Friday, February 01, 2008

On Barack Obama (it was bound to come up eventually)

Okay, so outside of the occasional oblique reference in the midst of some political to-do, I haven't really discussed my support for Obama; I've probably devoted more election-related blog inches to Hillary Clinton than I have to Barack Obama. Doug has made several great posts on the subject of late, and I more or less agree with everything he says there; probably a large part of my reticence on the subject so far has been the fact that he just puts it better than I ever could.

But I'm going to be taking my shift (wo)manning the phones at the Birmingham Obama HQ this weekend, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to really gather my thoughts on why I'm an Obama supporter. Most of my friends also support him, and generally for the same reasons, so our conversations generally end up devolving into, "Ohmygod, Obama's so awesome." "Yeah, he's totally cool." "I've got a hetero man-crush on him." "I think I've got a regular one." Fun, certainly, but not terribly likely to sway any undecided voters to our side of the fence.

I think it can be hard to really define the nature of your support for a candidate at the primary stage because most people within the party have basically similar priorities. It's not the general election, where Club Red goes up against Club Blue and the voting public gets to choose between two fairly different political philosophies; it's the intra-party competition where each candidate has to present him- or herself as the best example of the ideals of that philosophy. Which Democrat is more Democrat-y than the other Democrats? Who better embodies the principles of the party?

And I'm not going to pretend that it's a platform issue for me. Something we frequently forget during elections is that the promises the candidate is making now will be limited by the willingness of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the voting public to make them a reality. Running on a platform of rainbows and free puppies doesn't guarantee wet-but-sunny weather or an unlimited supply of cuddly canines. I like Obama's approach to education, but if he'd have to accomplish it through unilateral executive orders, I want no part; I didn't like it with Bush, and I wouldn't like it with a Democrat. The issues listed on Obama's Web site are useful as a rundown of his personal priorities, and that's important to me, but what's more important is his philosophy on leading the country -- where it needs to go and how it needs to get there.

That's a more nebulous subject, and a lot more sensitive than supporting educational success and opposing terrorism in Iraq ("I'm for good things and against bad things! Vote for me!"). Is the job of the president to make life easier for Americans or to make life better? Is it more important to support the efforts of the party whose ideals he represents (which ideals he believes to be the general good) or to unite the entire country in support of the generally accepted good? Is it better to reach your goals by overpowering the opposition or by drawing them over to your side?

And I guess that, in the end, is the difference between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, for me. It's not individual policy points, which we could debate at great length and detail for months; it's leadership and service philosophy. Obama has gotten some criticism within the party for his contention that creating bipartisan consensus should be a priority; there's a feeling that promoting progressive goals is more important than uniting Congress, and by extension the country, behind a common goal. I wonder why he couldn't do both? The Democratic party stands by its platform because of the belief that that kind of progressivism will benefit the country as a whole, not just the blue half. Transcending partisanship doesn't mean abandoning principles and giving in to the Republicans so they'll like us; it means finding the things that we already agree on -- and there are lots of them -- and starting from there. One of my favorite quotes from the short-lived but funny show That's My Bush was from Laura Bush when she said, "Now, maybe you can't unite pro-choice and pro-life activists because, in a way, they're both right." Transcending partisanship just means finding a way to do that anyway, and I don't know exactly how Obama intends to do it, but I'm not going to criticize him for having that goal.

I don't like the way the government runs right now. I don't like the way the members of Congress, within and between parties, interact with each other. I don't like the way business is accomplished. And Clinton is very experienced with that process. She knows it, she probably knows how to game it, and I have no doubt that, as president, she'd be able to get things done within it. But that's not a plus for me, because that means it's still there. It means that your average American isn’t getting proper representation unless he’s got a personal lobbyist; it means that little porky projects are piling up until significant portions of the budget are taken up with projects that don’t benefit the vast majority of the country; it means that our elected representatives spend more time trying to get re-elected than they do trying to represent us; it means that a legislator who believes that something other than the party line might better benefit the country will get shouted down before he has a chance to voice his opinion; and I don’t like those things.

Can Obama change that? I have no idea, honestly. He wants to, though, and that’s one up on Clinton; he recognizes that being able to work within the system is of no benefit to anyone when the system itself is fatally flawed, and he wants to change it. For me, his inexperience is a plus simply because he doesn’t yet know what he can and can’t do. And it’s sappy, I know, but sometimes the greatest things are accomplished when you just haven’t been told that they’re impossible. My sole contribution to the field of philosophy is the concept that it’s better for things to suck differently than for things to suck the same way they were sucking before, and I stand behind it because it’s true. Obama’s inexperience may end up presenting the country with a few problems, but if it does, at least they’ll be different problems than we’ve been facing for the past decade or so.

He wants to hold Americans responsible for contributing to the success of our own country. He wants to give Republicans and Democrats the benefit of the doubt that we can put aside partisan differences and find some common ground in deciding what’s best for the country. That’s where the “hope” thing comes in, and the “change” thing. Is it a na├»ve pipe dream? Very possibly. But I’m guessing that if you don’t tell him that, he won’t stop trying to get there until he’s pretty damn close. And pretty damn close is a damn sight better than we’ve been doing.

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