Obama's 'messy' wisdom

Barack Obama has always been comfortable with ambiguity. While it may not have given him much political benefit, it's still one of his most admirable qualities.

President Obama's unconventional wisdom.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

From the moment he stepped onstage at the 2004 Democratic convention, Barack Obama asked his audience to see things in a slightly more complex way, to set aside the categories into which they thought the political world slotted people and ideas. He was both black and white, Kenya and Kansas, arguing that "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states." In the time since, Obama has shown himself to have an appreciation for ambiguity and uncertainty that is uncommonly rare among politicians. In eight years of his presidency, he has tried again and again to convince Americans to share that appreciation. But he has largely failed.

It's not that Obama was ever unable to stick to a simple message — "Yes We Can" was pretty simple — or that he shied away from making clear moral assertions of right and wrong. But as his time in office comes to an end, he's becoming more publicly reflective, and one of the themes running through his statements is the idea of values and goals in conflict, of irreducible complexity, of a government that has to move forward even as it knows that some problems can be ameliorated but not completely solved.

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Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a senior writer with The American Prospect magazine and a blogger for The Washington Post. His writing has appeared in dozens of newspapers, magazines, and web sites, and he is the author or co-author of four books on media and politics.