Thursday, February 14, 2008

So... Who Is Barack Obama?

After all the work I've put into researching the candidates I'm not going to vote for, I've decided to devote attention to the one person I likely will support. If nothing else, I'll be able to more rationally explain my choice. The very first fact I found out about Barack Obama is that we share the same birthday. Of course that doesn't address my purpose of examining his political beliefs, so I will try to put it aside and not become further biased by it. I've already written a bit about his upbringing and education, so I'll try to pick up the thread with his entry into adulthood.

After graduating high school, "Barry" (as he was then known) briefly attended Occidental College in L.A., and then transferred to Columbia University. He received his B.A. and took a job as a community organizer in Chicago. He worked with low-income residents at a public housing development. A few years later he went to Harvard for a law degree, and became the first African-American student president in its history. He then worked in organizing voter registration drives, and got a position in a law firm where he concentrated his efforts on representing community organizers, discrimination claims, and voting rights cases. He became a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago Law School in 1993, and stayed there until his election to the US Senate in 2004.

Obama served in the Illinois State Senate from 1996 to 2004, and was unsuccessful only in a primary run for the US Congress in 2000. He earned bipartisan respect for his work on ethics and health care legislation. He increased subsidies for childcare, negotiated welfare reform, and increased tax credits for low-income workers. Surprisingly, he earned the endorsement of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police for helping to enact death penalty reforms. While he disfavored late term abortion he worked against parental notification laws. As reward for his record, he was awarded the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His speech there earned him national acclaim and recognition, and helped propel him to his seat in the Senate.

Immediately after being elected to the Senate, Obama became very active. He served on Senate Committees for Foreign Relations; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; and Veterans' Affairs. He reached across the aisle to co-sponsor a bill on immigration with John McCain. He worked with Republican Tom Coburn to achieve greater transparency in government spending. Obama also traveled throughout the world in efforts to help control the supply of WMD's, conventional and biological weapons as a preventative measure against terrorist attacks. These activities kept him extraordinarily busy during his first year in national office.

Obama followed up these efforts by working with Russ Feingold to eliminate lobbyist gifts to Congress, and for greater disclosure of campaign contributions to Congressmen. He tackled the voting irregularities so endemic in recent elections with a proposal to criminalize deceptive practices. He drew mixed reaction from environmentalists by supporting legislation calling for reductions in greenhouse gases, and at the same time promoting liquefied coal production. To address the Iraqi War, he called for phased redeployment which would have withdrawn American forces from Iraq by 2008. Additionally he struggled to enact laws that would protect veterans and their families. In the foreign policy realm, he called for the divestiture of state funds from Iran's oil and gas industry. He also cooperated with Chuck Hagel to introduce a law that would reduce the risks of nuclear terrorism.

During his campaign for the presidency, Obama has focused his attentions on speaking out for the poor. He has lauded the New Deal and condemned the idea of privatizing Social Security as "Social Darwinism". He claims to be absolutely committed to providing universal health care. He's announced plans to invest billions of dollars into early education. On tax issues, he stresses the importance of restructuring the burden on to investors and corporations by closing tax loopholes. And by suggesting caps on carbon-based emissions and a formidable investment plan for new energy sources, he has attempted to strengthen his appeal to environmentalists.

Much of Obama's growing popularity can be traced to his early opposition to the Iraqi invasion and occupation. Still one shouldn't assume that he is anti-war. In his own words- he is "against dumb wars". Regarding Syria and Iran- he is on record as preferring aggressive diplomacy and international sanctions, but unwilling to take the option of "military action" off the table. He clearly seeks a continued role for the United States in the world arena. He has called for more assertive action against genocide in Darfur, and promises to renew America's global commitment to military, diplomatic and moral leadership.

While that last note resounds a bit ominously in my mind, I am encouraged by Obama's measured approach to governance and his refusal to see the world in absolute terms. I view him as a moderate who will be capable of forming broad coalitions in order to advance the nation in a more balanced direction. If nothing else I believe he acts according to some inner compass of conscience, and will inspire many to consider possibilities that haven't existed over the last seven years of incompetent executive leadership. Perhaps if he wins the presidency, I will be just a bit less cynical about the future. That in itself would be a formidable gift.

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