Dear Friends and Family –
I am writing to share my thoughts on the Democratic Primary (the Republican Primary seems pretty sealed up!) I hope that you find something of value in my thoughts, and in the thoughts of others who have written to me and who I quote below.
In Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democratic Party offers two intelligent and capable candidates. I have looked closely at their policies, and with several exceptions, they offer remarkably similar proposals. With similar positions, much has been made of experience, and of Hillary’s supposed advantage. However, as a friend observed: “Any president will be surrounded by old hands and experienced politicos. If lack of credentials is coupled with poor judgment, inability to work with others, lack of intuitive intelligence, etc. then it’s a problem. But I don’t see any evidence that Obama lacks these things; in fact, he appears to excel in this area.”
To these words I would only add that Obama has unique and valuable experience of his own.Professionally, he served as Editor of the Harvard Law Review, organized communities in Chicago, practiced as a civil rights attorney, served as an Illinois legislator and finally, as a US Senator. These are all great resume pieces. Still, I believe that the seemingly less-relevant life experiences are valuable as well. Many of our fundamental outlooks and frames of references develop during the years that Obama lived in Indonesia, that he struggled to find a place as a half-black Kenyan and half-white Kansan first at Harvard’s Law School, and then again in Chicago’s South Side. He has lived with the uncertainty of identity, and is attuned to these issues without being constrained by them.
It is perhaps this experience that allows him to connect to individuals from so many walks of life. As a friend who volunteered for him recounts: “In Nevada and South Carolina I saw people come together from every age, walk of life, race, religion, and party affiliation – all thrilled and united by this candidate. In a stadium at the University of South Carolina , I cheered with hundreds of people from all backgrounds and thought – what other event in history has united this type of group for a common cause? I drove with Democrats, Independents, and even Republicans from Texas , California , Pennsylvania , and South Carolina , to knock on doors and talk about the new leadership inspired by Obama.”
It is this same experience, as well as physical appearance, that may allow him to connect with individuals beyond our borders too. As Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic Monthly writes: “Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America . In one simple image, America ‘s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii , who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.”
Thus, in this primary, neither issue positions nor experience confer a material advantage in my mind. Rather, it is rival conceptions of the role of President, of politics and of possibility that swings my vote. As a friend shares: “Obama offers a centering voice around which disenchanted Americans can rally to overcome nearly three decades of vicious partisanship, to reenergize the nobler aspirations of American democracy, and to restore faith in government and civic life….Clinton’s diagnosis, consistent with her conception of the kind of Presidency she wants to offer to the American people, is that what most needs to be corrected are the errors, distortions, manipulations, and inadequacies of a failed Presidency. Obama’s diagnosis is more fundamental. The current Bush administration is the painfully unpleasant fruition of an era of American politics that has discarded civic virtue and responsibility, and has mastered the art of manipulating our fears and differences to divide us, to control us, and, most damagingly, to enfeeble us. Obama inspires us to see beyond what is most immediately obvious in order to understand the greater task we face and to trust our capacity to meet the challenges of that hard work.”
I support Obama because truthfully, no one person can “fix” our country. No politician, no President alone can realize all the policies we need enacted. Rather, fundamental change will happen when we elect a President who inspires *us* to make these changes. We as individuals, as families, as religious, ethnic, professional and larger communities decide how we treat our veterans coming home, what we ask of our schools and demand of our elected officials, and how much we are willing to contribute to the greater good.
Barack Obama believes in our ability to contribute to the greater good. As he remarked after his loss in New Hampshire: “For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.” (For those inspired by music, check out his message here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjXyqcx-mYY)
I am tired of being told by the media, by friends, by myself, of how flawed we are as a country and as Americans. True as it may be, a focus on our shortcomings is worth only so much. I want a new focus. For the next four years, I want my television to broadcast not fear, but the vision of a President who trusts that I am a part of a country and a world that is profoundly flawed but fundamentally good. That it is ok to believe in my fellow human beings and our potential to make things better – never perfect, but better. That I may carry myself with both pride and humility as an American traveling abroad. That I can reject the labels of “Republican” or “Democrat” and the associated demonization of the other side.
And during this nomination, I do not want to play to labels of “first black man” or “first woman.” This is not to say that such identify is irrelevant. Both the Democratic candidates have undoubtedly experienced the cruelty of low expectations, of misguided assumptions, of undue skepticism, of outright bigotry. As a white woman and biracial man, both have been told what is and is not possible, for themselves and by extension for others. However, more important than choosing either candidate based on identity is choosing the candidate who has demonstrated the most integrity and courage in responding to its challenges.
They have responded differently. Hillary chooses to confront her tormentors by pushing back with a tenacity bordering on vengeance – as she has argues lately, she has been attacked by the Republican Machine for years and knows how to fight back. So now, her world view is that of opposition, of a need to hold on, to not give up all that she has worked so hard to accomplish. It is a view that lends itself to suspicion, aggression and conflict – partisan conflict and conflict more generally. It is not the mindset that I want my next President to hold.
Obama seems to have chosen another path. He does not talk about fighting his critics nor obsess about those who oppose him. He does not seem to harbor grudges and distrust as Hillary does. Rather, he evokes a confidence borne of overcoming personal challenge.
He is not naïve to hope, he is courageous to do so. It is easier to hate your enemies than to love them. It is easier to hold grudges than to let them go. It is easier to believe the worst of others than to see their failings time and time again and maintain a deep faith in their fundamental goodness. Obama chooses the harder path.
His campaign of unity and hope and faith in a better America works because he believes that his message will resonate. He has placed his faith in us, and in return asks that we hold faith not only in him but also in our individual abilities to rise above partisanship and above voting for a person because of race or gender. He is asking a lot of us, because choosing a new, bold way is frightening.
Obama is giving us a gift – the chance to hope and to begin to make change. Let’s seize this opportunity.
All my best,
Jesse Last grew up in Massachusetts, attended Pomona College in California, and lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As a Truman Scholar, he is passionate about public service and interested in energy, sustainability and finance.