Friday, February 22, 2008

Why Do I Support Barack Obama?

Once again I found myself (last Friday) discussing the presidential race of 2008. My friend and I had just concluded our viewing of a documentary, and we were now luxuriating in our speculations about our nation's future government. Perhaps an objective observer might say "How wonderful it must be to live in America, with it's inestimable freedoms... Where decidedly middle class citizens can sit around on a weekend night, and exchange their cynicisms regarding their country's political process." Or maybe that is just a typical example of conceit we all have about the extraordinary nature of the good ol' United Stated. It's a shining beacon of DEMOCRACY to the world, after all. Yet with all the skepticism I share with my friends, I am still grateful to be able to voice my opinions with some measure of confidence in the survival of our First Amendment rights.

Anyway the main topic of conversation the other night was our shared preference for Democratic nominee Barack Obama. A year ago I was almost convinced that the man actually had a chance to win his party's nomination for the highest federal office. Since then I've been on a bit of a roller coaster with steep declines of belief, and rather shocking periods of accelerated excitement. With the primary well under way, it looks increasibgly likely that Obama might actually prevail. This would be an incredible story in American politics for several obvious reasons, not the the least of which is his racial identity. The fact is that Obama is equally as white as he is black, but that's not the perception of the majority. Instead he presents the prospect of becoming the first "African-American" to become Commander-in-Chief. That, of course, is the most significant reason people have had to doubt his viability as a candidate. I wrote about that subject almost a year ago, and have no wish to revisit it in detail. Still it's obviously the "elephant in the room".

While I don't want to belabor the point about Obama's racial makeup, it has occurred to me that one of the main reasons I have always supported his candidacy is because of that very factor. Surely it's an example of my own perverse form of reverse racism, but I'm comfortable with my position on the matter. I would like to see a "black man" become president... even if he is half white. We've had enough time to see what the traditional establishment can do with the unlimited opportunities it has had. Even though Obama represents an upbringing consistent with that of previous presidents (a rather privileged background and the benefit of the best education that the Western World can offer), there's an undeniable value to be found in the symbolism of his mixed ancestry. The reality is that you must be connected to the leadership class to rise to the level he may attain. However his success so far suggests that there is at least one arbitrary distinction that no longer holds the same weight as it has in the past. A rich man of any genetic combination might grow to be POTUS.

Beyond race I have a hard time expressing why I am so drawn to Barack Obama. I suspect that my rather vague propensity to support him is echoed in the hearts and minds of many others that would like to see him prevail. I asked my friend if he knew about any specific ideas that Obama might have regarding an agenda for governance. I also wanted to know if my friend had any clue about what Obama would actually do if he does win. Frankly I didn't get any satisfying answers from our discussion. Even though he had read books written by the candidate, my friend couldn't really outline any policies that Obama might pursue. There was some nebulous reference to "universal healthcare", but no real points of distinction to use in comparison with the plan put forward by main rival Hillary Clinton. We also talked about Obama's steadfast opposition to the invasion of Iraq- although I pointed out that he was in an advantageous position to gain traction without losing anything by taking the stance. Obama wasn't in national office during the build-up to war. And since he has become senator, he has consistently voted to finance the continuing operations in the Middle East.

I think that Obama's main strength lies in public speaking. Regardless of his actual views and plans, he has convinced many of us that he means what he says. After seven years of obvious lies and dissimulation, the existence of apparent integrity and honesty in a politician is extremely refreshing. That is (in my opinion) the main source of his momentum as a candidate. People feel that they can trust this man. His critics will no doubt continue to emphasize his "lack of experience" while trying to bolster support for other candidates. But I think most Americans will get beyond those claims after the unfortunate example of George W. Bush. We have learned that the president is largely a front-man for a coterie of bureaucrats, analysts and advisers who actually form the executive branch. In that role, I think it's become quite clear that Obama can be extraordinarily effective... or at least much more so than the current president. His promises of "change" resonate with the hopes of many disenchanted citizens. It his ability to convince us that reform is possible that is most compelling.

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