Democrats enjoy an embarrassment of riches right now. We have three front-running candidates who enjoy broad support, and many people find themselves actively excited about more than one. I remain somewhat lukewarm about Hillary Clinton, but I'm enthusiastic about John Edwards. But one of the front-runners does something no other candidate in my lifetime has done: inspire me. That's why I'm backing Barack Obama.
Obama The big knock against Obama is his scant experience in national elective politics. But his political experience is both broad and deep, if mostly unknown to national voters. Before becoming a US Senator, he was an Illinois State Senator for eight years. He was an active leader in the legislature, chairing the Public Health and Welfare Committee, and working to pass legislation aimed at helping the working poor, increasing AIDS prevention spending, and banning racial profiling. He also worked on a health insurance bill that didn't pass. After college, he worked as a community organizer in Chicago and then went on to Harvard where he graduated magna cum laude and became the president of the Harvard Law Review. At the University of Chicago (in Hyde Park, the district he represented), he was a Constitutional law professor and worked for a civil rights firm.
All of this happened outside the flashing lights of the national press, but the truth remains that he was teaching law before George W. Bush became governor of Texas. He's got more experience in politics than either Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney, neither of whom are regularly criticized for being underqualified.
He's Right on the Issues
On a series of votes as US Senator, Obama demonstrated that he wouldn't rubber-stamp bad GOP legislation or nominees. For Dems tired of equivocating candidates, this is a refreshing change. He voted against both Alito and Roberts for the Supreme Court and opposed the bankruptcy bill and the Patriot Act's wiretap provision. His record on poverty and government corruption have been hallmarks of his career, going back to Illinois. Even on the environment--that sticky corn-state issue--he's been subtly trying to shift the debate to cellulosic ethanol (though he still supports corn ethanol); he's also pushing proposals to reduce emissions and greenhouse gases. He famously opposed the Iraq invasion, yet his foreign policy is more nuanced, balancing strength and international engagement. Across the issues, he demonstrates fidelity to progressive politics, but won't be labeled a traditional weak-on-defense liberal.
He's Right on Tone
Obama's unique strength among Democratic candidates is his crossover appeal. Despite being excoriated by movement conservatives as a liberal's liberal, his appeal transcends politics. Here's a paragraph from last week's New Yorker profile ("The Conciliator"):
After Obama’s Convention speech, Republican bloggers rushed to claim him, under headings such as “Right Speech, Wrong Convention” and “Barack Obama: A Republican Soul Trapped Inside a Democrat’s Body....” Republicans continue to find him congenial, especially those who opposed the war on much the same conservative grounds that he did. Some of Bush’s top fund-raisers are contributing to Obama’s campaign. In his election to the U.S. Senate, Obama won forty per cent of the Republican vote; now there is a group called Republicans for Obama, founded by John Martin, a law student and Navy reservist shortly to be posted to Afghanistan, which has chapters in six states.
The moderate and liberal wings of the Democratic Party have spent fifteen years in a war about how to establish a governing coalition. Looking at the candidates currently in the race, none has the capacity to lead with progressive policies and a moderate's uniting voice. As the party seeks to create a governing coalition, it needs a leader like Obama who will bring together disparate voices.
He'll Be Strong in the General Election
After running two strong candidates in 2000 and 2004, Democrats are understandably gun-shy about running a candidate who will fold when the fight inevitably gets ugly. Two concerns about Obama rise to the surface--his foreign-policy experience and his race. To the former, he has a single advantage no other candidate has: he opposed the war. Yet he's not a peacenik; a recent foreign policy speech was received well by international realists as well as anti-war lefties. The question of race deserves its own post, but a recent Pew report indicated it is no longer a serious factor among voters. Finally, as an Illinois politician, he has inroads into key Midwest states like Missouri, Iowa, and Ohio that Edwards and Clinton lack.
I was born in 1968, the year Richard Nixon was first elected. It marked the moment when America abandoned its commitment to FDR liberalism and began regressing into me-first conservative politics that have led, inexorably, to the most corrupt, most incompetent Presidency since Warren G. Harding's. This is the progressive year, when we abandon--like a bad dream--the conservative era. I have no doubt that we will elect a Democrat--the real question is which one.
The two other front-runners would both make fine presidents (I've donated to John Edwards, as well). But Barack Obama can bring more than able, competent leadership. When FDR stepped into the White House, he was more than able--he galvanized a nation suffering under the depression. Following the psychic catastrophe of the Rove-Cheney-Bush era, we need a president who will unite and galvanize the country.
With his inclusive approach and personal charisma, Obama has already begun inspiring people. More than 100,000 people have already donated to his campaign, and he attracts thousands of people when he appears publicly. I get it. I haven't been inspired by a presidential candidate since I became politically aware in 1980. Obama strikes me as an antidote to the politics of slickness--he's warm, honest, and personable. We need reality now, not bromides, and Obama seems uniquely trustworthy. And as with earlier candidates, there's no compromise with Obama--he's liberal, smart, charismatic, and electable.
For some reason, we Oregonians have been a little slow to reach out to Barack. Let's change that. Join me by going to Facebook and signing up with the "Bring Barack Obama to Portland"group (registration required). It gives you instructions about what to do from there. You could also sign up at his official site and join the 50-state canvass. And of course, small donations are important for demonstrating the breadth of support.