Thursday, August 7, 2008

Obama Needs Nuance Without Ambiguity

“I don’t do nuance,” President Bush supposedly once said to Sen. Joe Biden.

And he didn’t, during the past eight years, in ways too disastrous, too numerous, too familiar to list.

If Bush’s problem was not doing nuance, Obama is facing the opposite problem: doing too much of it. Good for policy, bad for politics.

He goes to Iraq, sees what’s happening and realizes that the timetable he favored needs to be more flexible than he first believed. Obama made the shift only after he satisfied himself in person that the actual security situation on the ground required discarding rigidly preconceived, ideologically driven troop movements deadlines.

It’s what presidents are supposed to do (though we can think of one who didn’t). Yet Obama got hammered for flip-flopping.

Obama has also been attacked for changing his mind on any number of other issues: offshore oil drilling, dipping into the strategic petroleum reserve, NAFTA, negotiating “without preconditions” with Iran and Cuba, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Not every Obama supporter is going to like every tug and adjustment. What could he possibly have been thinking when he called the D.C. gun ban unconstitutional?

And some of those tugs and adjustments are self-serving. Nothing else explains his opting out of public campaign financing.

So there’s political calculation mixed in there with the policy nuance. Well, it is politics. But now Obama’s job is to show that it is not all politics.

He can do that by leading a reform of affirmative action.

Obama has the opportunity to bring nuance to these policies because there is no agreement on what affirmative action is, or even on what its purpose should be.

On one side, there are liberals who fear that any recalibration of racial preference programs means disaster for ethnic minorities left unprotected from discrimination.

The left that loves nothing better than a nice wallow in virtuous victimhood saw no problem with the program at the University of Michigan that was struck down by the Supreme Court five years ago, under which Barack Obama’s daughters would have received an automatic 20 points on a scale of 150 because they would have been deemed underprivileged. To assume that being black equals being socioeconomically disadvantaged is nothing less than a hidden form of racism.

Obama sees the absurdity in that. He told George Stephanopoulos last year that his daughters “should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged.” And he added that “we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed.”

It’s a move toward an affirmative action that considers factors other than race. But without forgetting race, because at the same time, Obama needs also to confront conservatives who like to pretend racial discrimination is no longer a barrier to progress. These people, too, love their own right-leaning wallow in virtuous victimhood — remember that infamous Jesse Helms ad with the “white hands” crumpling a job rejection letter because “they had to give it to a minority”?

An Obama reform of affirmative action must have as a premise the fact that racial discrimination is much more likely to affect people who are not white — while at the same time, the policy must be nuanced enough to recognize that indeed, reverse discrimination is also reprehensible and should be every bit as illegal.

Then there is that buzzword, “diversity,” derided on the right as mere political correctness. Well, “diversity” in the workplace brings together individuals from different backgrounds, with different ideas and different ways of doing things so that an enterprise can consider a product or service from various perspectives. Why does that make some on the right uneasy?

And so, there you have Obama’s nuanced affirmative action: It should be used to oppose racial discrimination, whether overt from the right or the veiled, patronizing kind from the left; it should boost disadvantaged people regardless of race; and it should promote the benefits of diversity.

He has said much of all that, a little bit here and a little bit there, sometimes ambiguously. Now he needs to lay it all out. Nuance without ambiguity. Because what this country urgently needs is a president unafraid to act boldly upon shades of gray.

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