Monday, February 04, 2008

The case for Barack Obama

When I started Red State Diaries more than three years ago, the political atmosphere was even more polluted than it is now.

It was mere days after the 2004 presidential election, a hostile affair that had devolved on each end into barely contained hatred and thinly veiled contempt for the opposing side, and the prospects of healing the nation's 51/49 rift any time soon seemed distant at best. Still, retaining hope that our country could unite again with a common sense of purpose and trying to find others who felt the same way, I added my voice to what was then a relatively small contingent of Alabama bloggers. The site's original tagline said it all: "The musings of an Alabama moderate in a country that isn't as divided as it thinks."

More than 1,300 posts later, the tagline has changed -- I decided moderate was too subjective and went with the more objective independent label instead -- but the sentiment hasn't. I still long for leadership that plays not to the base but to everyone, leadership that tries to bring us together instead of trying to tear us apart, leadership that appeals to our best instincts rather than our darkest fears. After decades of bitter division, I believe our country finally has a chance for that sort of leadership, and I believe that leader's name is Barack Obama.

* * *
The slumping economy is the No. 1 issue for a sizable number of Americans, recent national polls have shown, but for me this election comes down to one word: Iraq. The war has caused tens of thousands of deaths, distracted from our mission in Afghanistan, tarnished our image in the world community, suffered from the Bush administration's botched planning from the very start, prompted tens of billions of dollars of deficit spending, and -- yes -- contributed in no small part to the recession that's either already here or will be soon. For all the talk, mostly from Republicans, that "the surge is working," the fact is that the Iraqis have made virtually no progress toward the political stability vital to any lasting peace, and the surge simply is unsustainable with many soldiers already on their third or fourth tours of duty.

Anyone who plans to keep our soldiers in Iraq with no clear end in sight will not get my vote. That measure rules out every Republican candidate except Ron Paul, whose love for the gold standard and sponsorship of legislation that would strip federal courts of the power to hear cases on gay marriage and state governments' establishment of religion, among other things, must lead me to decline the generous offer to join his revolution.

So that brings it down to a choice between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom have spent roughly the same amount of time in elective office. They are veritable mirror images on a range of domestic policy issues, including taxes, health care, energy, and environmental protection. Each also pledges to end the Iraq war as quickly as possible and redirect our efforts toward pursuing al-Qaeda. Despite some minor policy divergences, their websites indicate the similarities far outnumber the differences.

But the presidency is about more than just making promises; it's about making correct decisions. And when the Iraq war debate came around in 2002-03, Obama made the right assessment, while Clinton didn't. Well before any insurgencies or "Mission Accomplished" banners or dire State of the Union warnings, scores of Middle East experts and other observers publicly warned that the decision to go to war for proffered reasons that, to be generous, turned out to be not quite accurate, would leave our nation mired in just the sort of difficulties we face now.

Have no doubt that Clinton and Obama -- highly educated, politically astute people -- both heard those analyses. Obama responded with a passionate speech against the war. Clinton responded with an oscillating speech and a vote to authorize the war. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but all other things being roughly equal, it sure does make a great tiebreaker.

Intrinsics also make a great tiebreaker, and Obama has a solid edge over Clinton here. Due partly to some controversial campaign tactics and partly to her opponents' unforgiving, otherworldly antipathy for her, Clinton has been a lightning rod for a decade and a half, inspiring intense loyalty among many voters but intense hatred among many others. Fairly or not, her negative ratings are quite sizable, and if she becomes the Democratic nominee, the country will be well on its way to another 51/49 election that will drag the electorate into another period of destructive, counterproductive "us vs. them" politics.

Obama is a fresh face who hasn't evoked nearly as many fiery negative responses. He also is able to reach out to many people who already have written off Clinton as an option. Obama's stump speeches, laden with rhetorical flourishes and repeated calls for unity and hope, have earned him tremendous support from millions of young voters and independents, and even some old-school conservatives. Among the last category is a lifelong GOP voter who attended a jam-packed rally in Birmingham last week and put it this way: "I've spent the past few elections voting against a candidate. This time, I'm voting for Obama."

* * *
The very first thing I posted on this site was a mission statement. I wrote it partly to introduce my writings to a world of strangers, but more importantly to have a reminder of the principles that inspired me to start writing here in the first place. At the risk of sounding too self-absorbed, allow me to quote the 2004 version of myself: "We live in an unhealthy environment where honest political debate has been replaced by a mindless shouting match, where demagogues can win elections with promises to discriminate against an irrationally feared minority, where people are told they hate America if they deviate from the accepted party line. It's a wretched environment for democracy, for basic human decency, and for our future. It has to change."

Indeed it does. That's why my personal endorsement for Tuesday -- and with any luck, for this fall, too -- goes to Barack Obama.


Blogger Rurality said...

I think I am with you on this one. I also like his idea about driver's licenses for everyone, illegal immigrant or not.

Do you think Edwards will end up as a running mate?

8:01 AM  
Blogger Nicholas Roussos said...

Just thought I would add a dissenting voice. I'm a big Hillary fan, but that's not why I'm not too wild about Barrack.

Here's three reasons that I didn't choose Obama (I voted in Mobile's early poll. Tuesday is Fat Tuesday.)

1) I don't buy the bipartisanship line. Whenever someone says they can bring both sides of the aisle together, I feel like it really means they'll compromise their most important views. I think we've had enough compromises (especially on health care.)

2) The Washington outsider. The voice of change or the I'm not part of the established Washington group line rings too much to the tune that G. W. Bush sang when he first got elected. I believe being an outsider means you're inexperienced and haven't spent enough time looking at the big picture.

3) Rhetoric ... That's all I get from Obama. Lots of it in droves, especially when he talks about change. Essentially, I see him as a more liberal version of the current president.

Don't get me wrong, I do like Obama, but I just didn't think he was the right choice for president.

Three quick reasons I like Hillary:

1) Experience. Yea, they might have been in elected office the same amount of time, but I can't shake the feeling that Hillary's seen more action. I think you HAVE to take into account the Clinton 1 years.

2) She's a smart women who never gets enough credit, AND she was for universal health care way before it was a hip topic. (To me, that means she had her pulse on America. I honestly think health care is the #1 problem facing the US --- and I have pretty good insurance provided by my employer.)

3) Just to address the point of the Iraq vote --- we all know Hillary voted for it because at the time out of political calculation. I also feel Obama (if he had been in the senate at the time) might very well have made the same vote. To put it simple, I don't think we should fault Hillary for playing the game that we perpetuate.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Alabamian said...

It's been a while since I've seen each of you around here. I hope all is well.

Rurality, I'm not sure if John Edwards would accept another VP nod given his wife's health problems, but I also suspect he's staying out of the thick of things for now so as not to alienate Clinton or Obama, just in case. Bill Richardson would be a solid pick for either of them, too.

Nicholas, I always appreciate reasoned dissents, which yours certainly is. I disagree on a few points, though.

First, I don't see any problem with calls for bipartisanship, because the D.C. political reality is that leaders usually need some support from both parties -- or at least dulled resistance from opponents -- to get anything major done. Disagreements always will exist, of course, but Obama is a persuasive force who, after just a few months, already has thousands of voters stepping outside their partisan mindsets to give his proposals the sort of serious consideration they might not get were they offered by a less charismatic figure. That's not compromising principles; that's smart politics.

I agree that Clinton has health care expertise that Obama doesn't. I agree that her time in the Clinton White House, particularly her admirable work to get SCHIP off the ground, has to count for something in the way of political experience. And I agree that health care is a huge issue that will only get bigger as baby boomers begin to retire.

But I also think our leaders won't be able to devote the substantial time and resources needed to solve the health care crisis until the crushing fiscal weight of the Iraq war is lifted. And Obama, with his unflagging position against the war, is better positioned to argue that case successfully in the fall.

Obama may well have ended up voting to authorize the Iraq war had he been in the U.S. Senate at the time. And Clinton may well never have gone to war had she been president at the time. But we'll never know, because those are hypothetical scenarios. The only concrete thing we can know is what they did with the cards they had on the table. After much deliberation, Obama spoke against the war, and Clinton voted to authorize it.

Clinton is a solid candidate, but for me, the Iraq war differences and Obama's intangibles overcome her edges in experience and health care expertise. My criteria aren't everyone's criteria, though, so I'm glad to read a well-reasoned differing view.

10:40 PM  
Blogger Nicholas Roussos said...

"The only concrete thing we can know is what they did with the cards they had on the table. After much deliberation, Obama spoke against the war, and Clinton voted to authorize it."

I guess that's my point ... Obama gets this cred as being some great anti-war hero, but it's just been a campaign tool that he's used. He hasn't done anything more to stop it than Clinton.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Alabamian said...

The only time the Senate had any real power to "stop" the war was before it began. Once the troops are in the field, it's a risk to their safety to cut off funding while the president in office is determined to keep them in Iraq no matter what.

Today, Clinton and Obama both want to end the war swiftly. But five years ago, only one of them was willing to stand up and speak against it at a politically inexpedient time.

6:25 PM  

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