The Two Faces of Barack Obama
Can a pro-choice president lead a pro-life majority?
"Obama Calls for 'Common Ground' on Abortion at Notre Dame,"said the headline at CNN. That's a fair description: The president used the phrase three times in his Sunday commencement address. But common ground can't quite convey what he was getting at. Common ground is a two-dimensional metaphor. Abortion is more complicated than that, and so is Obama.
"We must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity—diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief," the president told the graduates. "In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family." That's a standard American theme: e pluribus unum—out of many, one.
Within the United States, there's been a long-running fight over what this idea means. One view says we're a melting pot and immigrants should assimilate. Another view says diversity is a right and should be protected. Which view does Obama take? Both. Here and abroad, he sees a single family with a variety of beliefs.
Is this a cop-out? In two-dimensional space, it looks that way: You have to pick one side or the other. But what if the issue you're debating is really multidimensional? What if there's more than one other side? What if the alternative view you're grappling with isn't the negation of yours? What if it's a different perspective, a sideways view, on the same reality? Can both perspectives be true?
Most political issues are like that. To depict them fairly, you need extra dimensions. My favorite representation of this concept is the carved cube on the cover of Godel, Escher, Bach. Is it a G, an E, or a B? Answer: all of the above. It depends which way you look at it.
Abortion is the classic multidimensional issue. Years ago, when I was writing a book about it, one person after another told me, "The issue is about …" Each person ended the sentence differently. Eventually, I got the picture: The issue is about what the issue is about. Some people believe it's about protecting human life. Others believe it's about women's rights. Some say it's about taking responsibility for sex. Others say it's about poverty and preventing unwanted children. Some think it's about preserving the family. Others think it's about limiting the power of the church or the government.
Every day, in Congress, courts, state legislatures, and informal conversations, people who see the issue one way try to engage people who see it a slightly different way. It's a labor of imagination and persuasion, and the stakes are enormous. Since no single perspective commands a majority, the political outcome hangs on this struggle for alliances.
That's what Obama was getting at Sunday when he said that people who disagree about abortion's legality "can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions." Legality and morality aren't always opposing principles on a flat battleground. They can be alternative dimensions of the same thing. In his April 29 press conference, Obama made this multiplicity of perspectives quite clear:
There are some who suggest that this is simply an issue about women's freedom and that there's no other considerations. I think, look, this is an issue that people have to wrestle with, and families and individual women have to wrestle with. The reason I'm pro-choice is because I don't think women take that position casually. I think that they struggle with these decisions each and every day, and I think they are in a better position to make these decision ultimately than members of Congress or a president. …
Is it dishonest to be morally pro-life but legally pro-choice? Or is it a recognition that the issue has more contours than absolutists perceive?
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photographs of: Barack Obama on Slate's home page by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Obama on article page by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.