Much has been said about the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama and his campaign themes of change and hope. To say that his message is resonating with voters around the country would not be an understatement. He has been compared to a rock star. He has been compared to Bobby Kennedy. He even got Oprah to stump for him. Clearly Barack Obama has star power unusual for politicians. Clearly Barack Obama is an energizing speaker. But there is something else going on here with this man and his candidacy, something that doesn’t happen but once in a great while. What exactly is it? Is it real? Or is it just smoke and mirrors, a clever ploy to gain election yet devoid of substance and ultimately unattainable? To answer this question is to determine whether Barack Obama should become the next president of the United States of America. For me, this is the only question about Barack Obama that matters.

For the record, I’m an “independent voter,” meaning I have no official registered political affiliation. (I must be one of those folks that the pundits like to deride- just not partisan enough for their liking it seems.) My regular readers know that I lean liberal-progressive on social issues, moderately conservative on fiscal matters, and try to take a rational approach to foreign affairs. I vote mostly Democrat, but have voted for Republicans more than once. More often than not, the choice of candidates given leaves me holding my nose with one hand while marking the ballot with the other. I am weary of the stink that is American politics, but am even more loathe to succumb to apathy as so many across this land have. Yet it is apathy that Barack Obama and his candidacy seem to be taking on headfirst. So while the pundits and political foes take turns telling us why Obama shouldn’t be America’s next president, I want to move beyond the “professional king makers” and their opinions and really try to understand the dynamics that have led this little known former state legislator to seek the highest office in the land. Even more, to decide for myself whether his message of hope and change can become reality under his leadership or if his is just a well polished message, taking advantage of the disappointment in American government to get one man elected who will ultimately be like so many before him- full of promise and short on delivery.


The real gamble in this election is playing the same Washington game with the
same Washington players and expecting a different result. And that’s a risk we
can’t take. Not this year. Not when the stakes are this high. – Barack
Obama, Des Moines, IA- 12/27/07

No man (or woman for that matter) is one-dimensional. By this I mean, that certain qualities can be possessed by multiple individuals, but when combined with other attributes, these qualities create either positive or negative outcomes. For instance, political inexperience is frequently thrown onto the list of Obama negatives. But how negative is it really? After all, being a “Washington outsider” was considered a plus for George W. Bush, remember? Clearly, labels can be both objective and subjective. Objectively here because both men have had a relatively short political career before heading towards the Big Chair®. But subjectively because what the Republicans once saw as a positive they now seek to portray as a negative in another. Obama’s Democratic opponents portray his lack of political experience in a slightly different way, but with a similar result. In their case, other candidates do have longer government careers on the resume, and more varied experience at that. But when one takes into account the totality of Obama’s message of hope and change, it is just this kind of entrenched experience that perpetuates the problems with government. As they paint him to be a novice, he paints them all as jaded sell-outs.

For my money, I already know what the status-quo politicos have to offer, no matter what color lipstick they put on the pig. Obama’s political inexperience doesn’t bother me much. He has the kinds of life experiences that build empathy, tolerance, and realistic understanding of the plights of average folks that our current presidential novice never had or will have. Were Obama more Bush-like with regards to his background, I’d never have given him another look. As it is, the lack of political experience is about the only trait they share. In Bush’s case, lack of political experience coupled with arrogance and disinterest to create a maelstrom of mayhem around the world and across this country. In Obama’s case the lack of political experience may be the will that could break the chains of bondage that our democracy has been bound with, reminding Americans that this country is ours to guide into the future, not just for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren and their future generations.


(But) this is about more than George Bush. He’s just the beginning of the change
that we need. These problems didn’t start when he came to office and they won’t
end just because he’s leaving. We’re not going to reclaim that dream unless we
put an end to the politics of polarization and division that is holding this
country back; unless we stand up to the corporate lobbyists that have stood in
the way of progress; unless we have leadership that doesn’t just tell people
what they want to hear – but tells everyone what they need to know. That’s the
change we need.- Barack
Obama, Bettendorf, IA- 11/7/07

Hope and Change. Not all that original when it comes to campaign slogans. Every politician says they’ll make a change. They all offer hope in one form or another. What does Obama mean when he talks about hope and change. Surely he knows that one man can’t change the whole course of a country by himself. Even Bush couldn’t have so drastically changed American politics and world standing without a compliant Congress and battered public. Obama isn’t an idiot, so either his message is just typical political rhetoric or it isn’t. But how to tell the difference? Again, this is the crux of the matter.

But wait a minute…Obama isn’t telling us that HE is going to do all the changing, but that WE need to work together to change. He is saying that we need to put down our petty partisanship to solve the things that need to be solved now, today, things that can’t afford to be ignored any longer. He is telling us that we need to change our outlook from one of fear to one of action. He is reminding us that American’s have more in common that not, more shared goals than not, and a larger sense of justice than most. Obama isn’t offering us change in a Magic Eight Ball, he’s telling us that change comes from within. He knows it won’t happen overnight, but he also knows that until the halls of Congress are filled with a new breed of American politician- a generation of leaders empowered by necessity, forced to make tough decisions to benefit the many over the few, left to clean up the mess of their elders- that change is just a word. At this moment in time, Obama is a mere cheerleader for change, and he must know it. But if elected to the office of president, he could be a bullhorn for change, forcing politicians to adapt or depart. This still sounds like rhetoric, but it’s a far cry more hopeful than most rhetoric I hear. And in this case, if the electorate elected like-minded members to Congress, the rhetoric could transform into reality. This is the message- change is possible. He wants to lead it. But we have to want it.

But his message, while popular, doesn’t strike me as populist in nature. While exciting and inspiring, telling Americans they need to be the ones to change politics (of all thi
ngs) isn’t exactly a crowd pleaser. Americans are lazy, apathetical, and ignorant of their government. In a country where more people are incensed by seeing Janet Jackson’s nipple than they are by a senseless war, asking folks to find and elect people who will really turn America around isn’t likely to make you popular. At least not when they realize you really want them to get involved. Obama is a great speaker, and may indeed get more people involved in politics, but for most folks, they need to see results before jumping on board. In this aspect, there certainly seems to be an aura of naïveté about the message.

So there is rhetoric. And there is naïveté. But there is also the promise of something else, something that if realized would turn naïve into common sense. Something that if achieved would turn rhetoric into reality. I guess the answer is “all of the above.” But no other candidate in either party holds the kind of promise, the kind of vision that Obama professes to have. No other candidate is as far from the entrapments of political entrenchment as Obama is, and thus none can truly wish to dismantle that which gives them such power. No other candidate has been able to generate such a cross section of excitement. And no other candidate has had their loyalty to America called into question in the way he has and been able to maintain the dignity to ignore it.

Barack Obama isn’t a saint. He isn’t a hero. He isn’t the next best thing since sliced bread. But he does seem to be something unique in American politics, something we don’t get to see all that often- a candidate that has bright visions for America and the ability to energize the public to act.

Could Obama really bridge the partisan divide? Consider this: Two of America’s greatest presidents were related. One was a Republican and the other was a Democrat. The Republican fought for environmental protection and against big corporations. The Democrat fought against world tyranny and economic depression. Funny how things turn, isn’t it. Americans aren’t really that far apart on most things they want and value, just in how they get or keep them. As you can see, history shows the parties themselves flip-flopping more than once.

Hope and change. Just words? Or words with meaning? I think that in this case, the messages of hope and change represent what could be as well as what will be, if only enough of us remember what kind of government we have. One that is of the people, by the people, and for the people.

(cross posted at Bring It On!)