Why I Love Obama
Martin Luther King, Jr. looked forward to the day when a person would be judged not by the color of his skin but the content of his character. That day has drawn close in the person of Senator Barack Obama. He is not a “black candidate,” but a candidate who happens to be black, and he speaks directly to the issues confronting all Americans, in order to unite Americans in finding solutions. As his ads say, he doesn’t want to be president of liberal or conservative America, but of the United States of America. As an orator, he lifts us up, inspiring us to believe that we can come together and meet any challenge.
If nothing else, Barack Obama’s candidacy signals that we have come a long way in overcoming America’s original sin, slavery, and the Jim Crow and segregationist policies and attitudes that were its toxic legacy. The work of reconciliation is the work of Christ given to the Church, and so Catholics and other Christians cannot help but rejoice that one of the effects of our alienation from God, racism, has been mitigated. Redemption works. And Obama’s candidacy is an anticipation of that “great, getting’ up mornin’” when God’s reign will be finally established.
It’s a commonplace now to speak of Obama’s “soaring rhetoric” or “the microphone loving him,” but I don’t think enough attention has been paid to how really good he is as a speaker. Listening to his victory speeches after Iowa and South Carolina, and even his concession following New Hampshire, the back of my neck tingled and I felt a profound gratitude at being able to live in this nation. My parents felt much the same, they’ve told me, when listening to FDR’s “fireside chats” (even though they were staunch Republicans) and I remember a similar feeling as a teenager when listening to Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Barack has harnessed the cadences of King (and the black church) to produce his rhapsodic riffs on the power of hope, and these are driven by a dynamic connection with the people that’s unmistakably genuine. The latter is what Bobby Kennedy had, by far the best of the Kennedys. Like his brothers, Bobby was obviously, in part, a creature of political calculation, not jumping into the 1968 presidential race, for example, until Eugene McCarthy had exposed Lyndon Johnson’s vulnerability. Unlike his brothers, though, he was a man of personal integrity and genuine compassion. As Attorney General he stood up to the mob that helped elect his brother and answered King’s call for help in the South when President Kennedy was inclined to dither. King’s “I have a dream” speech and Bobby’s assassination still move me and grieve me as little else when film clips of these events are shown on TV.
Skills as an orator and a connection with the people are not mere ornaments; they have real, practical value in governing. The president’s greatest source of power is his “bully pulpit,” as Ronald Reagan proved time and again. The president can often move a fractious congress only by taking an issue to the country and overloading the email servers with responses. In Obama’s debates with Hillary Clinton about whether it’s better to be an inspirational leader or a technocrat, he wins the argument. Whatever shortcomings can be attributed to President Bush they have been due to being loyal-to-a-fault to bad policies rather than misunderstanding how to manipulate the levers of power. (His administration has been a model of discipline, in fact, in comparison to the Clinton chaos.)
Obama wants to speak to the concerns we all share, and when you think about it, the country is pretty well agreed on most of the major issues that need to be addressed. We need to counter Islamic extremism, revive the economy, fix health care, and adopt a reasonable immigration policy. I like it when Obama says that in the national health care debate the pharmaceutical companies will have a seat at the table—they just won’t be able to buy every seat at the table. He goes out of his way to avoid the class warfare of hard-boiled progressives, emphasizing that not much will get done unless everyone’s interests are considered. (In fact, one of the few unconventional and indisputable things Hillary Clinton has said during the campaign is that lobbyists represent the interests of real Americans, too.) I like it when Obama says that he would strike at terrorist camps in what are effectively lawless regions whether other nations agree or not. I like it that his health care plan is voluntary, because the government should use its compulsory powers as little as possible. When the conversation comes up, I wish he would say, though, that his plan is voluntary because the American idea is freedom, not “maximizing choice.” “Maximizing choice” is progressive-speak for allowing the children to choose between vanilla or chocolate, while the grown-ups pretend that pistachio doesn’t exist.
As to what I can gather about Obama’s character from outside observation, he seems genuinely warm, a little nerdy, dignified, thoughtful and with a beguiling reticence—he’s not crazy for power but somewhat astonished, it seems to me, that history has chosen him as a darling. While he was listening to Ted Kennedy’s endorsement, I imagined him thinking: “You know, I might actually win. I could become president.” If he’s the man I think he is, that put a lump in his throat, as it should anyone. Here’s a man who’s capable of admitting that he was watching a football game rather than attending every word of a Republican debate that preceded one by the Democrats, and who will actually tell us, when asked to admit to a failing, that he’s bad with paperwork rather than pretending to moments of weakness in his role as political suffering servant. He’s real. That alone makes him sui generis in 2008.
But here’s why I cannot vote for him. He says he believes that his Christian faith is all about “the least of these my brothers,” extending justice to God’s favorites, the poor. And I agree, brother, Amen. But there’s no reason to fight for the poor, for social justice in education, for policies that support working families and the health of communities, and for those who are terrorized and oppressed internationally if life is not sacred. If life is not sacred, we will end up not serving the poor—having abandoned the defenseless—but destroying the human person. Obama’s Christianity embraces social justice, but a social justice that’s not grounded in the primary value of life—from conception to death—is worthless, and will, in the end, betray itself. The judges Obama would nominate to the Supreme Court will guarantee that result, even if the compartmentalization of Obama’s thinking keeps him from confronting this truth. An Obama presidency would mean a succession of Ginsburgs, Souters, and Stevens.
As my wife said to me, if Obama would just declare himself pro-life, he’d sweep the country. That actually might come to pass, at least in a general election, although he’d never receive the Democratic nomination if he even hinted as much. But to those politicians who truly want to “unite the country,” it’s long past time to recognize that its youngest citizens, the unborn, have rights, too.