The first rule in physics may very well be the first rule in politics as well: an object in motion tends to stay in motion.
Today, we are a country on a clear course. We are a country at war, with thousands dead, and no exit strategy. We are a country addicted to foreign oil, trapped in habits of pollution, reluctant to imagine our own solutions. We are a country divided over the direction of our own culture, quick to condemn our fellow citizens, unaccustomed to seeking out common ground. We are a country of significant gaps in income, achievement, and opportunity. We are a country of damaged reputation, which has squandered international goodwill, and antagonized new enemies. We are a country that disrespects our fellow man, whether they are stranded on their own rooftops surrounded by floodwaters, or shipped in secret to illegal prisons abroad and held without charge or trial. We are a country adrift from its foundational values, detached from its own political process, concerned instead with comfort and leisure above all else. We are a country that has forsaken the health of its own national character.
Things being what they are, our judgment as a nation is in question. In the absence of a change of direction, we are likely to continue further in this direction. It is time to assess where we find ourselves, how we have gotten here, and where we want to go. What’s more, it is time to assess what political force is strong enough to effectively alter our currently disastrous course. It is time for America to make a decision.
Right now, there are many forces in motion in American politics, each seeking to influence the trajectory of our national direction. And while these forces range from policies to personalities, we find that three forces present Americans with the most considerable implications and consequences. The first of these forces is George W. Bush, whose leadership and influence remains a fact of life. His relevance, for now, is indisputable. The second is Hillary Clinton, whose candidacy has placed her as the clear frontrunner in the race for her party’s nomination and shrouded her campaign in an aura of inevitability. Given her strong standing, it is necessary to imagine and scrutinize what her leadership stands to mean to our national direction. And the third force in motion is the candidacy of Barack Obama, who has yet to pull significantly ahead in the race, even while his message has resonated with hundreds of thousands of Americans who have donated and attended his rallies in ever-increasing and unrivaled numbers over the past eight months.
With each of these forces, there are things we know, and things we can reasonably presume. We know the mistakes and the abuses of George Bush. It is easy to imagine what his political influence still stands to mean for the occupation of Iraq, the ballooning national debt, and any further sidestepping of congressional oversight and the Constitution. In other words, the self-proclaimed Decider remains perfectly positioned to continue in the direction of abysmal leadership to dire ends. Much remains to be done in the next 16 months of his administration. It is in light of this reality that we must more closely assess the other two political forces at play, for what they each stand to inherit and contribute.
We have come to know a great deal about Hillary Clinton. We know that she is smart. We know she is driven. We know she practices a very personal spirituality, which has grounded her in forgiveness. We know her supporters are convinced of her goodness as a person and promise as a politician. We know she has won over a skeptical New York, who has embraced her and reelected her by a significant margin. We know she is running a smart and effective campaign.
We also know she voted to authorize George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2002. We know she chose not to read the complete National Intelligence Estimate prior to casting her vote. We know Clinton publicly and inaccurately accused Saddam Hussein of giving “aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members.” We know that prior to the war, Clinton also voted against the failed Levin amendment to require that George Bush prioritize diplomacy first by seeking a U.N. resolution to wage war in Iraq, and to return to Congress for approval if his efforts failed. We know she argued to stay the course in Iraq in 2003. We know she argued against the withdrawal of troops in 2005. We know she did not begin to position herself differently on this issue until public sentiment swayed in late 2005 with the criticism of Representative John Murtha. We know that just last week, she voted to recognize the Iranian National Guard as a terror organization, laying the groundwork for military action against Iran and further empowering George Bush to extend the war in the Middle East. We know she has consistently shown poor judgment on the most important issue of our time. We know she has failed to take responsibility for that error. We know that she has not learned the lesson of her mistake in 2002.
All that said, there is one more thing we know about Hillary Clinton: you love her, or you hate her. Nationally, she polls quite negatively. In every Gallup poll since June 1 of this year, at least 46% of those polled indicated they had an unfavorable impression of Hillary Clinton. That number has remained generally the same across Gallup polling from the last decade. We know how she stirs the Republican base to attack and how, whether provoked or not, she antagonizes “vast, right-wing conspiracies” against her and her husband Bill Clinton. We have every reason to imagine that the partisan divide of the 1990s that prompted Whitewater and propelled personalities like Rush Limbaugh would return in full force with a renewed, galvanized sense of purpose. Joe Biden put it well in last week’s MSNBC debate when he said that “a lot of the old stuff” from Bill Clinton’s presidency would come back with a Hillary Clinton presidency. This includes Bill Clinton, himself. Now is the time to ask questions about how Bill Clinton’s international status and influence as a private citizen via his foundation and Global Initiative might blur the line with official American policy should he serve as America’s first gentleman.
All these points leave us to ask several questions, in fact. Does Hillary Clinton have the judgment to be President? Has her record shown that she understands the issues we face as a nation? Can she unite all Americans under a common vision and calling? Can she counter her unfavorable impression on half of the country’s citizens? Does it make sense that Clinton is the inevitable candidate for her party’s nomination? Can she in fact win the presidency in a general election? Will Clinton advance the health of our national character? Will another Clinton be the answer to another Bush? Can she truly offer America a new direction?
To all of these questions, the answer is assuredly: no.
This leads us to consider the political force of Barack Obama. One thing we know about Obama is that we are still getting to know him. Since he announced his bid for the presidency last February, Gallup has consistently shown that 8 – 16 % of those polled have never heard of Obama. We also know that as people learn about him, they come to a favorable opinion of him. Since last February, Obama has usually polled at or above 50%. It is perhaps not difficult to hold Obama in a favorable light after learning more about him.
We know Obama moved to the south side of Chicago as a recent college graduate and worked as a community organizer in a neighborhood rife with crime and poverty. We know he decided then and there that the problems of Chicago’s south side were systemic and could only be addressed by rewriting the policies that allowed them to exist at all. We know Obama earned a law degree from Harvard and became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. We know he returned to Chicago to start a civil rights law practice and teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago. We know he was encouraged by others to run for state senate in Illinois, where he served for eight years. We know he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004 on a record of achievement in Illinois.
We know Democrats work with Barack Obama. We know Republicans work with Barack Obama. We know he brought them together in Illinois to create the state Earned Income Tax Credit, which provided $100 million in tax cuts to families over three years. We know he worked with Illinois law enforcement to require the videotaping of confessions after several death row inmates were found to be innocent. We know he worked to expand early childhood education. We know Obama partnered with Democrat Russ Feingold in the Senate to pass an ethics reform bill, aimed at restoring the conduct of both political parties.
We know Obama has already changed the way politics and campaigning is done in America. We know he refuses to accept donations from lobbyists or political actions committees (PACs.) We know he has shattered fundraising efforts at the grassroots level time and again, having most recently earned 501,000 donations from 351,000 contributors over the past three financial quarters. We know he attracted record-breaking crowds across the country: 20,000 in Austin, Texas; 10,000 in Oakland, California; 20,000 in Atlanta, Georgia; 24,000 in New York City. We know he has attracted this support by campaigning on the politics of hope. We know his message awakens Americans.
And perhaps most importantly in this coming election, we know Obama can make hard decisions and make them well. We know Obama opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2002. We know he was courageous enough to state his position publicly and decent enough to stand by his position when it was considered unpopular at best and un-American at worst. We know Obama believes in telling America what it needs to hear when it doesn’t want to hear it.
Right now, the fact is, America needs to hear something difficult. Right now America needs to hear that our reputation abroad is tarnished. Right now the purpose and the relevance of America are both in question among some. The idea of America is in doubt throughout the world as they wonder if America’s moment has passed. They wonder this in the Middle East where we have abandoned the peace process. They wonder this in Darfur where genocide is annihilating life everyday. They wonder this in Kenya where an entire generation of orphans lies in the wake of HIV/AIDS. They even wonder this at home, where the ninth ward of New Orleans remains in ruins and the city of Jena, Louisiana exposes the subtle prejudices that corrupt our legal system more than a generation after the Civil Rights Movement. Where has America gone? Why is America so absent? Where is America’s leadership?
People ask this because America has simply forgotten how to be America. We have forgotten how to be brothers and sisters. We have forgotten to use reason over rhetoric. We have forgotten that rights of man are what bind us together and what legitimizes our way of life – here and around the world.
This is a matter of nothing less than our national character. Who do we believe we are? Who do we chose to be in this world? We must remember and restore our national character in fundamental and bold ways. Thomas Paine said shortly after the birth of America “let but a nation conceive rightly of its character, and it will be chastely just in protecting it. None ever began with a fairer than America, and none can be under a greater obligation to preserve it.” He also said, “A good opinion of ourselves is exceedingly necessary in private life, but absolutely necessary in public life, and of the utmost importance in supporting national character.” America, Paine wrote, has it in her choice to do, and to live, as happily as she pleases. The world, he said, is in her hands.
We need to hear these things. It is vital to our nation’s future. The only candidate speaking to us is Barack Obama. The only candidate being honest with us is Barack Obama. The only candidate offering us a next step is Barack Obama. The only candidate telling us it is time once again to have a leader of the free world is Barack Obama. He has said, “This election offers us the chance to turn the page and open a new chapter in American leadership. The disappointment that so many around the world feel toward America right now is only a testament to the high expectations they hold for us. We must meet those expectations again, not because being respected is an end in itself, but because the security of America and the wider world demands it. This will require a new spirit – not of bluster and bombast, but of quiet confidence and sober intelligence, a spirit of care and renewed competence. It will also require a new leader. And as a candidate for President of the United States, I am asking you to entrust me with that responsibility.”
Inevitably, America will march forward. Inevitably, America will elect a new leader in 2008. Inevitably, the threats of today will become the conflicts of tomorrow. Inevitably, the errors of the Bush years will become the responsibility of our next President. And inevitably, the direction of our nation will be defined by that same leader. Inevitably, in this election we are making a decision about our national character.
What remains to be determined is what we as Americans will decide to value in that process. Will we support or reject the cycle of Bush and Clinton leadership? Will we seek out new understandings of our own citizenship? Will we engage in the renewal of our country’s purpose and processes? Will we choose to change the course of our nation in ways that are fundamental and bold? Will we acknowledge where we have failed so that we might design a new course that will lead to greater success? Will we admit that the political age we have just lived through is not working and decide to turn the page on that chapter in our history? Will we change the course we are on in America and seek out a new direction? Will we decide that there is a better way? Will we recognize soon enough and clearly enough that such a better way is already galvanizing, already forming, and already becoming its own force in American politics? Will we let that force of hope, reason, and unity transform us and redirect us as a nation? Where will out current course inevitably lead us? And what must we inevitably do to alter it?
An object in motion, after all, tends to stay in motion. It takes a great force to stop it.
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