In humble attempt at casting this in the tradition of Socrates, a (slightly altered) quote:

"The unexamined vote is not worth casting."

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Rich Experience of an Obama

*This post was written prior to Obama's primary and general election wins.

I left off my last post on how we need to consider the quality of Mrs. Clinton's experience with a question about her opponent: Does Barack have experience enough to do the job? A New York Times piece on the subject, titled “Most Experience or Enough Experience?” discusses this question. It looks at Nixon’s long experience, and the simple fact that his version of the “experience argument,” captured in the image to the left, did not translate to a great presidency (photo credit Hulton Archive/Getty Images). The article goes on to point out that the question is whether Obama has passed the necessary threshold of experience (even if it does not include Hillary’s years in the White House).

In my judgment, he has. His experience includes jobs as: a legislator (for 8 years in the Illinois Senate, 3 and a half in the U.S. Senate—more elected years than Hillary, I would note); a civil rights attorney handling voting rights, employment and housing cases (for 4 years); a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago (for 11 years); and a community organizer in inner-city Chicago (for 3 years). He studied international relations at Columbia University and law at Harvard. As the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, he came in to what was a divided group of individuals and worked with them to build consensus and change the attitude of the group. His commonly-noted background—a Kenyan father and white, Kansas mother—is deeper than is captured in the often-quick mention it gets in the news. In Dreams from my Father, he writes about the internal struggle he lived through as he sought to make sense of the racial dynamics that were apparent in the alternately white and black environments he inhabited (from his time living with his white grandparents, to his time discussing black politics while living in Los Angeles, and so on). Later, after graduating from Columbia, in New York City, he would decide to move to Chicago to be a community organizer. In the book he talks about this experience and how he had to deal with issues such as gang violence, whites’ suspicion of blacks and vice versa, and job losses due to steel plants closings.

During his eight years in the Illinois Senate, Obama was tapped to head up what is described in this helpful article on the subject as "...the most ambitious campaign reform in nearly 25 years, making Illinois one of the best in the nation on campaign finance disclosure." He also worked on the following initiatives, taken directly from his website: “...working with both Democrats and Republicans to help working families get ahead by creating programs like the state Earned Income Tax Credit, which in three years provided over $100 million in tax cuts to families across the state. He also pushed through an expansion of early childhood education, and after a number of inmates on death row were found innocent, Senator Obama worked with law enforcement officials to require the videotaping of interrogations and confessions in all capital cases.”

His character in the state Senate was described in the above article as a time during which he "emerged as a leader while still in his 30s by developing a style former colleagues describe as methodical, inclusive and pragmatic. He cobbled together legislation with Republicans and conservative Democrats, making overtures other progressive politicians might consider distasteful."

His three-and-a-half years as a U.S. Senator have included a wide variety work on legislation, and on important committees (which, for those who are not entirely clear, are the vehicle by which hearings are held, many bills are formed, etc.). In terms of legislation, I don't think the impact of the ethics reform Obama spearheaded can be underestimated--indeed, it is the type of reform that steps back from the question of what the government will do to first ensure that they are operating in a proper fashion. His now-enacted ethics reform law bars members of Congress from accepting gifts, trips, meals, etc. from lobbyists; the law that speaks volumes when one considers the many seats in Congress now vacated by members that accepted such gifts (such as Duke Cunningham, former Congressman from California who is now in jail for accepting bribes from lobbyists). For more on that bill, related ethics reform laws he was the primary sponsor on, and for information on his work on Iraq, immigration, veterans issues, and other areas, see this thorough overview from his website (it's particularly helpful because it openly addresses negative views of Obama's accomplishments from a recent New York Times article).

Obama also reviews a number of his policy proposals in his newest book, The Audacity of Hope. The Washington Post reviewed the book, noting that in it, Obama “articulates a mode of liberalism that sounds both highly pragmatic and deeply moral.” It goes on: “Obama's knack for mixing stirring rhetoric about good and evil with practical policy ideas is rare in the modern history of U.S. politics. At times, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan managed the feat. But none of these men wrote his own presidential speeches. Nor did Kennedy or Reagan really write the books that carry their names.”

In terms of relevant foreign policy experience, Barack's place on the prominent foreign relations committee in the Senate has had him regularly rubbing up against behemoth issues of world affairs. In the last two weeks alone, that committee is holding, or has held, hearings on the following topics (listed here under Feb.'08): “the President’s foreign affairs budget”; the “status of the six party talks for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”; a briefing on Sudan; and “the immediate and underlying causes and consequences of Kenya’s flawed election.” He has also received a lot of attention for his work with Republican Senator Richard Lugar to secure loose nukes in Russia, passing a related bill with Lugar. In that vein, this article from Sept. 2006 highlights the relationship the two built, along Lugar's view of Obama: "Lugar praises Obama's 'strong voice and creativity' and calls him 'my good friend.' In short, the two agree on much and seem to genuinely like each other. Rather unusual in hyper-partisan Washington, these days."

For any who doubt Obama’s capability in foreign policy specifically however, I would encourage you to watch any or all of a variety of in-depth videos available here on the foreign policy section of his website. A good place to start would be with this video of a panel discussing Obama’s foreign policy experience and capability. It includes a number of well-reputed scholars, including Georgetown professor and former National Security Advisor to President Clinton, Dr. Tony Lake. It is the first part of the panel, with the second and third available in the link I noted above (along with numerous other foreign policy-related videos on Obama). All the videos are around 45 minutes to an hour.

Additionally, as I noted above--and as many others have noted to the point of cliché--the experience of many in Congress and the federal government has been varied at best and illegal at worst, undercutting the idea that time in the federal government necessarily equals preparation for high office. A great point was made by the Chicago Tribune in that vein:

“…a certain other lanky, big-eared former Illinois legislator with just two years in Washington was mocked for his lack of experience when he ran for president in 1860, and he turned out to be an OK chief executive. But one doesn't have to see Obama as the reincarnation of Abe Lincoln to realize first that experience—the length of one's resume—is not necessarily a predictor of success in the Oval Office; second, that no experience as a mayor, governor or legislator can really prepare a person to be the leader of the free world; and third, related to the first two, that the ability to inspire, to lead, to listen and to deliberate is a personality trait, not a skill one learns in the political trenches.”

It’s also worth noting that if we were in the year 1992, when Clinton was running for President, Obama would be one year his elder. What say you readers? Let me know if you have any thoughts in opposition (or support), I would love to hear them.

Update: Good 45-minute A&E piece on Obama's biography:

Another from Sunday's 60 Minutes that gives a good sense of Obama:

Update 2:
Having just finished reading through the rest of Dreams from My Father, I wanted to add a few quick comments on it. It is, like he says in the intro he later added, a bit "indulgent" with some of the descriptions and use of words, but since he wrote it over 13 years ago, back in 1995, that's understandable. It's a great story though, and an insightful look at his development as a person. In thinking about him as a potential president, I was surprised to see how comforted I was by his simple ability to walk through a thought process, going from point a to point b--a real commentary on our current Commander and Chief. But, more specifically, the internal, reflective life that he lays out in the book is reassuring, revealing how he weighs his thoughts and choices carefully. Related, it shows how his aim with those choices is to make things more right in the world, and that he feels that can only happen if one approaches life honestly, willing to plod along if need be, and wrestle with decisions and considerations. Otherwise, as I note above, it chronicles the intriguing series of events that he's lived through and been shaped by, as described in more depth in this brief overview of the book on Amazon.

Update 3: At the Democratic National Convention in Aug. 2008, there were a few helpful videos on Obama's story: here, here and here (along with a nice, 10-minute piece here).


Aamir said...

Have you seen this clip of Obama? All the points made aren't wacko but they do seem somewhat controversial, at least from the traditional US perspective.

Perhaps the title of the clip "IN 52 SECS WHY BARACK OBAMA WON'T WIN THE GENERAL ELECTION" is a bit extreme, but I can totally see how the GOP machine can go to town using this!

Anyway, just curious to hear what you think... is "Hope" enough to get the necessary votes in spite of these stances taken on all the issues Obama talks about in this clip?

Brendan said...

Aamir, hey!

Good to hear from you. I don't really have any issues with what he brings up in it though, it all seems pretty fair-minded and at the same time cautious.

I also think that the media has done a hack-job characterizing Obama's campaign as being about some pasty degree of hope, while Obama is careful to delineate what that actually means (as i believe he again hits home in the speech he gave at the Dem convention); he also points out that hope is just another way of saying that he's providing citizens with reason to think there is a lot better way the country can function. It's a time of such a low morale in the US you know? I think it's fair to use vocabulary such as "hope" to draw people out who are literally discouraged by the way the country is.

Thoughts? Does that get at what you were asking?