The Case for Barack Obama

By Joe Campbell
February 4th, 2008

Photo by Joe Crimmings.

[digg-reddit-me]A few weeks ago, I wrote a post listing the reasons Senator Hillary Clinton should bow out of the race for the presidency for the good of liberalism, the Democratic party, and the nation. Predictably, she did not do so. But the list also happens to double as a catalog of some of the top reasons not to vote for her. (Here is a more subtle argument against her candidacy and in favor of Mr. Obama’s.)
But now, today, the day before the crucial February 5th primaries, I make the positive case for why you should vote for Senator Barack Obama tomorrow – if you happen to be lucky enough to be in one of the Super Tuesday states.

At the moment, Barack has the momentum: the money; the rising polls; and a string of major endorsements (from to Ted Kennedy to Maria Shriver to Susan Eisenhower to La Opinion.) It will still be difficult to overcome the substantial lead Ms. Clinton has – based on her name recognition, her long history in the public eye, and the generally competent campaign she has run. Some have taken to describing this coming Super Tuesday as a battle between an immovable object and an unstoppable force – with Ms. Clinton’s base – some 15% of the general electorate and 30 – 40% of the Democratic primary electorate – as the immovable object and coalition of the growing youth vote, the independents, the crossover voters, the black voters, and a majority voters under the age of 45 as the unstoppable force. I can’t say who is going to win tomorrow – and some sort of tie seems most likely. This, however, is my attempt to influence the decision, to fire up those already backing Barack, and help, in whatever way I can, the next President of the United States of America:

The case for Barack Obama in 12 parts (with a bonus).

  1. His Focus on Changing the Process.
    Mr. Obama is running a “process-oriented” campaign. 1 Because Mr. Obama sees that the problems America faces today are not merely the result of a poor presidency, but a broken system, he is focused on improving governmental and political processes.To take one example: our nation was constituted with the understanding that when a chief executive made a bad decision, he would be checked by the other branches of government. In the case of Iraq, President George W. Bush made a bad decision – and through the power of the presidency, he was able to overcome all objections and force his way. 2 The fact that the president is so powerful – especially that Mr. Bush was able to consolidate so much power – is a systematic issue. To fix it, we need more than a President with different goals than the current one; we need a President who will change the process and restore balance to our federal government. Ms. Clinton has made clear that she wants to protect the imbalance of power in Washington because it will aide her in getting things done. Mr. Obama has campaigned on the theme of the restoration of balance. (See Reasons #4, #5, and #7 for specific measures Mr. Obama has stressed.)
  2. His Judgment.
    It is not enough for the American people to have a choice in this coming election between a woman who supported the biggest strategic blunder of the past half century and a man who supported the biggest blunder of the past half century. We need a president who can see the dangers before we entangle ourselves in them. 3 No other candidate stood against the war when it was unpopular to do so. Displaying sound judgment, Mr. Obama said at the time: “I am not opposed to all wars. I am opposed to dumb wars.” After analyzing the leadership qualities of dozens of top executives over the past few decades, two business professors came to this conclusion: “With good judgment, little else matters. Without it, nothing else matters…” The past seven years have demonstrated this point – that experience (Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the many who went along with them) is no substitute for good judgment. Throughout his career – and most dramatically with regards to the Iraq war – Mr. Obama has demonstrated sound judgment.
  3. His Focus on the Importance of Transparency.
    Mr. Obama believes that light is the best disinfectant. One of the pillars of his agenda is to increase transparency in government. As a state senator in Illinois, he responded to complaints about coerced confessions in death penalty cases by pushing through (with support from the police, Republicans, and Democrats) a law requiring all interrogations in death penalty cases be video-taped. As a U.S. Senator, he was one of the key proponents of the Federal Funding Transparency and Accountability Act that created an open online database of federal spending. When asked by Ms. Clinton about how he would pressure health insurance companies to go along with his health care reforms, he explained that he would open up the deliberations to all Americans with live video – and that these companies would have to explain their position in public. (He did not mention that when Ms. Clinton attempted to put together a health care plan, she did so in secret, creating precedents that Vice President Cheney later relied upon.)
  4. His Support for Technology Issues.
    Mr. Obama is the only candidate in the race who has focused on technology issues. Barack not only supports net neutrality, but he has tried to educate the public about it:

    He has also spoken about the need to safeguard individual privacy on the internet; to encourage local control of media outlets; to stand against the consolidation of television, print, news, and web outlets in the hands of a half dozen powerful individuals and corporations; to promote innovation and creativity; and to oppose Congress and other governmental bodies if they try to pass laws or create regulations that consolidate the power of dominant companies.

  5. His Pragmatism.
    “I’m a Democrat. I’m considered a progressive Democrat. But if a Republican or a Conservative or a libertarian or a free-marketer has a better idea, I am happy to steal ideas from anybody and in that sense I’m agnostic.” An example of the value of his “agnosticism” can be found in his health care plan.
  6. His Emphasis on a Respectful Political Dialogue.
  7. His Engagement of the Disengaged.
    Mr. Obama was a community organizer – and his campaign reflects that. Ms. Clinton has made clear that she believes change is directed from the top – as Lyndon Johnson believed. Mr. Obama believes that lasting changes come from popular movements; that the forces of change are not directed by presidents, but are unleashed by movements. This is part of the reason his campaign was the only one to organize in every state (while Ms. Clinton only organized heavily in the first four states which conventional wisdom deemed likely to coronate a winner.) Despite a commendable level of activism and community service, my generation is disengaged from power. My (our) generation is overwhelmingly behind Barack Obama because we are tired of a politics based on tears and smears, on the Bushes and the Clintons, on money and more money which is unable to produce meaningful or lasting change; because he calls on the better angels of our nature, calls on us to view politics as more than a transaction of money and votes for items on a self-interested agenda, more than targeting demographic groups with micropolicies to patch together a slim majority unable to accomplish anything of value. 4 For many of us inspired by Mr. Obama, politics is about making a better world – a little at a time – and taking a stand because it is the right thing to do, rather than merely the politic thing to do. Mr. Obama speaks to the world as it is today – not as it was when Ms. Clinton came to power – and because he grew up in a different world, he is not afraid to say what be believes. This election cycle many of the disaffected in our polity believe they can make a difference – and that is the core of Mr. Obama’s message and the energy behind his campaign.
  8. Winning the Larger Half of the Country.
    As Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson, and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius have endorsed Mr. Obama it has become part of the common wisdom that most red-state Democrats believe Barack will be better for down-ticket candidates than Ms. Clinton. More important perhaps, is that given Ms. Clinton’s divisive figure, and given her deliberate campaign strategy, the best she can hope for is a 50+1% victory. Over 40% of the country has stated they will not vote for her under any circumstances. Barack Obama, because of his considerable political skills, his message of hope and unity, and because of his relatively recent entrance onto the political stage, has a chance to win with a landscape-altering majority – a working coalition. For progressives who share many of Mr. Obama’s values, this should override any minor policy disagreements. For Americans of every political stripe who believe there are serious issues we must face as a nation that have been avoided – this is our chance to tackle them.
  9. His Visionary Minimalism. (Or his conservative temperament.)5
  10. His Use of Morality & Narrative.
    Mr. Obama does not speak of the policies he believes in as a list of Christmas presents. Drew Westen, in explaining and criticizing the failures of the Democratic party in the past few decades, explains that while Democratic candidates have campaigned on lists of promises and policies, winning candidates tend to “speak at the level of principled stands. They provide emotionally compelling examples of the ways they would govern, signature issues that illustrate their principles and foster identification.” When Mr. Obama talks about urban issues and health care, he makes both a policy argument and a moral one: “I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper,” invoking a moral imperative rooted in language that speaks to many Americans. When he talks about civil liberties, Mr. Obama refers to “the Arab American family next door”. He does not speak of community in a theoretical sense – he illustrates it. (See the speech excerpted below for examples of what I mean, and the rest of his speeches linked to below for more examples.)6 Not only is Mr. Obama’s approach more effective in garnering support for the programs he supports, but it is more honest than campaigning on detailed 12 point plans.
  11. This is his moment.

    If you believe that America’s current crisis is not a deep one, if you think that pragmatism alone will be enough to navigate a world on the verge of even more religious warfare, if you believe that today’s ideological polarization is not dangerous, and that what appears dark today is an illusion fostered by the lingering trauma of the Bush presidency, then the argument for Obama is not that strong…

    But if you sense, as I do, that greater danger lies ahead, and that our divisions and recent history have combined to make the American polity and constitutional order increasingly vulnerable, then the calculus of risk changes. Sometimes, when the world is changing rapidly, the greater risk is caution. Close-up in this election campaign, Obama is unlikely. From a distance, he is necessary. At a time when America’s estrangement from the world risks tipping into dangerous imbalance, when a country at war with lethal enemies is also increasingly at war with itself, when humankind’s spiritual yearnings veer between an excess of certainty and an inability to believe anything at all, and when sectarian and racial divides seem as intractable as ever, a man who is a bridge between these worlds may be indispensable.

    From Andrew Sullivan’s excellent piece on Barack Obama.

Bonus reason: He inspires me, and many others as well, to believe in America again – to believe in the promise of a great nation fallen, to give of our time and our energy to make a better tomorrow; Barack Obama inspires me:

(N.B. The speech is still moving, even if you don’t play Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator soundtrack behind it. But Hans Zimmer gives it an extra kick.)

In trying to understand Mr. Obama’s thought, it is also worth checking out his Call to Renewal keynote address, his video internet sensation the Ebenezer Sermon, his complete speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention that launched him into the public spotlight, his prescient speech against the war in Iraq, his Iowa caucus victory speech beginning with the weighty: “They said this day would never come,” his South Carolina victory speech that best captured his response to Clintonism, and finally, the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner speech that catapulted Obama to the forefront of the Iowa polls and gave him, in the words of the influential Iowa columnist, “The Big Mo’ “. All of these speeches were excellent – far above the level of any other politician today. More important, they speak to the moment we are in as a country in a way that no other politician tries to. At the same time, they give insight into how Obama’s politics works – and what drives him. (It’s also worth noting that Mr. Obama’s head campaign speechwriter is an acquaintance of mine from college, Jon Favreau.)

Concluding thoughts

Tomorrow, liberals and Democrats get to decide who can best fight for a progressive agenda in Washington; independents and Republicans (in some states) get to choose which man or woman they want to lead our nation in troubled times; the younger generation can demonstrate in emphatic fashion that they are not a political force to be ignored – that we are taking responsibility for our politics and our country. We realize that America is in a state of moral, political, legal, and economic decline, and that our choice is between Ms. Clinton who will competently manage our country’s decline and Mr. Obama who has a chance to restore and renew our civic life.

So when you stand in the voting booth tomorrow – alone, with only your judgment as a guide – think about who can lead our country, who can call forth the better angels of our nature, who will be prudent in his use of the powers of the presidency. Dare to hope:

But in the unlikely story that is America , there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we’ve been told that we’re not ready, or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people.

Yes. We. Can.

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  1. When Ms. Clinton’s candidacy seemed inevitable in early November 2007 to the beginning of December of that year, many pundits concluded that Mr. Obama’s campaign had failed to catch fire because it was focused on process rather than on tangible goals directed at specific interest groups. In the time between then and now, Barack did not change his message. His campaign for the presidency remains focused on how to improve the political and governmental processes. []
  2. By abusing the intelligence services; by making Iraq a political issue; and most of all, by using his position as president to exert pressure. []
  3. See also Ms. Clinton’s and Mr. Obama’s contrasting opinions on the Kyl-Lieberman amendment that gave Mr. Bush significant authority and cover in the event of a war with Iran. []
  4. In 1960, President John F. Kennedy’s victory helped jump start the grassroots movements of the 1960s because with his election (and with the growing success of the Civil Rights Movement), young Americans became engaged with power – even if they were disappointed with the Democratic record over this time, Kennedy’s victory gave them a taste of progress. []
  5. Not as opposed to a liberal temperament, but as opposed to a radical temperament. []
  6. Ms. Clinton likes to make the point that while Mr. Obama campaigns in poetry, governing is about prose – and she’s largely right. (She took that quote from former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who used to – and still does – give speeches that move people like few others.) But the point she misses is the reason why campaigns are about poetry: a candidate’s 15 point health care proposal may demonstrate something; but in the legislative process, every one of those points will be changed. Mr. Obama has chosen to base a large part of his campaign on the manner in which he will approach his goals – and, miraculously, he has made this interesting, and even inspiring. Most important: what Mr. Obama is promising is actually within his control; what Ms. Clinton is promising is largely outside of hers. []