facts of the mideast. The Goldberg article seems to indicate O’s reference was to the shared experience of dangerousness that growing up black with single mom etc and living in the ME gives one rather than specifics of history.

    Which is not to say O doesn’t have peculiar blindspots on the ME or anything else, just as Bibi, and each of us does. Then again what I regard as Netanyahu’s blindspots, he might easily see as features not bugs.

    On the “tribal” point, O specifies the “tribal impulse” which I take to be something different than actual tribalism, which might be taken not to be an ideology as we now use the term. On its own terms, the tribal organization of societies has exhibited a range of hierarchy and equality both, perhaps comparable to the range of actual practices of post-Enlightenment societies.

    • The article itself doesn’t propose or illuminate some rigorous definition of “tribalism” for us. It uses the term in a very generalized way, or anyway that’s how I’m using it – as the alternative to rationalism.

      The relevance of the Boot quote, and the thing that both Boot and I find strange about it is that it seems to suggest that Obama views his personal experience of overcoming impediments to his rise to prominence and power as somehow obviously relevant to the point of view of Bibi Netanyahu in regard to Israel. It struck me as a non sequitur when I read it, and the notion that the two types of experiences of “danger,” if that’s the idea, seems bizarrely strained to me. “Growing up black in America” roughly equals “being Israel” – because both are dangerous, and because, at least in Obama’s case and Israel’s, in both cases it’s not impossible to triumph and prosper anyway?

      • Yes clearly, O, the article and general usage is to present “tribal” as opposed to “rational”. That turn is what I’m seeking to illuminate – that the common connotations of “tribal” as pejorative is a node in the matrix of “the cover story” as you put it. While we all kinda know the point generally being made by using “tribal” it has an effect of denigrating all aspects of actual tribal organization as irrational, as a cover as it were, for opposing the tribal’s incompatibility with nation states.

        This may be one of those points that makes sense only to the individual trying, but not succeeding particularly, to find a framework for expressing it. So please read this as a idea of speculative political philosophy.

        BTW I’m not getting email alerts on comments here

  4. That’s the funny thing…since you changed the email notification check off, I haven’t got confirmation emails – I thought you dispensed with them (personally I find them entirely dispensible), but I guess not. So I thought going with the default setting of “yes, replies to my comment” would get me emails.

    • Welp – I’m “this close” to junking this comment subscription system in favor of another one, though a new configuration I’m experimenting with is showing some potential. Next time you reply, see if the menu below reads “yes, replies to my comment” before you click “Post Comment.” Check also that your email address is correct (you may need to log out if you’re normally logged in). You should get a confirmation email – unless you are already subscribed either to all comments on thread or to replies to your comment.

      You should get the confirmation email once and only once, and be subscribed thereafter – though it’s possible there are other confusions going on. If you care to indulge me, maybe take the problem over to the most recent WP-related thread, starting fresh (since there’s also some possible problem with different cookies with different data).

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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