The Tao of Obama

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Could it be that President Obama's governance style is secretly channeling a religious agenda? And no I'm not talking about Christianity. Or even Islam. And no, I'm not totally serious.

But is it possible that Barack Obama is a closet Taoist? I'll offer some evidence.

Late last year, in the midst of Fiscal Cliff and other stuff, the excellent Walter Shapiro did a column critiquing the relationship between Obama and Congress. He included this line:

"That is the Obama enigma: How much is ideology and how much is conflict avoidance?"

And this one:

"But with Obama, there is always the question of where does political positioning end and bedrock principle begin?"

Which evoked, for me, lines from one of the most famous and foundational Taoists texts: The Tao Te Ching, aka the Lao Tsu:

"The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects...When his task is accomplished and his work done, the people all say 'It happened to us naturally.'"

Taoist thought is woven thought a lot of what we call New Age. The strands are pretty old. Chinese tradition says that the Tao Te Ching was written by one man, Lao Tzu, about 2,500 years ago. The reality, as with sacred texts of many faiths, is that the book is more likely an anthology of sayings produced and edited by many hands over the centuries.

"Tao" is generally translated as "way." But that doesn't come close to how broadly the word is intended. The translation I first encountered, the Penguin Classics version by D.C. Lau, starts with this passage:

"The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way; the name that can be named is not the constant name."

Which means that any words or labels you attach to the Tao will leave something out. Given that limit, here's my incredibly brief and inevitably inadequate summary of Taoism:

The physical and moral universe were somehow created with an underlying flow -- a Way. (Details about creation, deities, and the supernatural are mostly left unaddressed.) If you align yourself with that flow, you'll get farther than if you fight against it. That's not as limiting as it might initially sound. After all, two leaves that fall into a river together can flow downstream to very different places.

The Tao Te Ching (which means something like "book about the virtues of the Way") is the oldest central text. The most familiar of its passages is likely: "A journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath one's feet."

While much of the Tao Te Ching discusses personal duties and morality, at least half is about the responsibilities of leadership and governance. Hence the other famous passage:

"Governing a large state is like boiling a small fish."

There are many verses that make me think about Obama's odd passive/aggressive attitude toward Congress, particularly after the lame duck Congress votes. Here are a few:

"It is because he does not contend that no one in the empire is in a position to contend with him."

My translation of the translation: If you are not seen as competing, you can't lose.

"One who excels in traveling leaves no wheel tracks."

My translation of the translation: You don't need to leave a mark to get someplace.

"In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong, nothing can surpass it."

My translation of the translation: Water images are a big deal in Taoism. Appearances can be deceiving. Water appears to be weak and yet it can carve the Grand Canyon.

"When the way prevails in the empire, fleet-footed horses are relegated to plowing the fields. When the way does not prevail in the empire, war-horses breed on the border."

My translation of the translation: None needed.

Not to say that Lao Tzu is exactly easy to follow. Like any sacred text that lasts, it's filled with ambiguity and contradiction.

"In every movement a man of great virtue follows the Way and the Way only. As a thing the Way is shadowy and indistinct, indistinct and shadowy. Yet within it is an image; shadowy and indistinct."


And since it was designed to advise rulers of the Chinese empire, it includes elements that we'd find less than, hm, democratic:

"Of old, those who excelled in the pursuit of the way did not use it to enlighten the people but to hoodwink them. The reason why the people are difficult to govern is that they are too clever."

And there are passages that seem at odds with political Democrats:

"It is because those in authority are too fond of action that the people are difficult to govern."

I can't find any evidence that Obama has actually read the Lao Tzu. But it wouldn't be that unlikely that an intellectual religious seeker like Obama has described himself would have come across the text.

And I'm not remotely suggesting that one can find a clear blueprint for Obama's governance in this ancient Chinese work. But it's interesting. And as Lao Tzu himself put it:

"Straightforward words seem paradoxical."

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