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On Our New President

Cited in this post:
A&E Biography: Barack Obama - online video
This American Life: The Inauguration Show (link to mp3 here)

There was a time, let's say a year ago, when the presidency was much less certain, and I leaned toward Hillary Clinton as the safer choice. This was a time when Mike Huckabee was the Republican front-runner, and my reasoning was that under no circumstances should another openly evangelical become president. At the time, Clinton and Obama's policies seemed more-or-less the same (there was, you recall, their struggle to differentiate themselves). So, Clinton was the safe and roughly equivalent choice. She would be a lightning rod for Republican derision, the singular individual Limbaugh, Hannity & Co. love to hate, but it seemed she stood the best chance against a relatively inexperienced newcomer, and, let's face it, a mixed-race black man. Despite his charisma, the thought of an Obama's presidency was surely a pipe dream.

I remember telling my wife that Republicans (of course) wouldn't use race outright against Obama, but they would find subtle, very subtle ways of using it to prey on people's fears and prejudices. When I first heard Sean Hannity and his talk show callers referring to him solely as "Barack Hussein Obama," I was ready to retract my prediction that it would be subtle.

As the seasons changed, winter to spring and eventually summer, so did my perception of Barack Obama. At first, I began to hope he could pull off the primary, because the man was downright inspiring, although I still worried his race would unfairly be his downfall. For this reason, in late winter, I still would have voted for Clinton, but I live in Kentucky, whose primary was in late May.

By May, I fully supported Obama. Again, I didn't perceive much to distinguish on platform and policy issues, so it came down to personality and, more importantly, ability to win the final prize, the presidency. I cast my primary vote for Obama. In Kentucky's primary, Clinton handily defeated Obama by more than 2-to-1, 65% to 30%. This was expected. I can say without reservation that race was a leading reason for Clinton's landslide victory in Kentucky. I've lived here my whole life. I grew up in a rural area, and hearing racial slurs and epithets was common, even in my family. It's particularly insidious when it's subtle, allowing it to be explained away as no big deal. The most frustrating excuse I heard was when someone 40+ years my elder would say something racist, only to have it explained away as "the way things were when they were brought up." Personally, I've always believe one should behave and act according to the way things are, not the way they were, but such concepts are difficult to articulate when you're young. Worst of all, I've never been confrontational, so I'd let it stew inside my mind, venting my frustrations in less confrontational ways, such as I'm doing now.

By this time, McCain had the Republican nomination. McCain's Centrist appeal, his ability to draw voters from the middle, was an advantage over Hillary Clinton, the chink in the armor this Republican lightning rod could not overcome. Barack Obama also had a Centrist appeal, but I still doubted he could defeat McCain. I began to rationalize to myself that a McCain presidency wouldn't be so bad, anything was better than Bush. McCain was friendlier to environmental concerns and actually acknowledged that the budget deficit was a problem. Reproductive rights would suffer, with abortion rights one Supreme Court nomination away from being lost, but at least there was hope McCain would accept the clear evidence that "abstinence-only" education has been a failure.

Everything changed after the Democratic National Convention. When McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate, there was a surge of excitement. In those first days, I thought McCain had won for sure. But it was like a wave, a surge of high water, which was followed by a return to a normal level, which was followed by a trough of low water, a trough which never recovered.

When Sarah Palin opened her mouth, the tide began to turn. I couldn't imagine a president worse than Bush, Jr. until I thought about what would happen if McCain died in office. I mean, even Bush went to Yale, but Palin? Well, whenever she spoke, it was clear she was uninformed and lacked curiosity about the world outside Alaska before she was tapped by McCain. I'm no politician, but even I could best her in knowledge of current events. Okay, I admit I didn't know what the "Bush Doctrine" was by that name, but if told it had to do with foreign policy, I immediately would have known it was the philosophy of pre-emptive strikes against perceived foreign threats, a.k.a. Operation Iraqi Freedom. And in my adult life, no one has had to explain to me that Africa is a continent of 50-some nations, not a single country.

Things only got worse for John McCain when the economy began tanking, and he insisted the fundamentals of the economy were strong, then said economic matters have never been his strongest suit. Finally, when McCain suspended his campaign to return to Washington to deal with the undeniable economic crisis, only to re-engage when Obama responded in his calm manner, it was clear who was strategic and thoughtful, and who was tactical and knee-jerk.

On election night, that fateful night, my wife and I knew Obama had to win, it was so obvious, but still, we weren't certain, weren't confident, until late that night. I cried, folks, yes, I did. I was joyous my candidate had won, I was happy for him and for history. I was proud of my country for proving me wrong and overcoming generations of racial bias to elect Barack Obama president.

Still, though, all the McCain and Clinton campaign rhetoric about Obama's lack of experience took its toll on me. What if... what if he couldn't deliver? About a week after the election, I happened upon an A&E Biography episode about Obama available on our cable's "OnDemand" service. It removed all doubt.

Obama came from diverse backgrounds. Kansas, Kenya, Hawai'i, Indonesia, Harvard, and Chicago. He struggled with his identity as a child, which ultimately led to his respect for all backgrounds and being a consensus-builder. President of the Harvard Law Review. Community organizer. Voter registration programs. Constitutional Law professor. State senator. National senator.

Obama's life has taught him to understand people, to see how we are more alike than we are different. He has developed a systematic approach to accomplish his goals by winning the support of those around him. I've heard critics say he inspires by telling everyone what they want to hear, which makes everyone identify with him, but when it comes to putting all his promises into action, he will fall short and fail.

Well, sure, he probably won't be able to deliver on everything. But after that Biography episode, after getting a better understanding of the man and his accomplishments to date, there are a few things I believe about Barack Obama:

  • He will prioritize and concentrate on his "grand slam" promises.
  • He will address issues strategically in order, so that a chain of events will fall into place. For example, bandage the economy just enough and bolster infrastructure so that when the wave of recovery begins, he can address energy independence by stimulating innovation, and use the mounting economic momentum to begin addressing the national deficit, or at least pave the road for the next president.
  • His inspirational and consensus-building personality is his most valuable asset. It's not "bark and no bite" as critics claim, but the perfect execution of the Dale Carnegie philosophy. That is to say, How to Win Friends and Influence People. His ability to inspire others is what always has helped him succeed, and will continue to do so.
  • He genuinely cares about people.
  • He's going to do just fine. Do great things, even.

There was honesty and truth in his inauguration speech. He said things I couldn't have imagined a president saying before. Things like...

  • Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.
    ...
    But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions that time has surely passed.

Our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation. Wow. That's Social Security, healthcare, and deficit spending he's talking about. Presidents to date have ignored Social Security reform out of fear of the political repercussions of changing the program. Someone needs to go there and fix what's broken. I hope he will.

  • We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost.

He shouldn't have to restore science to its rightful place -- it never should have been removed from it. But you know, if it hadn't been for George W. Bush, would the nation have been ready for Obama's new way of thinking? It took a frustrated nation hungry for change to pave the way for Obama.

And speaking of fresh ideas and new ways of conducting business, these last three quotes from Obama's inaugural speech are a bold departure from the Reagan-style politics that have dominated for nearly 30 years:

  • The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works...

Some will say this is typical Democratic "big government" and "tax and spend," but the last four words make the difference. The Reagan-style assumption is that government must always smaller, and big government is bad. Do you want better government or bigger government? That's a false choice. The real choice, the question we should always be asking, is "whether it works."

  • Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

A truth can be so obvious that it seems it doesn't need to be said. But in saying it, stating the obvious, a great realization and awakening can occur, a realization that sometimes what is so obvious is so easily forgotten or overlooked. "A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous." Again, I say, "wow."

  • Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use...

Just when it seemed diplomacy was dead, along comes Barack Obama to remind us that while the military has its purpose, not every problem is a nail that can be solved with a hammer. In the age of George W. Bush who would not "negotiate with terrorists," or anyone else he didn't like, for that matter, it's important to remember Republicans like Nixon failed in Vietnam by use of force, but when he used diplomacy, we found out that "only Nixon could go to China," and a diplomatic Reagan helped Gorbachev peacefully end the Soviet Union.

While I never expected my home state to support Barack Obama for president, I was pleasantly relieved that the nation as a whole would. I'm glad I was wrong about the importance of race in national politics. But most of all, as I was reminded by this episode of This American Life, I'm glad we have a president who will listen, as was explained by a member of an Iraq and Afghanistan veterans organization, IAVA, who was shocked when the Obama Transition Team contacted his group for input who they'd like to see appointed to the Veterans Administration, something that made them do a double-take after their dealings with the previous administration.

No matter what happens, this president has a different approach and philosophy. I don't know how many problems he'll manage to solve. But when was the last time we had a president come into office with such a mess to manage? The fact there are so many problems to manage from day 1 suggests many things were not done well before. An administration with a new mindset and a leader who seeks input from all the stakeholders could hardly do worse. I am proud, so very proud, to have a thoughtful president, this breath of fresh air. Not to mention one who speaks in complete sentences without mushing his words.

Yeah, I'm sorry, Mr. Obama, because I know you wouldn't approve of such gloating and mean-spirited pettiness directed at your predecessor, which flies in the face of what you're trying to achieve. I couldn't help myself this one last time.

:: Bryan Travis :: 01/24/2009 @ 15:06 :: [link] ::
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