I wrote this a while ago for SC and decided to cross-post it here in an attempt to answer some of the attacks on Obama I see hitting the rec list with increasing frequency. I think much of the criticism of Obama is (deliberately?) mis-defining his version of "hope" as "wishful thinking" rather than "rational optimism."
Detractors of Obama often characterize him as all style, no substance. His inspiring rhetoric is portrayed as a cover for political shallowness; his charismatic charm is claimed to hide inexperience and naivety. Such criticism is uninformed. I won't concern myself here with Obama's record, except to note that it compares quite well to that of most of the other candidates from both parties and that I agree with most of his platform. Instead, I want to focus on his speeches, which reveal a mature understanding of the importance of rational hope in effecting change. Obama's style has substance.
Politicians understand the power of emotion, and are expert at appealing to pride, fear, duty, greed, and so on. Usually the behavior the politician is attempting to evoke is simply support in the form of votes or contributions, but occasionally a speech is intended to motivate citizens to take action to address a particular problem. For example, a politician might talk about graffiti and litter and urge citizens to take pride in their community and do their duty to help keep it clean. Effective communication is a critical tool in enabling politicians to advance their agenda. Obama is skilled at using hope to convince people to come together and pitch in towards a common goal.
Of course, a good politician must also legislate policy to promote desired behavior. For example, particular laws against graffiti or littering might be part of an effort to clean up a neighborhood. Here it is important that the politician have a good grasp of the root causes of the problem he seeks to address -- is graffiti really the major issue, or is it a symptom of something else? Obama sees the big picture and legislates accordingly. Consistent with his rhetoric, his domestic and foreign policy are built around an understanding of the importance of hope, and the damaging consequences of hopelessness.
Every pop psychologist is familiar with the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy, in which a belief dictates an action that validates that belief. While somewhat trite, there's an element of truth to the idea that we play out the roles we've been given (or chosen). When an individual is optimistic he is more likely to create cause for further optimism, and likewise when he is pessimistic he is more likely to create cause for further pessimism. As Mellencamp put it:
And it all comes true Yes it all comes true
Like a wheel inside a wheel It turns on you
And you think, What have I done? What can I do?
What you believe about yourself
It all comes true
There's some evidence that people collectively also respond to internalized perceptions. For example, the (in)famous broken windows theory suggests that a neighborhood can react to its apparent status ("bad neighborhood" as determined by broken windows) by escalating behavior associated with that status (a few broken windows lead to more broken windows lead to increased crime -- see for example here for further analysis). In both the individual and the collective case, the behavior is self-reinforcing. The absence of hope for an individual or the presence of broken windows for a neighborhood is assumed to signal the actual status. The theory is that if one can give an individual hope or fix the broken windows then the underlying problems will also be improved.
Now, there are pretty obvious limits to the usefulness of this concept -- "I think I can" only goes so far for individuals, and there is significant doubt that the "broken windows" effect is the dominant factor in reducing crime. Hope alone is not sufficient, since if it becomes apparent that this hope was misplaced then pessimism takes over and the negative cycle begins. What is needed is rational hope, meaning hope that is based on a reasonable expectation of observing improvement. Don't just fix the broken windows, fix the failing schools and the crappy local economy. Don't just tell me things are going to get better, show me how to improve them and convince me that together we can tackle the problem. Once we're addressing the root causes, our rational hope will create a positive feedback cycle that will motivate continued improvement. Obama is the only candidate who demonstrates an understanding of the power of rational hope: his political solutions get to the fundamental problem and give cause for productive optimism, while his rhetoric reinforces his message that a brighter future is coming.
Here is Obama on Katrina:
And so I hope that out of this crisis we all begin to reflect - Democrat and Republican - on not only our individual responsibilities to ourselves and our families, but to our mutual responsibilities to our fellow Americans. I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren't just abandoned during the Hurricane. They were abandoned long ago - to murder and mayhem in their streets; to substandard schools; to dilapidated housing; to inadequate health care; to a pervasive sense of hopelessness.
That pervasive hopelessness must be overcome with rational hope, and Obama details the improvements that the government must institute for hope to be rational. It's a two-pronged approach: legislation that actually addresses the underlying problem (giving a reason for hope), and rhetoric that inspires and encourages individuals to assist.
The war on terror:
As President, I will make it a focus of my foreign policy to roll back the tide of hopelessness that gives rise to hate. Freedom must mean freedom from fear, not the freedom of anarchy. I will never shrug my shoulders and say -- as Secretary Rumsfeld did -- "Freedom is untidy." I will focus our support on helping nations build independent judicial systems, honest police forces, and financial systems that are transparent and accountable. Freedom must also mean freedom from want, not freedom lost to an empty stomach. So I will make poverty reduction a key part of helping other nations reduce anarchy.
Extremism doesn't arise in a vacuum, and the US can do more to prevent it from gaining a foothold. Again, Obama offers concrete political solutions (legal and economic infrastructure, poverty reduction) aimed at overcoming hopelessness -- if only we'd followed this blueprint in Iraq. The rhetoric also resonates with us in the US: it's been a long time since a politician championed freedom from fear (shades of FDR) and instead offered a hopeful foreign policy.
This is not a new trick rolled out for his Presidential campaign, either; here is his 2004 Convention address:
I'm not talking about blind optimism here, the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don't think about it, or health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it.
That's not what I'm talking. I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.
Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.
Note the rejection of irrational hope ("blind optimism") and the definition of rational hope: people in hard situations doing what they can to better their lot, and looking towards the future with calculated optimism.
Finally, Obama does not offer a passive hope where we are allowed to just sit back and wait for things to get better -- like JFK, he calls on us to contribute. From his candidacy announcement:
This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy, and your advice - to push us forward when we're doing right, and to let us know when we're not. This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.
Obama wants to harness the power of our hopes, our dreams, to improve our society. I support Obama not only because I agree with his positions, but also because I believe that he is uniquely capable among the candidates of recognizing the underlying causes of a problem, generating feasible political solutions, and inspiring and utilizing optimism. He understands the importance of rational hope.