Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Obama's Luck Is America's Opportunity

We often take our good fortune for granted. Especially the luck we are born into, can easily be forgotten even as we take advantage of our heritage, our citizenship, and our freedoms. I have always felt extraordinarily fortunate to be an American. Today America is lucky!

Barack Obama freely acknowledges the role that fortune has played in his rise to political prominence. Of his campaign for the U.S. Senate in The Audacity of Hope Obama wrote:
My campaign had gone so well that it looked like a fluke. ... Not one of [my Democratic opponents] ran a negative TV ad. ... My Republican opponent was felled by a divorce scandal. ... Later, some reporters would declare me the luckiest politician in the entire fifty states. Privately, some of my staff bristled at this assessment, feeling that it discounted our hard work and the appeal of our message. Still, there was no point in denying my almost spooky good fortune.
Geraldine Ferraro during the just concluded primary campaign famously declared that Obama was lucky to be in his position, and would not be so if he were white. In fact Obama's mixed race heritage is part of who he is, and thus part of the context from which he can powerfully declare that we should "eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white." Would Clinton have been the presumptive front runner in this campaign if she were not the wife of a previous President? Did that make her lucky? One could suggest that McCain is "lucky" to have been a POW because it is part of his story which gives him credibility today.

Luck comes and goes, but only fools fail to take advantage of that which falls into our laps. America, after 8 years of a disastrous presidency, a huge stroke of fortune has fallen into our lap. Obama's luck is our luck. And here is why:

We have evolved a political system which has many advantages, but in which honesty in politicians is routinely punished. Absolute candor is political suicide, and every successful politician, including Barack Obama understands this. Most of us shade the truth to our own advantage in our every day lives, and share that which puts us in a good light more than that which does not. Unfortunately years and years as a politician, causes the most successful to become so adept at this game that they become less and less aware of how dishonest they have become. Obama is quite skilled at choosing his words in such a way that his message appeals to a broad spectrum of Americans. He's good at the political game, and his candor is not absolute. But the brevity of his political life and the luck he has had in rising to this level without more and nastier political opposition mean that he has retained more candor than we have come to expect from our Presidential candidates. For many Americans - even many who do not share Obama's political philosophy - that makes his message refreshing, and a breath of fresh air compared to what we've come to expect.

Obama is politically savvy enough to weave in pieces of the sound bites which help sell the message, but when taken in whole paragraphs, he also makes sense and his message is coherent and at its heart truthful. "Change" sells, so the word is employed over and over again - and we can roll our eyes - but that's politics. What I care about is that his aspirational approach is inspiring hope, his intellect backs up those aspirations, and his realism tempers his methods.

McCain complained about Obama referring to McCain's bid as Bush's third term, but when you take the whole of what Obama said, for instance in his speech last night in Minneapolis, you find that he is honest about the distinctions between Bush and McCain. Americans by a large majority ARE disillusioned with the policies of George W. Bush, and it would be politically foolish for any Democratic candidate NOT to point to the many policy similarities between Bush and the promises of McCain. But more than the simple sound bite, here is what Obama actually said:
Because while John McCain can legitimately tout moments of independence from his party in the past, such independence has not been the hallmark of his presidential campaign.

It's not change when John McCain decided to stand with George Bush ninety-five percent of the time, as he did in the Senate last year.

It's not change when he offers four more years of Bush economic policies that have failed to create well-paying jobs, or insure our workers, or help Americans afford the skyrocketing cost of college -- policies that have lowered the real incomes of the average American family, widened the gap between Wall Street and Main Street, and left our children with a mountain of debt.

And it's not change when he promises to continue a policy in Iraq that asks everything of our brave men and women in uniform and nothing of Iraqi politicians -- a policy where all we look for are reasons to stay in Iraq, while we spend billions of dollars a month on a war that isn't making the American people any safer.
McCain is a very different person than Bush, and should he become President, I still have some hope that he will bring much needed reform to that branch of government. Either of these candidates seems likely to bring some more transparency back to the executive branch. But McCain is still tied to the policies of his party, and Obama is offering a clean break from that without insisting on a lock-step partisan agenda that will cement the divisions in this nation. From the prologue of The Audacity of Hope:
I am a Democrat; my views on most topics correspond more closely to the editorial pages of the New York Times than those of the Wall Street Journal. I am angry about policies that consistently favor the wealthy and powerful over average Americans, and insist that government has an important role in opening up opportunity to all. I believe in evolution, scientific inquiry, and global warming; I believe in free speech, whether politically correct or politically incorrect, and I am suspicious of using government to impose anybody's religious beliefs--including my own--on nonbelievers. Furthermore, I am a prisoner of my own biography: I can't help but view the American experience through the lens of a black man of mixed heritage, forever mindful of how generations of people who looked like me were subjugated and stigmatized, and the subtle and not so subtle ways that race and class continue to shape our lives.

But that is not all that I am. I also think my party can be smug, detached, and dogmatic at times. I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of government programs don't work as advertised. I wish the country had fewer lawyers and more engineers. I think America has more often been a force for good than for ill in the world; I carry few illusions about our enemies, and revere the courage and competence of our military. I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally. I think much of what ails the inner city involves a breakdown in culture that will not be cured by money alone, and that our values and spiritual life matter at least as much as our GDP.

Undoubtedly, some of these views will get me in trouble. I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some of them. Which perhaps indicates a second, more intimate theme to this book--namely, how I, or anybody in public office, can avoid the pitfalls of fame, the hunger to please, the fear of loss, and thereby retain that kernel of truth, that singular voice within each of us that reminds us of our deepest commitments.
I for one, feel very fortunate to have a major party nominee for the Presidency who can write with such candor, and I am equally committed, should he be elected to hold him to his implied commitment to avoid the pitfalls of success. America, today we are lucky and have a great opportunity to turn the page. Tomorrow and in the coming years we will need to continue to work to cash in on this opportunity. Citizenship does not end at the ballot box.