Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Case for Obama

Lately I was reminded that I haven’t posted a rationale for why I’m voting for Barack Obama. Fair enough. In the mudslinging and fog of political rhetoric I forgot that some people are taking their time and giving due consideration to this choice. That’s the right way to handle the responsibility of citizenship. I’m a partisan, probably a partisan hack, but I’ve also supported the ideas that Senator Obama supports for a long time. That means the choice wasn’t as tough for me. All I needed was to be convinced about the man himself, and I have been, particularly in these last six weeks. So here’s my case.

Foremost I’m voting for Barack Obama because I think he’s a great American and the most compelling leader in a generation—and he’s from my generation. It’s our turn and this is our guy. But I haven’t always felt that way. I voted for Hillary Clinton in the Texas primary. I believe universal healthcare is a hallmark of an advanced and progressive civilization. I reject the argument that health care for all Americans would necessarily lower standards. I trust American ingenuity and would never rely on foreign examples as the final measure and I’m surprised any American would.

But that issue aside, in the intervening months since the primary, Senator Obama convinced me not only that he’s the most qualified candidate, but also that my early vote was miscast. While I still believe Hillary is a smart, capable leader, I should have voted for Obama. I hadn’t done my homework.

His opposition accuses Senator Obama of possessing less than an authentic American identity, but they couldn’t be more off the mark. He’s the son and grandson of an immigrant—as are many millions of us—and also the grandson of a rural Kansas couple, the grandmother he flew to Hawaii to visit. Madelyn Dunham worked in a factory during World War 2 while her husband, Obama’s grandfather, served in the military. Obama’s father was a scholar from Kenya who came to America for our superior university system. He immigrated because he saw opportunity, the same reason my own grandfather left Rome with his wife and several children early in the 20th century. Despite tough economic circumstances for his single mom, Obama excelled and finished his academic career as President of the Harvard Law Review and was later a Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago Law School. But I’m not voting for a C.V. I’m more interested in what it represents.

For me, Senator Obama’s academic career is evidence of real intellectual vigor—a capacity and passion for knowledge, and an ability to gather vast data and process them, a critical faculty we must require of all future presidents. The current anti-intellectual movement is an economically destructive impulse. Americans have always valued education. This is why Americans struggle to build college funds for their children. We’ve seen the consequences of an intellectually incurious leader; it’s disastrous for a multi-cultural and complex nation like the United States in the 21st century. We have to compete in a world market. We have to make an honest evaluation of who we are and that requires a leader who knows. We can’t turn back the clock to the mid 20th century. We’re a new generation and we have to make our own way.

Yet he is inexperienced. Senator Obama hasn’t been in Washington D.C. long enough to compile a record like John McCain’s. But all former presidents agree on this: nobody is ready to be president until they have the job. There’s no preparation from any public service, no evidence that success in the Oval Office depends on some length of tenure on Capitol Hill or in a governor’s chair. Abraham Lincoln, FDR, JFK, and Ronald Reagan: none brought extensive political portfolios to the job. What all three carried, however, was intellect and charisma. They were leaders. So how are we to judge?

Well, we’ve seen Obama’s management and leadership style during this long campaign. He picked Joe Biden, a VP nominee who didn’t come with immediate political gain. It was a choice Obama made to help him govern, as Biden’s expertise in foreign affairs is acknowledged in both parties, and he’s made more trips to Iraq and Afghanistan than any three congressmen put together.

Next, witness the Obama campaign organization. Democrat or Republican, any political pro will admit that his operation sets a new standard for organization and execution. From field offices, paid staff, canvassing strategies, message discipline, and coherence, we’ve never seen a juggernaut like this one. Of course they have plenty of money, but so did Hillary with her big Democratic donors, and she found the Obama team outworking, outgunning, and outsmarting her. Many insiders believe that Clinton’s top staff didn’t even understand the formula by which delegates were assigned from state caucus results. Obama’s team knew.

Last weekend, I got an email from the campaign asking me to call Italian-Americans in Pittsburgh. Amazing. They’ve perfected database parsing such that they can target individual ethnicities. I can’t imagine how this is possible. An algorithm to detect a higher incidence of vowels in last names? Barack Obama is the chief executive officer of this intensely-sophisticated effort. He has to get credit.

On the other side, John McCain is having trouble with just his and Sarah’s Palin’s close personal staff. In the last three days, anonymous McCain aides called Palin a “diva” and a “whack job.” What does this suggest about a potential McCain government? What does his selection of Sarah Palin suggest? A poll released today showed that 59% of all registered voters believe she’s not qualified to be president. Another McCain insider called her perhaps the most difficult candidate to prepare for the national stage in history.

We’ve seen Barack Obama under fire. Both candidates stood in the public eye when the stock market tanked and panic reigned on Wall Street. John McCain threw ideas around, shifted positions frantically, and reversed himself hour to hour (suspend the campaign/don’t suspend, no debate/yes debate, and, within a single day: the fundamentals of the economy are strong/never mind, we’re in a crisis). Senator Obama, on the other hand, gathered information from experts like Warren Buffet and Paul Rubin, maintained a cool demeanor (to keep investors calm), and laid out his positions on the “rescue package” and future moves. McCain never settled on a coherent response. He floated along with the tide of White House and Congressional solutions. Obama’s leadership substance and style was so superior to McCain’s it was almost shocking given McCain’s long career as a Washington insider.

Today the economy is our biggest challenge. Barack Obama intends to cut taxes for 95% of working Americans and eliminate capital gains tax on small business because this will grow the economy from the bottom up. Nobody making less than $250,000 will see a tax increase, period. We’re a consumer economy. When the middle class is broke, the whole country is broke. Rich people don’t do well when schoolteachers can’t buy cars, or firefighters move their families from a foreclosed home to an apartment.

Senator Obama also intends to invest in America. He wants to rebuild our infrastructure: roads, bridges, and electrical grids—projects to strengthen our economy by providing millions of jobs and improve our competitive position. Obama proposes serious investment in renewable energy sources, not only because it makes us energy independent but because it offers the chance to export clean technology that we can sell.

John McCain’s suggestion that investing in American infrastructure and ingenuity is “socialism” is proof that he doesn’t believe in what our country can do when we’re together and committed. It’s the same cynical approach that’s led to dilapidated bridges, roads, schools, and electrical grids. Span collapses and power blackouts. It’s a serious competitive disadvantage for America. We have to pitch in together and fix this. We spend $10 billion per month in Iraq; we can afford to invest in clean energy and fuel efficient cars and put Americans to work in the process.

On Iraq, Barack Obama was right back in 2002: it was the wrong war at the wrong time. We will have spent one trillion dollars before it’s over, depending on when we finally leave. With violence down and the Iraqi government sporting a shiny new $83 billion budget surplus, now is the time for an orderly redeployment of exhausted American troops. Through the brave work of our men and women in uniform, can withdraw from Iraq without causing a humanitarian crisis—something that looked impossible a few years ago— and we should do it before the situation destabilizes again. Our very presence maintains the conditions for that destabilization.

Meanwhile, Bin Laden lives, hiding in a cave, mocking us on Mini-DV tape, while his forces regroup. U.S. troops in Afghanistan are neglected by the administration’s fixation on Iraq. Barack Obama wants to refocus our mission to find the people responsible for killing three thousand Americans in 2001. We have to give our troops in Afghanistan the chance to achieve the way our forces have in Iraq.

In this cause we shouldn’t have to go it alone like we have under George W Bush. After September 11th, we had a treasure of political capital from allies and even nations more leery of our friendship. But by unilateral non-diplomacy, arrogance, and a blatant disregard of the human rights we championed for half a century, we squandered that goodwill. Every dime’s worth. Now we have no friends left who we don’t bribe. Even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown revealed his hope that Obama would win—a significant breach of the US/UK “special relationship” protocol.

John McCain laughs at Senator Obama’s popularity. But the reason Obama is cheered around the world is because he’s perceived as an American leader who can restore American leadership through a recommitment to our moral authority. It’s not because they find him somehow personally alluring. They want America to lead. But they want us to do so from a moral basis and not at the business end of a missile.

The America I was raised in didn’t torture anybody (or at least it wasn’t institutionalized if we did), or hold people without charges, or operate secret prison ships, or behave as if the Geneva Convention didn’t apply to us. We helped write the Geneva Convention. We were better than our enemies. At the end of World War 2, surrendering German troops raced toward British and American forces and away from the Russians. The country I grew up in balked when other nations refused visits to prisoners from the International Red Cross. An abomination like Guantanamo Bay was inconceivable. It poisons our moral standing in the world and serves a powerful tool for every Al-Queda recruiting officer on the planet. How short sighted and self-destructive!

George W Bush sold out American values, for which thousands had fought and died, at the first sign of trouble. Eavesdropping on U.S. citizens. Suspension of habeas corpus. We not only leveraged our economy; we leveraged a moral authority earned over decades. Barack Obama will bring tremendous political capital to bear in our international relationships. World leaders will follow him if for no other reason than his immense popularity within their own electorate. This political capital will help America recruit the partners we need against extremists and in the effort to reform global monetary systems.

Barack Obama’s ascendance to our highest office will subvert the arguments of our enemies, confounding those who insist that the United States is an immutably racist and unjust society, that our ideals are only window dressing for a more malevolent agenda. Why should we care about the opinions of our enemies? Because they recruit young men and women to blow us up, that’s why. Because the basis of any real authority as a world leader is a moral one. The current administration has no moral basis today. They have made us a world bully, despite how a majority of Americans reject this approach. When Barack Obama says he’ll sit down with foreign leaders, friend or foe, Americans recognize the power of this: we’ll tell them to their faces what we intend. We’ll get our message across.

This country is bitterly divided. Fifteen years of partisan rancor ignited a “cultural war” between liberals and conservatives, labels that have changed dramatically in the same period. The last “liberal” president reduced welfare rolls. Our current “conservative” president doubled the national debt and nationalized banks and insurance companies. If it’s possible for a president to bring us together, even incrementally, that’s the guy we need. How do we know if Barack Obama is that guy? Well, there’s some evidence. For one thing, he’s brought tens of millions of new voters to the political process—people who previously felt distant and disconnected from our public life are now waiting hours in line for early voting. Young and old, black and white, of all political and other persuasions. No problem is more intractable than apathy. He’s already gone a long way to beating that one and he’s not president yet.

Another way to unify us would be to solve some of these problems. We’re hiring a new president to fix things, not to reaffirm our personal identity politics. We need a smart, charismatic problem-solver, someone with the brains to understand the issues, the ingenuity to forge solutions, and the chutzpah to sell those solutions to an increasingly reluctant electorate. Obama demonstrates real skill in all these areas.

As a Democrat, I can recite a laundry list of things Ronald Reagan did wrong, but there’s no denying that he projected a new sense of the possible. When I was growing up, it was my first taste of that spirit. The election of Barack Obama will remind us on a daily basis of the inherent nobility of our unique experiment, and how our often-detoured but still determined struggle for the Jeffersonian ideals of the Declaration continues. This is what makes the world look upon us in amazement, even now; that despite our flaws and misadventures and outright injustices, the deep, permanent scars of slavery and genocide against aboriginal peoples, and support of oppressive regimes for economic purposes, our direction is still, always, inexorably toward those “radical” notions of equality and the rights of humankind. That “all men are created equal.” This is as amazing an ideal as it was when Franklin and Adams sat stunned reading Jefferson’s first draft. If we want to lead the world by example, we have to amaze it.