“The Master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
The Daodejing is commonly cast as an ancient collection of cryptic fortune cookie sayings most relevant, if at all, for spiritual inspiration, the stuff of self-help. But it actually has a great deal to say about politics.
Consider the Dao of Obama.
The 44th president was maligned for “leading from behind” (stays behind), being “aloof” and “professorial” (detached), “arrogant,” “smug” and “condescending” (full of himself).
These were all the judgments of lesser men with lesser minds.
Whenever someone is criticized from both sides of a polarity, pay attention. There’s typically a lot of ignorance, hypocrisy, and projection going on from those who, unlike the “Master,” “take sides.” Because they have taken sides, they can’t see the whole, and they actually don’t see the other side as a side; hence they harbor the delusion that it can be defeated. This is a branch confusing itself for the root.
The phrase leading from behind was popularized by Nelson Mandela:
It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.
The allegedly aloof, professorial president followed a monkish regimen:
Almost every night that he is in the White House, Mr. Obama has dinner at 6:30 with his wife and daughters and then withdraws to the Treaty Room, his private office down the hall from his bedroom on the second floor of the White House residence.
“He is thoroughly predictable in having gone through every piece of paper that he gets,” said Tom Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser from 2010 to 2013. “You’ll come in in the morning, it will be there: questions, notes, decisions.”
To stay awake, the president does not turn to caffeine. He rarely drinks coffee or tea, and more often has a bottle of water next to him than a soda. His friends say his only snack at night is seven lightly salted almonds.
Finally, David Brooks made an insightful observation a month before Obama’s election in 2008:
We’ve been watching Barack Obama for two years now, and in all that time there hasn’t been a moment in which he has publicly lost his self-control. This has been a period of tumult, combat, exhaustion and crisis. And yet there hasn’t been a moment when he has displayed rage, resentment, fear, anxiety, bitterness, tears, ecstasy, self-pity or impulsiveness.
Some candidates are motivated by something they lack. For L.B.J., it was respect. For Bill Clinton, it was adoration. These politicians are motivated to fill that void. Their challenge once in office is self-regulation. How will they control the demons, insecurities and longings that fired their ambitions?
But other candidates are propelled by what some psychologists call self-efficacy, the placid assumption that they can handle whatever the future throws at them. Candidates in this mold, most heroically F.D.R. and Ronald Reagan, are driven upward by a desire to realize some capacity in their nature. They rise with an unshakable serenity that is inexplicable to their critics and infuriating to their foes.
Obama has the biography of the first group but the personality of the second. He grew up with an absent father and a peripatetic mother. “I learned long ago to distrust my childhood,” he wrote in “Dreams From My Father.” This is supposed to produce a politician with gaping personal needs and hidden wounds.
But over the past two years, Obama has never shown evidence of that. Instead, he has shown the same untroubled self-confidence day after day.
There has never been a moment when, at least in public, he seems gripped by inner turmoil. It’s not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious.
While statecraft and soulcraft are not the same thing, they overlap more than conventional wisdom suggests. If the last five years have taught us anything, it’s that character matters. Having an “organized unconscious” helps us see our own “dark side”—and thus able to see the light in those who oppose us.
What could be more practical in our polarized age?