In all the ups and downs of this Presidential primary, it is so easy to get caught up in thinking only about the “horse race” elements of the campaign, losing sight of the larger picture. It occurs to me that I may be guilty of that myself lately. In my delight with Obama’s Iowa win and my optimism about his good showing in Nevada and New Hampshire, perhaps I haven’t talked enough about the reasons I decided to support him in the first place. And so, with your indulgence, here’s my concise case for Obama:
Experience: Barack Obama has by far more experience delivering results for progressive values than any other candidate who remains in this race. His time as a community organiser in Chicago taught him first hand what it takes to break the cycle of poverty and to create opportunity for those who need it the most. These lessons have underpinned everything Barack Obama has done since then – including his decision to study at Harvard Law school (where he became the highly respected editor of the Harvard Law Review) so that the poor communities on the South Side of Chicago could have an advocate with the same level of establishmed credibility as some of those who worked against them.
In the Illinois State Senate he worked tirelessly on progressive issues, for instance earning a 100% rating on choice issues from Planned Parenthood, and became a leading advocate for the reform of the criminal justice system and of government ethics reform (a concern that he carried over into the US Senate). He was consistently able to deliver groundbreaking legislation on these key issues, typically through a process of active outreach that brought warring parties together to move beyond entrenched interests and pass controversial legislation with a broad majority. Obama has far more time in elected office than Hillary Clinton, and he has used that time effectively.
And this is not even to consider Obama’s personal life experience, which has undoutedly colored his view of the world and points to his extraordinary personal qualities. Abandoned by his father at the age of two, he seems to have overcome bitterness. Living in Indonesia for four years as a child he seems to have integrated well, playing barefoot in the streets with local children. Transferred to a nearly all-white community and raised by his Kansan grandparents he struggled with his identity but emerged with a thoughtful, reflective understanding of America’s cultural conflicts.
Judgement: Obama has applied that same thoughtfulness and judgement to all the major decisions he has been called upon to make in public life. He spoke out actively against the war in Iraq back in 2002 and has been consistent in opposition ever since . Many people advised him that this position was “political suicide” considering the national mood at the time – and Obama was himself engaged in a difficult race for the Democratic nomination to US Senate at that point. Nevertheless he made perfectly clear his strong opposition to the then-immanent war, clarifying it was a “dumb war” – a war in which, he claimed, American troops would be bogged down for decades with no prospect of ultimate victory. A war that would poorly serve America’s strategic interests in the world and would lead to tragic and unnecessary loss of life for American troops and Iraqi civilians alike. Ask yourself: how does that assessment stand up today?
But Obama’s good judgement has not been limited to Iraq – throughout his career he has been willing to take tough and unpopular stances, and to rethink Washington conventional wisdom. Witness, for example, his policy of ending the ban on family travel to Cuba. With the powerful Cuban –American community lobbying for the ban, no serious presidential contender has dared to oppose it for decades. But Obama argues that a policy which has been in place since the Eisenhower administration without achieving any noticable impact, while penalising many Latino families, is long overdue for a rethink.
Or, look at Social Security. Hillary Clinton has attacked Barack Obama for proposing to raise the cap on Social Security payments, as if any improvement to Social Security’s financial prospects is somehow a victory for the right wing (?). But Obama’s proposal, to raise the cap so that people making more than $97,000 per year still pay some proportion of their income towards shoring up social security, is an excellent, progressive idea that will improve financial security for millions of middle and working class Americans by taxing those who can well afford to pay more . Sadly, it seems that Washington conventional wisdom, even within the Democratic party, is hostile to progressive ideas; all the more reason we should be glad that Barack Obama has the judgement to look beyond it.
Inspiration: And finally, there’s the element of Obama’s appeal that isn’t entirely rational. I make no apologies for the fact that Barack Obama simply inspires me. Like millions of Americans, I watched his 2004 convention speech with astonished admiration. But that was only the beginning – since then I have been blown away by speech after speech. I have been humbled and impressed by the way he has conducted his campaign so far; steering away from personal attacks but making a strong, consistent case that Democrats can best capture this moment of opportunity by inviting all Americans to share it. Simply put, Barack Obama inspires and excites people.
Like many of you, I have been feeling pretty downcast about my country for the past few years. I’ve been horrified to watch the Bush administration lead the country in an abandonment of everything that I thought we stood for. By contrast, Barack Obama reminds me of a time when, whatever our disagreements with our government might be, we could be proud of the things America stood for. This feeling of mine, and this skill of Obama’s may be insubstantial, but it is not trivial – it affects our ability to influence foreign governments and our ability to bring the country together to solve our big domestic problems. It allows Democrats to begin the process of reaching out to Independants and even Republicans to persuade them not only that our candidate is worth voting for but that our ideas are worth implementing. In my view, there is no other candidate in this race who shows anything like Obama’s potential to do this.