Why I Support Obama


By Joe Campbell
August 18th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]A few months ago, on the Long Island Railroad in the evening on my way home after work, a young black woman asked me if she could sit on the inside seat. (I always sit on the outside, and this was a three person seat.) After she sat down, she noticed the Barack Obama button I had on my bag at the time and pointed to it and said: “Thank you.”

We went on to have a conversation about the campaign and the Broadway play she had just been to – but that, “Thank you” bothered me. She was not a member of the campaign or a relative of Obama’s. I, in fact, have raised over $3,000 for the Senator, donated a good deal myself, and have tried through this blog as well as other activities to support his campaign. Although I do not know this for certain – based on the tone, the way she said it, and the rest of our conversation, I think that she was thanking me, as a white person, for supporting Barack, “her” candidate.

What I felt, but did not say, was that I was supporting Obama not because he was black or because any of my friends are black or because I wanted to make up for persecution of blacks in American history – but because … well, I’ll get to that in a minute.

One more story. A co-worker of mine described Obama to me as an empty suit, a typical, spineless, academic, elitist, whose only redeeming and unique quality is his race.1 He never believes me when I deny that my support of Obama is because of his race.

I have explained several times on this blog my gradual evolution from a McCain supporter in 2000 to an Edwards then Hillary than Obama supporter in 2007, including most recently here. By the summer of 2007, I had decided to support Obama – and had started talking about trying to work for the campaign.2

Since then, my opinion has been reinforced by events more often than it was challenged.

My decision to support Obama did not hinge on any single issue or position, but was a reflection of my attempt to gather as much information as possible about all of the candidates. I assumed that the direction the country needed to go in was rather obvious – as most Democrats and many moderate Republicans agreed, from Secretary of Defense Gates to Secretary of Treasury Paulson to Secretary of State Rice to Senator Clinton to Senator Obama to (I thought) Senator McCain. The real question is what specific policies, what methods, what means could be used to get there.

I did not support Obama because he was black, liberal, progressive, young, charismatic, or an idealist.

What did lead me to support Obama first was his character and judgment: he is a liberal pragmatist, with a conservative temperament, who seeks to understand the world as it is, to identify our long-term challenges, and to push (to nudge it) in a positive direction by tinkering with processes and institutions and creating tools to get people more involved in the government.

In addition, there are three extremely positive movements that are associated with Obama’s candidacy:

The intellectual ferment around Obama’s campaign – with Lawrence Lessig, Cass Sunstein, Richard Thaler, Samantha Power, and many others, all reflective thinkers who have influenced his campaign policy and would play a role in an Obama administration – is tremendously exciting. Added to this ferment is a sense of humility that is a bit odd. Samantha Power, who traveled to war zones around the world in 1990s, and learned the lessons of Rwanda and Sarejevo and Kirkuk deeply, does not believe unilateral American force must be used to stop genocide. Rather she places the blame on a flawed international system. Lawrence Lessig describes our political system as inherently corrupt – yet his Change Congress movement is not a radical call to arms but a series of modest proposals designed to catalyze serious changes. Cass Sunstein’s and Richard Thaler’s libertarian paternalism probably best encapsulates the pragmatic steps that can taken to greatly improve the lives of most Americans.

The grassroots movement supporting Obama also reveals the hidden side of this past four years – as George W. Bush created a liberal majority. This movement represents a new force in American politics.

The international support for Obama demonstrates that, like many Americans, people around the world want a new face to represent America – a re-branding, and hopefully a reevaluation of America’s priorities around the world.

By the time John McCain abandoned sensible policies in his quest to win over the Republican base – and emphasized his least attractive quality, a preference for the use of military force – I had already decided Obama was the best candidate.

  1. Although I attempt to converse with my co-worker about this, our conversations always end up in some nether world of side topics – debating evolution or global warming or whether Congress has any power to intervene in foreign policy. []
  2. Unfortunately, a relative of mine persuaded me otherwise, saying that the wise thing to do was to wait it out. []