Obama Politics

“Fired Up. Ready to Go.”

Holy Cross Basement Rally

[digg-reddit-me]At my college towards the end of my senior year, someone began passing anonymous threatening and demeaning messages to a gay student who was a friend of mine. The messages read, “All fags will go to hell,” and “Fuck you fag,” etcetera. What was truly incredible was the person targeted by these messages. This student was one of the kindest people I have ever met. He volunteered in the community and on campus; he was generous; when I worked with him in the dining hall, he was always one of the hardest workers, even when he was running a shift; he is truly one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. This made the attacks on him–some of which seemed to directly threaten his physical safety–all the more difficult to understand.

Responding to these harassing and threatening comments became a priority of the student leadership, of which I was a part. And I helped plan the events–a rally, buttons–with the innocuous and trademarked phrase: “Where is the Love?”; a petition in the campus newspaper. The rally was supposed to be held outdoors, but it was drizzling that day and there were concerns about the equipment, so it was moved to the basement of the campus. We had wanted a location that students would be walking by rather than one that they would need to find, and one of the dining halls was at the other side of the basement.

What I remember most though is one of the speeches given by a student who lived across the hall from my earlier in my college days and was also a friend. Everyone else had made their comments–well-meaning and well-put. But this student–Alex Cunningham–walked up, kind of slouched, wearing tattered jeans. He curled into himself, clutching the microphone, as if summoning something. And then suddenly, he started speaking loudly, in a totally different manner than any of the other students. He gave instructions, telling everyone that he was going to say a phrase and the crowd would repeat it back. And he started his chant.

It was both mesmerizing and powerful. A moment that I have felt the power of ever since.

Rally @ Washington Square Park

Last night, I went to see Barack Obama at Washington Square Park. I got there early and had to wait almost an hour and a half to get in. The crowd has been estimated between 20,00Rally @ Washington Square Park0 and 24,000–probably the largest campaign event of the year. The crowd was younger, but it was also diverse–with a number of the elderly, a few middle aged people, and lots of college and post-grad folk. Ethnically, it was as diverse as the subway.

I couldn’t see the stage from where I was–partially because I was short. I was actually pretty close to it. This was basically my view. However, some people were holding up cameras to record Obama on stage, and I could see him in the cameras.

The Speech

From what I could tell, this was Obama’s stump speech with a few add-ons. News reports indicated that he was tougher on his Democratic opponents, saying for example that he was the only one willing to speak tough truths and citing examples.

It was an effective speech–it dealt with the issue of experience masterfully, and on reflection, his comments on experience are even more compelling. His litany of things to change was good, and his tone was right. He explained that many people were there because they were fed up with President Bush. But that they also needed to be for something–and that something should not be just a more competent person to manage things as they are. What was needed was change–to change the system, to change the game, to create a new politics. A politics in which leaders were honest about challenges; in which real progress was possible; in which entrenched interests were not the biggest players.

It was a good speech and an effective speech, and it was delivered with a self-conscious charm that was very appealing. He ended it with a story about how one woman’s voice changed him. It was the best moment in his speech. He led the crowd in the chant “Fired up, ready to go.”

But something was missing.

A Television Show

Martin Sheen as President Bartlett in Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing is one of the great television characters. His President Bartlett is the kind of president only seen on TV.

At the beginning of the third season of the show, there is a series of flashbacks to when then Governor Bartlett was first running for president. He is shown answering questions at a political dinner. One of the characters–Josh, a Washington insider currently working for the Democratic party’s presidential front-runner played by Bradley Whitford–has been forced to attend the event by an old friend of his father’s. Barely paying attention, he grumbles about being there. Then the moment of truth comes: a farmer asks the candidate Bartlett why he supported a particular tax hike that hurt him. Bartlett answers, “Yea, I screwed all of you on that one. That one hurt a lot of my constituents. But I’d do it again and here’s why…”

For Josh, a hardened political infighter, this is one of those “A-ha!” moments and he knows he has found his candidate. He can see through the dismal setting and uninspiring performance to the President that Bartlett could be. Jeb Bartlett however is not ready. It is not that he needs more experience or that he needs seasoning or any such thing. What he is missing is something that everyone around him can sense–his audiences, his aides, himself. Perhaps it is a certain resolve to take on the responsibility; perhaps it is a sense of certainty that he will be able to perform the job. What is missing is both obvious and amorphous.

This is what I felt about Barack Obama’s speech. He is missing just this thing. He is not yet ready. But come January, I believe and hope he will be. If he is ready by then–if he is able to step into himself and be the leader he is able to project–we will have a great president.

Otherwise, we will have to make do. And America will be the poorer for it.


That Biden Touch

This from Reuters about last night’s debate:

“I’m not suggesting it’s Hillary’s fault. I think it’s a reality that it’s more difficult, because there’s a lot of very good things that come with all the great things that President Clinton did, but there’s also a lot of the old stuff that comes back,” Biden said.

As Clinton fixed a chilly stare on him, Biden hurriedly added: “When I say old stuff, I’m referring to policy, policy.”

But how would this play in a partisan setting? And what if the candidate–and Guiliani, I’m looking at you–unabashedly brought up the ex-Presidents extracurricular activities in office?

Of course in Guiliani’s case especially it is a case of “he who is not without sin shouldn’t cast the first stone.”

Which brings up another factor. In a Clinton v. Guiliani matchup, do the personal dramas and “weird factor” cancel each other out because each has their own rather large and embarrassing amount of personal baggage?

The Web and Technology

Firefox v. Opera v. Internet Explorer

This gets it just about right.

Obama Politics

“Senior White House Official” on Obama

Matt Drudge has this to say in one of his trademark “flashes” excerpting some breaking news from a new book to be published in which many “senior White House officials” were interviewed including Cheny and Bush:

As for Obama, a senior White House official said the freshman senator from Illinois was “capable” of the intellectual rigor needed to win the presidency but instead relies too heavily on his easy charm.

“It’s sort of like, ‘that’s all I need to get by,’ which bespeaks sort of a condescending attitude towards the voters,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And a laziness, an intellectual laziness.”

In other news, Bush says that Hillary will win the nomination. But am I the only one to see the irony of a Bush official citing a candidate’s “intellectual laziness” as a reason the candidate cannot win office?

Obama Politics

Obama Gets Iowa Dem’s Endorsement

Former Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fischer endorsed Obama today, citing among other factors a University of Iowa poll of Iowa Republicans showing Obama coming in third amidst the Republican field.

“It’s not a matter of trading the current White House resident for a new occupant,” Fischer said, “but replacing President Bush with someone who will change the way politics is done.”

Link is here.

Election 2008 Obama Politics

What a President Needs…

[digg-reddit-me]Richard Nixon was one of the most experienced people to assume the presidency. JFK had less experience than almost anyone. Yet he beat Richard Nixon in the middle of the Cold War with the president being responsible for a possible nuclear war. JFK’s inexperience led to the Bay of Pigs disaster, but he learned the lessons from this, accepted responsibility and managed the Cuban missile crisis expertly. Richard Nixon was experienced–he knew how to work the levers of power; but his personality led him to be secretive, to try to bully and intimidate those who disagreed with him, etc. JFK was able to remedy his inexperience while Nixon was not able to remedy his issues.

If you want to look to a more recent example of the price of experience, just look at Donald Rumsfeld–who was one of the single most experienced bureaucrats in Washington–having worked for the military industry and having been Secretary of Defense previously during Ford’s tenure, as well as chief of staff to the president. And yet despite–and in a way, because of–his experience, his time as Secretary of Defense was an absolute disaster for the military. We could talk about Cheney too if you wanted.

Some of our greatest presidents have had little or no national experience before they became president–Lincoln, Truman, and Clinton come to mind.

A Philosopher
Neither Obama nor Clinton, nor most other politicians, are philosophers. Obama was not pretending to offer a solution, but rather a course of action. It is his best guess of what to do under the circumstances he described. This is why it is important to see how Obama, Clinton, or any other presidential candidate thinks. Because no political solution works as expected. And then they are left to their judgment. In other words, policy is trumped by facts for any competent leader.

An example: George H.W. Bush said that he would not raise taxes in his 1988 election campaign. He decided to raise taxes anyway because he saw disturbing deficits. The facts trumped policy. Woodrow Wilson ran in 1916 promising to keep America out of World War I. He sent American troops to Europe just a few years later because facts trumped policy. The best prism to understand political actions is not philosophy as traditionally understood, but rather contingency.

How to evaluate a candidate
There are four main areas on which to judge a presidential candidate in descending order of importance:

  • his or her decision-making process (or more classically, his or her judgment)
  • his or her character and life experiences
  • his or her ability to communicate
  • his or her mental abilities
  • his or her policy proposals

Judgment is by the far the most important quality a president must possess. It is the only quality that the brilliant and able men around George Washington acknowledged that he possessed more of, and with only this quality in surplus, they all looked to him and acknowledged him as their superior.

A person’s character and life experiences are also relevant to understanding a president’s decision-making process, and also to see how they will withstand the pressures of the presidency and most importantly if they will be able to withstand the temptations of power to punish and demonize, to enrich themselves, to hoard. The president must be able to understand the limits of his or her power, as well as the power of America; and at the same time, to see the tremendous influence that America can and does have.

A person’s ability to communicate is essential as the most significant power of the president is to command the media and communicate his or her message–it is this access to the media that gives the president the most significant advantage in dealing with Congress and international affairs. Everyone wants to know what the president has to say.

A person’s mental ability needs to meet a certain threshold; more is obviously better, but not at the expense of the above. Intelligence can as easily lead a person astray as to the right decisions. It was often said that FDR has a second class intellect and a first class temperament. Thomas Jefferson, one of the most brilliant presidents, was also one of the least successful.

And policy proposals. Only the broad categories seem to matter much–for the specifics change over time and with the circumstances. Better to have a good person as president than one who you agree with on policy matters.

Part II forthcoming. Clinton and Obama, strengths and weaknesses.


Clever Terrorist, or Forgetful Schmuck?

MTA Warning

Some other good ones here.


She was promised a Toy Yoda…

Another case in which reading the fine print might have saved someone a lot of effort.