Personal Politics

I'm writing this two days before Senator Obama becomes President Obama, and like many Americans, I've been glued to the television watching the events unfold. Regardless of who you voted for, there are great lessons to be learned from the tone Mr. Obama set during his campaign and since his election that have resonated with the overwhelming majority of Americans.  Polls show that roughly 80% of Americans are optimistic that Mr. Obama will improve our country, which is much higher than the percentage who voted for him.  His ability to instill hope across ethnic, racial, gender and political lines is truly astonishing.  I've been thinking about the reasons for this, and I've come up with three of the approaches taken by Mr. Obama that are models for all of us to follow.

First, assume the best about the other person.  As a Washingtonian for thirty years, the "gotcha" discourse is just another day at the office.  Too many of our discussions, political and otherwise, attack the person behind the idea rather than the idea itself.  Thank goodness we disagree with each other; it would be uninteresting, let alone unhealthy, if we were clones of one another.  As different as his beliefs are from the administration he is succeeding, Mr. Obama has not disparaged the character of the 43rd President.  I promise to double my efforts to not automatically generalize from a person's opinion to the person's whole being, giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Second, listen to and learn from people who disagree with you.  Mr. Obama has repeatedly said that he wants to hear from people across the political spectrum, including elected officials.  Sure, part of this is good politics, but part of it is wanting to glean the best ideas available.  Most of my friends hold similar political and social views as I do, which I think is more common than not for most people.  I am amazed at couples who have (good) mixed marriages, i.e., one partner is a Republican and the other is a Democrat.  We, including me, can more calmly listen to opposing views with a more open mind.  As someone who is very politically opinionated (my friends are giggling at this point), this won't be easy for me, but there is only an upside to trying.

Third, you can make a huge difference in changing the world.  Mr. Obama drew on his community organizing experience in creating an impressive bottom-up campaign strategy, and the new White House plans to draw on this grassroots organization in moving forward.  This will be useful given that the world's problems often feel overwhelming--extreme poverty, war, genocide, health care, and the faltering economy.  Sometimes it seems as if it will take nothing short of a miracle to turn things around.  We feel so helpless, so tiny, compared to the magnitude of these challenges.  What we've learned from the past year or two is that one person can make a huge difference to change something. I may not be able to singlehandedly feed the starving people around the world or prevent more slaughter, but I can help more in my community, donate more time and money to worthwhile organizations, and speak out more.  If we each take a small bite out of the giant pie of problems, just maybe there will only be crumbs left over.

Whether you are Republican, Democrat or neither, we are all starting anew on January 20.  All our voices are equally valid and important.  Let's pledge to implement the above three approaches when dealing with each other and in working together.  I will do my best and I assume you will do the same.