Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

A True Believer

With the final presidential debate a day away, tonight is probably my last chance to weigh in on the previous debate without sounding woefully untimely.  

I’d like to talk about one very small portion of the debate that touched an emotional chord with me, but seems to have largely gone un-discussed, and that is Senator Obama’s answer to the final question of the debate.  The question was from a woman in New Hampshire and it was “What don’t you know and how will you learn it?”

This is a question after my own heart.  To me, the most repellent characteristic of the Bush administration has been its attitude of complete certainty in the “rightness” or “correctness” of its own actions.  I speak not of the actions or policies themselves, but of the way in which they seem to be spoken of and implemented: in a manner of total confidence, betraying not the slightest bit of self-doubt or self-examination.  I believe that a culture of recklessness and thoughtlessness pervade the present administration.  So, the question posed by “Peggy” of New Hampshire seemed to me like a breath of fresh air because it asked the candidates to speak not of all the things they are certain of, but rather the things of which they are not.  It is a question that asks for humility, thoughtfulness, and self-examination – qualities which I believe are vitally important aspects of leadership, at least equally so with the more-appreciated qualities of confidence, decisiveness, and strength.    

Perhaps it is for those reasons that I found myself wholly disappointed and repulsed by the answer of Barack Obama:    

Obama: My wife, Michelle, is there and she could give you a much longer list than I do. And most of the time, I learn it by asking her.

But, look, the nature of the challenges that we’re going to face are immense and one of the things that we know about the presidency is that it’s never the challenges that you expect. It’s the challenges that you don’t that end up consuming most of your time.

But here’s what I do know. I know that I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for the fact that this country gave me opportunity. I came from very modest means. I had a single mom and my grandparents raised me and it was because of the help of scholarships and my grandmother scrimping on things that she might have wanted to purchase and my mom, at one point, getting food stamps in order for us to put food on the table.

Despite all that, I was able to go to the best schools on earth and I was able to succeed in a way that I could not have succeeded anywhere else in this country.

The same is true for Michelle and I’m sure the same is true for a lot of you.

And the question in this election is: are we going to pass on that same American dream to the next generation? Over the last eight years, we’ve seen that dream diminish.

Wages and incomes have gone down. People have lost their health care or are going bankrupt because they get sick. We’ve got young people who have got the grades and the will and the drive to go to college, but they just don’t have the money.

And we can’t expect that if we do the same things that we’ve been doing over the last eight years, that somehow we are going to have a different outcome.

We need fundamental change. That’s what’s at stake in this election. That’s the reason I decided to run for president, and I’m hopeful that all of you are prepared to continue this extraordinary journey that we call America.

But we’re going to have to have the courage and the sacrifice, the nerve to move in a new direction.

Thank you.


Mr. Obama’s answer essentially amounted to the dismissal of the question through a joke and then going on to devote the next 17 sentences to what he “do[es] know” in complete contravention of the spirit of the original question.  

Now, allow me to insert the mandatory disclaimer here that Senator McCain’s answer was, in my view, no better or more true to the spirit of the interrogatory.  I found Senator Obama’s answer more personally repugnant, however, precisely because I want so very badly to believe in him.  I want to believe more than simply that he is ‘better than the other guy.’  I want to believe that he can truly Lead (capital ‘L’) this country.  But his answer to the above question is emblematic of how he has consistently failed to show me what I need to see to believe that he is different.  

I’m not accusing Senator Obama of thoughtlessness or arrogance.  I believe that in his debates and speeches and interviews he has shown himself to be a very thoughtful man.  So why did this  thoughtful and articulate man fail to provide a meaningful example of something he didn’t know.  Why did this same man so feebly answer a similar question during the primaries about his greatest weakness?  TRANSCRIPT (answering essentially that his greatest weakness was that he is bad at keeping track of paperwork).   I think we can all agree that (if he is human) he, by definition, must have some significant weaknesses and flaws.  No matter how intelligent he is, all the things he doesn’t know relevant to the presidency alone must be enough to fill the Library of Congress.  So is it too much to ask to show the humility to share important examples of each with the very people he is asking to trust him with incredible power?  Why answer the question the way he did?

A dear friend of mine provided a sound (and probably accurate) explanation of Senator Obama’s answer.  According to her, Obama probably had a sense that he had done well in the debate and was doing well in the election.  It was the last question of the night, all he had to do was play it close to the vest: deflect the question and don’t give the McCain camp any ammunition to use against him.  

That explanation, while probably true, is unsatisfying and cuts right to heart of why I can’t bring myself to truly believe in Senator Obama, even though I will almost certainly vote for him.  Senator Obama answered that question with the seeming objective of ‘winning’ the debate’ and ‘winning the presidency’ rather than acknowledging the unquestionable truth that there are many important things that he doesn’t know — and that many voters would like to know what those things are.  Winning became more important than the truth and more important than doing the voters (and the question-writer in particular) the common courtesy of respectfully and forthrightly answering the question.

Plato and other have theorized that the best leader of a state would be someone who, while qualified, didn’t want the office or the power.  I don’t demand quite that much out of the candidates and certainly I won’t blame them for wanting to win.  But the candidate that captures my heart, the one that I will be able to truly believe in, is the one who shows that she is willing to walk away from the Presidency if she can’t have it on her terms.  The person that I will truly believe in will be the person for whom respect, decency, openness and, above all, the truth, remain sacrosanct even when tempted with the perhaps the most powerful and coveted office on earth – the very embodiment of worldly power and authority.  For such a person, the truth of his own weakness and inadequacies is more important that concern for how the acknowledgement of those weakness might be used against him.  For such a person, likewise, fear-mongering and destructive negativity in campaigning are unthinkable no matter how much they might help her in the polls because the price is simply too high.

I don’t know if such a person exists or ever will.  But here’s the paradoxical thing: if such a person did exist – if someone really had the courage to be decent, respectful, honest, and open even if it meant walking away from the presidency – I truly believe that that person would not be hurt politically by their integrity.  I think they would inspire, captivate, and truly Lead the people of this country.  In the end, I believe that their courage and humility would probably help them win.  So, Senator Obama, if you’re listening: the next time you’re asked about what you don’t know or what your greatest weakness is… answer it honestly.  I won’t turn from you because you just because you are human.  And I have faith that others won’t either.


  1. Kysen

    While I, too, found his answer to that particular question ‘lacking’, I also thought that the question itself was ridiculously broad. Would be harder to come up with a clear, succinct answer in under 2 minutes than it was to reply as he did. Perhaps in a one on one interview he would have had the time to present a better answer…in fact, I would be willing to bet on it.

    So, I may not be on the same page with ya (for several reasons)…but, I appreciate your taking the time to present your take in such a well thought out manner. Such diaries are always welcome here.  😉

  2. ragekage

    I love the honesty. This is why I left the Republican party, because commentary like this would have been instantly and brutally quashed. This is a reminder we’re not all automatons, “Obamabots”. We plan to hold Obama accountable, just like anyone else.

  3. rfahey22

    though I have doubts that a person so selfless could actually win the presidency (or that we would actually wish to nominate someone with those qualities, for fear that they would pose huge liabilities).  I think there may also be an argument that someone so concerned about their own qualities and inadequacies lacks the proper perspective – if the person considers him/herself the best leader for the country but knows that inadequacies will be used against him/her, the person may have an obligation to blur such inadequacies for the good of the country.

    Ultimately, I’m less interested in the person as an individual than as a vessel for implementing Democratic policies and ideals.  For that reason, I think I would be troubled by someone willing to walk away from the presidency if it meant that the person had to compromise personal values in some way.  I would rather have an imperfect candidate than one who valued his/her own personal ideals so highly, because the latter may not live up to his/her responsibility to the rest of us to advance our common cause.

  4. It would be frankly dishonest to turn the question completely around and answer with the “I just care too much” that is the stock answer of, well, just about any political figure I have ever seen asked this question.  The answer at this debate may not have been the most eloquent and moving words ever spoken, but his answered was moderately self-deprecating which is still unusual in political circles.  Compared with most everything that came out of his opponent’s mouth before, during and after that debate it was a pragmatic and honest attempt to talk frankly about issues.

    I actually think his answer when asked during the primaries was surprisingly honest.  That could be my bias, but it is precisely the same answer I give about myself all the time.  It’s an honest-to-god weakness that I’m not proud of and can’t be spun into a strength.  With all due respect to John Edwards, “I sometimes have a very powerful emotional response to pain that I see around me” is the stock answer I mention above, and with similar due respect to Sen. Clinton, “I get, you know, really frustrated when people don’t seem to understand that we can do so much more to help each other” is again the same thing.

    It seems to me that Sen. Obama has done about as close a job as is likely possible to both speak honestly and spontaneously while at the same time winning a presidential election.  I agree with you that the two should not be truly mutually exclusive, but have my doubts that there will ever be a successful presidential candidate whose each comment and response during a campaign will stand up as an exercise in perfection.

    I’d go one last step and say that if, in fact, we ever had a candidate who seemed too perfect, that in itself would make us all quail in fear…


  5. spacemanspiff

    Great diary.

    I agree it was a bullshit answer.

    But I wouldn’t of wanted him to answer any other way.

    A dear friend of mine provided a sound (and probably accurate) explanation of Senator Obama’s answer.  According to her, Obama probably had a sense that he had done well in the debate and was doing well in the election.  It was the last question of the night, all he had to do was play it close to the vest: deflect the question and don’t give the McCain camp any ammunition to use against him.  


    That explanation, while probably true, is unsatisfying and cuts right to heart of why I can’t bring myself to truly believe in Senator Obama, even though I will almost certainly vote for him.

    I don’t really believe in Barack Obama. I love him like I love the starting point guard on my hometown team. He is a means to a way ( did I say that right?). The vessel who carries my hopes. But not at a personal level. What I like most about him are his skills as a politician.

    He’s Michael Jordan ( Maradona, Roberto Clemente, Tiger Woods) and he’s on our side.

    He’s a D.

    I also agree with him on a lot of crucial issues.

    Hey, if Bobby Jindal was prochoice and prodecency and civil rights ( a liberal) I’d be stoked to have such a great prospect in our ranks. That’s just the way I see things. Warner is being hyped up but dude does not cut it. Anybody else remember his Convention Speech? Neither do I.

    So, what I like most about Obama is that he is an awesome politician.

    I believe that in his debates and speeches and interviews he has shown himself to be a very thoughtful man.

    That’s just the icing on the cake.

    I want to win.

    I’m kind of shallow like that. ; )

    But here’s what I do know.  – Obama

    He morphed his answer in a natural way into his prepared statements. It let him have the closing statement be his talking points.

    Part of the messaging and framing of the debate in peoples mind.

    Again, it was a bullshit answer, but necessary (in my opinion).


    This was the only thing that kept me awake to the end of the debate.

    I was bored out of my skull.

    So we meet halfway. ; )

    Highly rec’d and hope to see you a lot more around here!

  6. Given the nature of the campaign, things are understandably partisan round here, and it’s wonderful to have some perspective and dissent.

    There are only a couple of points I’d add. You picked on one of Obama’s weakest answers, and fair’s fair – yes, he was just playing defence at this point, and scared of the ‘inexperience’ card, so his answer was hedged and almost automatic.

    But from what I know of Obama he would be very critical of himself there too. I don’t have any huge inside track into the campaign, but I do know it is relatively self critical and self doubting – qualities which you rightly admire. As time goes by, and success is followed by power, it will be hard to maintain those virtues. I don’t know any politician who has…

    My one big question mark is your statement “You can’t bring yourself to truly believe in Senator Obama.” Since your discourse invokes Plato and Philosopher Kings, I would ask for some more clarity than that.

    I’m assuming this is not an existential question and you do believe Senator Obama exists.

  7. GrassrootsOrganizer

    there had to be a dozen or more answers in the debates where I was disappointed in Obama.  That was one of them.  But it’s like watching Gretzky miss a goal — it doesn’t mean anything unless it happens again and again, he’s still Wayne Gretzky.  

    I try to remember that under that sort of scrutiny and pressure, with the stakes this high, thinking on their feet when even slight hesitation is scrutinized, playing it safe is  perhaps the best option in the moment.  

    Sure, it could have been a stirring moment for him to have candidly answered the question.  Maybe he just moffed it, maybe he does have that huge an ego, or maybe he knew his honest answer would have overshadowed everything else he had to say for a couple news cycles.  Can’t you see it? “Is Obama really….”  “Tonight, more evidence of Obama’s…..”  Why hand the media a gold-plated excuse to do two days on some weakness of yours?  It makes no political sense whatsoever.

    I guess we can all be disappointed that given the opportunity he chose to remain political rather than to astonish us with candor and humility.  I’m willing to be disappointed a bit if it gets us all home safely.  

  8. horerdumig

    Thanks everyone for the encouraging comments.  I appreciate it.  

    I didn’t want my post to sound too much like “dissent.”  I’m really trying to draw a fine distinction: I’m putting aside the perspective of a “voter” for a minute (because as I mentioned, unless something bizarre happens, Obama already has my vote).  I’m writing instead as human being who has not yet been totally consumed by cynacism.  I am still wanting something more out of a President that a loose alignment of policies with which I agree.  I want the President to be a real leader — truly lead and inspire.  And I think others feel that same longing.  

    My “dissent” only comes from my belief that Obama could be that person — but he hasn’t shown me it yet.  

    I am going to touch on this topic of leadership more broadly in my next post.  Thanks again for the support.  

  9. DeniseVelez

    It is one he has answered in many ways, many times in other formats.  

    He made it clear, in the past that he doesn’t have all the answers and wanted a group of people around him that would supplement him and challenge him.

    I think he didn’t answer because he didn’t want his answer turned into an attack ad by the McCain campaign:

    “Obama admits he doesn’t know …yadda yadda yadda”

    We are too close for any slip ups.

  10. The comments in this thread are all treating it as if it was a question like, “What are your weaknesses?” Or “What are some of your faults?” That wasn’t the question.

    How can anyone answer, “What don’t you know?” Any one person only knows a tiny fraction of all human knowledge. A tiny, tiny, microscopic portion. What you don’t know could almost fill a universe.

    When Barack has been asked one of the first two questions I listed above, he’s been fairly honest and forthcoming, as mentioned by others in this thread. Open about it, that is, for a politician.

    If Barack had given an in-depth answer to the question asked in the debate he might have said, “I don’t know how many species of spiders there are in Brazil.” Or, “I don’t know what the Third Pharaoh of Egypt named his second son.” He could have continued this every second for the rest of his life and only covered an infinitesimal part of the answer to that question.

    You have a legitimate complaint, if the question had been about his faults. Even then, I would be bothered by this statement – “…I can’t bring myself to truly believe in Senator Obama…” I’m not sure what you mean by, “believe in.” You make it sound almost like joining a cult. What don’t you believe about Obama?

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