Why I Support Barack Obama


cross-posted to jack & jill politics

Just before Thanksgiving, I wrote a series of blog posts titled, "Why I Don't Support Hillary Clinton." Honestly, I've been overwhelmed by the number of people contacting me to say how those pieces have influenced them. I was at a holiday party in Columbus, Ohio and an 80-year old family friend was half-excited, half-annoyed that I had upended her presidential choices.

In an effort to clarify my own thinking and perhaps influence others, it's now time to offer the flip side argument on who I do support: Barack Obama.

Besides, as one of 10 black people to have ever visited Iowa, I think I am uniquely qualified to influence caucus voters today. :)

Fellow Jack & Jill blogger rikyrah has already spit a pretty comprehensive post on her endorsement of Obama, dealing with issues of progressive values, electability, the symbolic value of a black president and more. I won't re-tread those fine steps. Instead, I'll try to share pieces of my own Obama story.

The Buildup

In hindsight, I was probably sold during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I had worked hard to convince myself that I actively supported John Kerry beyond the pro-sanity-anyone-but-Bush wing of my psyche. I watched that documentary about his Vietnam service and was moved. However, the convention was the beginning of the end of my forced love affair of convenience. I was living in Boston at the time, and Obama's speech lit a fire in that city as it did across the country. I remember many conversations with fellow citizens going a little something like this: "Uh, you think maybe it's too late to switch the nominee?" When rumor spread that he would be showing up at a convention afterparty at a spot called Vinalia, the place instantly flooded with people.

How many state senators could have that instant effect on people? That doesn't happen very often.

As the current campaign season kicked off, I watched and waited. Like most black people, I did not instantly decide to support him. As I wrote several seasons ago, I sincerely worried about his safety and doubted his ability to survive, much less get elected. Like a good citizen, I felt a duty to keep an open mind, watch debates, read extensively and survey the entire field.

At the Yearly Kos 2007 convention in Chicago this past August, I had to chance to see him in a small setting and ask a pretty tough question about his support for coal and a Renewable Portfolio Standard. His answer wasn't perfect (we reminded him that all coal is evil), but was was excellent nonetheless. While I don't think he had the best answer on coal as far as my stance, I respect him for actually listening to the question and giving me a direct, complete and thoughtful answer.  Watch the video right now. (his answer to my question is about 4 mins long).


And here's a photo from after the event.



Baratunde & Obama




I warmed up to him even more by October when he dropped a bomb of an editorial blasting Democrats for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard resolution and was reminded that while his 2002 opposition to the Iraq war looks mainstream from the perspective of late 2007, at the time it showed real risk-taking and leadership during a frightening era in which the White House, Congress and the media made that war seem like the only reasonable response to 9/11. The deal was sealed when I saw him at the historic Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

But wait, there's more.

His Life.

I don't make book recommendations lightly, so please take seriously this one: read Dreams From My Father , a book he wrote after he graduated Harvard Law School and long before he held any public office. It's both an amazing story and amazingly written. I just finished it two days ago, so it's fresh in my mind.

At the young age of 30, he offered an impressive overview of the history of race in America and the history of America in general. In so many ways, his story was my own: warnings from black elders to watch your back (and identity) in college; wrestling with the tug of war between black consciousness and mainstream American culture; experiencing the endless loop of self-important college "activists"; the barbershop!

Through his family history, I felt that I was better able to connect with America and even the world because his experience is worldly, and not in that backpacking-through-Europe with my parents' money sort of way, but more in the living-under-a-corrupt-government-in-Indonesia then talking-to-my-grandfather-about-the-War then reconnecting-with-my-East-African-relatives sort of way.

Those who think of Obama as just another elite member of the political class would gain a lot from reading this book. Granted, he has been influenced by the high octane educational institutions he attended, but he seems to have exited largely intact, having worked in community organizing both in New York City and Chicago when his degrees could easily have swayed him toward Abramoff-Kravis wing of the socio-economic spectrum. Organizing residents of the Altgeld Gardens projects on the South Side is not the standard pedigree of the political elite.

His Policies.

I have not done a comprehensive review of all of his policies, but two specifically excite me.

Obama's plan for driving innovation and openness in our tech/communications infrastructure and the government itself is inspiring as hell. Matt Stoller at Open Left said this:

...Obama has thrown down a big gauntlet, policy-wise.  He is pushing to break up the wireless gatekeepers, net neutrality will be a strong priority in his administration, and open government will allow citizens to generate new sources of political power.  I don't trust Obama's politics and I find his post-partisan rhetoric problematic, but I believe in organizing, and I believe that if he is willing to put the government on an open level playing field for all citizens while protecting our ability to access it, good things will happen.

Gristmill, a pretty trustworthy environmental site, has a strong endorsement of Obama's energy plan.

In addition, Populista over at DailyKos has a set of insanely detailed and informative diary posts covering "How Obama Will Change The System." This is a great answer to those who consider him a progressive lightweight who is not "serious about change."

  • Part 1 public financing of campaigns. Highlights: Obama teamed up with Feingold as lead sponsor of a public financing bill; he also promoted the idea in the Illinois legislature
  • Part 2: media reform. Highlights: through letter-writing, aggressive public statements and
    sponsored legislation, Obama fought against further consolidation of
    our media
  • Part 3: transparency of government. Highlights: has led on the issue of ethics and government transparency for his entire elected career; was lead sponsor of the Google for Government Bill which provides unprecedented public access to information on government contracts. You can play with it now. It's real!
  • Part 4: election reform and voting rights. Highlights: Obama is against Voter IDs, for restoring voting rights to ex-felons, opposed the nomination of Spakovsky to the FEC, co-sponsored legislation to give full voting rights to my hometown of D.C.

My Fears.

It is almost guaranteed that the systemic disenfranchisement of millions by our political and economic systems will remain largely in place with any of the presidential candidates. This nation requires a war-level effort of sacrifice and innovation to reinvent our energy, climate and food systems.

Our monetary, currency and banking policies would probably be significantly improved if we shifted a greater portion of them to local systems.

While economic growth is sought universally by both political parties, few acknowledge that endless growth is impossible within the closed system that is this planet.

Our military industrial complex has grown far beyond Eisenhower's worst fears. (check this April 2006 edition of my old podcast - I interviewed an Air Force official who oversaw contractors)

And then there are these five issues raised recently by Matt Stoller.

And then there is overpopulation.

Obama is not speaking much about most of these issues, but then again, few presidents ever have. Still, as I pointed out above, he's been very active on key threats to our democracy such as media consolidation, government corruption and campaign financing.

Conclusion

Obama is neither a Magic Negro nor a messiah. He is not Martin Luther King Jr. nor is he Sojourner Truth. He cannot change this country and make it all the great things so many people want it to be on his own. No politician can. No single person can. Anyone who promises that cannot deliver it. What I hope and increasingly believe, however, is that his ability to connect with people, to inspire participation, to transcend some of the more obscene flavors of recent partisanship will encourage us to take a step closer to fixing this country ourselves.

It says something powerful when you have the largest pool of small campaign donors in the history of presidential elections. It says something powerful when you can lure 30,000 ordinary people to a political rally, especially when you do so in a country whose leader doesn't wear fatigues or put his image on the nation's money.

If President Obama can accomplish two or three of the changes that candidate Obama has laid out, that would be a vast improvement for the country. But what I'm really rooting for is that he will help rekindle that spirit of civic engagement and community that is the lifeblood of this experiment called democracy. In the end, it's not about Obama. It's about us!