23 September 2008

The Presidential Candidates: Barack Obama

The September 10 issue of The New Republic includes a story by John B. Judis that portrays a moment when the future Illinois Senator seemed to become disillusioned with the vocation of a community organizer. Obama's crisis came at a 1989 symposium,

He had a litany of criticisms of [Saul] Alinsky-style organizing that he wanted to put forward. He objected to community organizers' disregard of charismatic leadership and of movements. Instead of making the point directly, he recalled a friend telling him of an IAF trainer who complained that 'movements are rotten with charismatic leaders.' Obama said his friend had responded, 'That's nonsense. We want a movement. I would love to have Martin Luther King here right now.' Obama argued that charismatic leaders and movements bring 'long-term vision,' and that community organizers cannot be effective without such vision.

This sounds like someone itching to make a speech, and Obama eventually rose to fame through his oratory. As a state legislator and mere candidate for the U.S. Senate, he was probably the lowest-ranking person ever to give the keynote speech at a major party convention. That speech and his victory over an incompetent rival, along with Senator Kerry's defeat, made him a prospect for the 2008 campaign.

Obama went on to prevail in a grueling primary campaign, very much thanks to his oratory and to widespread dislike for Senator Clinton. It is probably no coincidence that he has found it hard to break away from Senator McCain now that the news networks have no reason to broadcast his speeches live and in full. Nor should it have surprised us to see reactionaries question Obama's background and his ultimate loyalty. But these are familiar topics. We should turn to what the Democrat proposes for the country.

As with most candidates, let's start with Iraq. Obama famously opposed the war before it began, and has infamously (to some people) refused to applaud the "surge" with the vehemence demanded by McCain. Here's what his website says: "Our troops have heroically helped reduce civilian casualties in Iraq to early 2006 levels. This is a testament to our military’s hard work, improved counterinsurgency tactics, and enormous sacrifice by our troops and military families. It is also a consequence of the decision of many Sunnis to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq, and a lull in Shia militia activity. But the absence of genuine political accommodation in Iraq is a direct result of President Bush’s failure to hold the Iraqi government accountable."

Obama promises a "responsible and phased" withdrawal from Iraq over a 16-month period, but will leave behind "a residual force ... in Iraq and in the region to conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions against al-Qaeda in Iraq and to protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel." The website says the U.S. "must apply pressure" on the Iraqi factions, but appears satisfied that the phased withdrawal will exert sufficient pressure, combined with an "aggressive diplomatic effort" including Syria and Iran, to set the Iraqis straight. Meanwhile, Obama will spend $2 billion on humanitarian aid to Iraqi refugees.

Clinton and McCain in turn have criticized Obama's willingness to negotiate with "anti-American" regimes, as if those who most disagree with us must capitulate unconditionally as a precondition for negotiations over -- what, exactly? Whatever they think, the Obama website says that the candidate will "do the careful preparation necessary" in advance of any such encounter, but doesn't hint at what those preparations might involve. Overall, "To make diplomacy a priority, Obama will stop shuttering consulates and start opening them in the tough and hopeless corners of the world – particularly in Africa. They will expand our foreign service, and develop the capacity of our civilian aid workers to work alongside the military. "

On the energy front, Obama proposes to wean us off Venezuelan and Middle East oil within ten years. He'll use consumer incentives, including a $7,000 tax credit for purchasing "advanced vehicles," as well as imposing efficiencies through a "use it or lose it" policy on existing drilling leases. He promises to create "millions of new green jobs" through conversions to renewable-source industries and weatherization projects. He offers short-term relief in the form of a $1,000 energy rebate to be paid for by windfall profit taxes.

Turning to taxes, Obama repeats the windfall-tax promise and emphasizes the middle-class and working-family tax cuts he'll propose. He believes that his $500 "Making Work Pay" tax credit will benefit small businesses as well as ordinary working folks. Small business will also benefit from ban on capital-gains taxes for start-ups and "small" businesses -- how small may remain to be determined. If Obama intends to raise anyone's taxes or roll back any of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, you won't learn about it here.

Like McCain, Obama is a big believer in national service. He'd nearly triple the size of AmeriCorps and put young people to work on education, health, clean-energy and veterans' care projects. He'll encourage retirees to volunteer for public service and will send multilingual Americans abroad to "show the world the best face of America" through the "America's Voice Initiative." This sounds suspiciously like a volunteer propaganda program, when if anything the world needs to hear America's Voice less than Americans need to hear the world's voices.

"Amid the partisanship and bickering of today's public debate, [Obama] still believes in the ability to unite people around a politics of purpose," the website says, "a politics that puts solving the challenges of everyday Americans ahead of partisan calculation and political gain." This is the same sort of thing McCain says, though with different nuances. McCain tempts independents with the notion, still half-plausible, that he might wage war against his own party, whether on principle or out of moral vanity. Obama doesn't promise the wild action one might be led to expect from a "maverick," but his talk of transcendence is as much belied by his dependence on the Democratic party as McCain's pretense is refuted by his acceptance of the Republican nomination.

On his own merits, Obama is probably one of the best candidates for the presidency, but in most states, if not all, you can't vote for him without also endorsing the Democratic party. Even the Obama website dissuades you from thinking of him as his own man. Almost every idea and initiative I've quoted from the website is credited to "Obama and Biden," not Obama. Any vote for Obama inevitably perpetuates the American Bipolarchy, but the logic of the Bipolarchy points to the necessity of defeating McCain. If the only thing that matters is preventing McCain from becoming President, than there's nothing to do but support Obama, unless you live in the safest "blue" states. Likewise, if you're less plausibly convinced that Obama is the worst thing that could befall the country, there's no choice but to support McCain. But is either an Obama or a McCain presidency a worse option than the perpetuation of the Bipolarchy that will result from Americans' refusal to consider alternatives? Each reader must decide this for himself, bearing in mind that there is still more than a third of the alphabet to go.

As is customary, here's the Obama website. One of its more interesting features is the "People" menu, which targets a wide range of demographic possibilities, including a would-be "Generation Obama." Meanwhile, Obama's YouTube channel has a staggering 1,350 videos to choose from. I picked one that presents Obama as a shadow president, replying last January to Bush's "State of the Union" address.

Obama's remark about banks running amok sounds timely, but his aspiration to earn the applause of both sides of the aisle by transcending partisanship already sounds far out of date.

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