After seven years of being lost in the wilderness of oppositional presidential politics, Democrats now seem well positioned to do in 2008 what they failed to do in 2004: Replace a rogue cowboy president with a new president capable of uniting the country and resetting the nation's foreign policy and global reputation. The Press-Citizen Editorial Board thinks Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is the best candidate in a well qualified field of Democrats to make those long overdue changes. We endorse his candidacy enthusiastically.
In the past few months, Iowa City area voters have had multiple opportunities to learn about the strengths of each of Obama's Democratic rivals:
• Delaware Sen. Joe Biden brings an impressive domestic legislative record that is outshone only by his expertise as a foreign policy adviser.
• Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd provides a familial perspective on how the U.S.'s moral authority in the world has sunk from its highpoint (when Dodd's father was a prosecutor in the Nuremberg Trials) to its nadir (when the Bush Administration refused to abide by the Geneva Conventions and decided to house "enemy combatants" in Guantanamo Bay).
• New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton draws from her experience as a key adviser during her husband's presidency and her seven years on Capitol Hill representing the interests of New York's various population groups.
• New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson draws upon experience even wider and deeper than Clinton's and offers real world examples from the state he has governed since 2003.
• And former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards brings a needed attention to the social, economic and cultural factors that are widening the divide between the "Two Americas."
But the more Biden, Dodd and Clinton draw upon their experience in the internecine personal battles within Washington or between world leaders, the more voters identify them with the broken political system in which they have gained their experience. And the more Richardson and Edwards lay claim to an outsider status, the more they risk having their call for change get lost in their rhetoric -- which is what seems to have happened especially to Edwards in this campaign.
Obama stands tall among this already strong group as both the candidate of hope and the candidate of change we can believe in.
U.S. image abroad
We respect the experience that Clinton, Dodd, Biden and Richardson bring to the table in terms of their past meetings with world leaders. But we have to agree with Obama that foreign policy and diplomacy is more than the personal interactions of a few diplomats and leaders projected across a geo-political screen. As Obama told the editorial board, "structuring the actual conversation ... (and) convening the leaders is the easy part."
The hard part is knowing the people -- whether it's those Americans living the relatively average life that he and his wife lived until just a few years ago, whether it's the people who live in the south side Chicago neighborhoods in which Obama was an organizer, or whether it's the people who live in the same isolated Kenyan village as Obama's grandmother.
Although Obama's fellow candidates scoff that living in Indonesia for four years as a child doesn't prepare him for the complexities of foreign affairs, many people throughout the globe will take comfort knowing that the U.S. president has lived in and knows well the most populous Muslim country in the world. It will help Obama successfully convene a meeting of Muslim leaders within his first year in office.
Of course, winning over the hearts and minds of billions of skeptical Muslims will be much easier after President Obama closes Guantanamo Bay and begins a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq.
U.S. image at home
Obama is also right that resetting the world's view of the U.S. begins with making our government more transparent. As a senator, he's worked to visibly link members of Congress to their roads to nowhere and to their Iowan rain forests. As president, he will hold large-scale, open discussions on the issues facing Americans in the 21st century: health care, climate change, comprehensive immigration reform, border security, tax policy, education and economic development.
Unlike the health care overhaul attempted during Bill Clinton's administration, for example, Obama has pledged to hold open meetings and conferences for all the nation to see. Bringing together doctors, nurses, patients and hospital administrators -- as well as representatives of the drug and insurance companies -- Obama will produce a plan that moves beyond the limits of backroom politics.
It's true that a single-payer health care system would make the most sense if the U.S. were establishing a system from scratch. But Obama understands that, given more than half-century history of employer-provided health care and its supporting industry, the nation can't easily make a 180-degree turn. Nor can citizens wait around for some ideologically pure system to be developed. Because people need help now, Obama's plan provides the best alternative: Establishing a government system that covers those ineligible for private care and making it effective enough that others might eventually look to join it.
He will use the bully pulpit of the presidency to likewise address climate change, education and economic opportunity.
Politics of hope, unity
During the recent Des Moines Register debate, Obama joked that he is looking forward to Clinton serving as his presidential adviser. But we hope he is serious about drawing upon the wealth of experience and talent represented in his presidential rivals.
Indeed, the first test of Obama's role as a true uniter will be to bring together his party into a winning coalition in November 2008. In that process, we urge him to infuse his campaign with a little more of Edwards' public focus on poverty -- while avoiding the flights of populist rhetoric that has made Edwards' good analysis sometimes too easy for critics to dismiss.
Obama has the right vision for a new national politics and a new global reputation. He now needs voters and supporters who will help him transform that vision into reality. It's a transformation that should have started three years ago. Neither the nation nor the world can wait any longer.