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Ever since he thundered into our collective consciousness with an electrifying speech before the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama has breathed new life into American politics. He has revived the hope of millions that their elected leaders would dare to dream outside the rigid categories and earthbound aspirations that hold too many politicians captive. Though his written word sings and his spoken word soars on the wings of renewed faith in the democratic process–and how we need such renewal in an ugly age of despotic indifference to freedom’s true creed–Obama’s eyes are fixed on what we can make together of our national future.
For a clue to what makes Obama stick and tick, one need look no further than his training in the trenches of community organizing. As Ronald Reagan practiced what Vice President George Bush would call “voodoo economics”–supply-side theories wrapped in tax cuts for the wealthy–Obama exited the Ivy League corridors of Columbia University in 1983 and, after a brief and unsatisfying stint on Wall Street, headed straight for the ‘hood. On the South Side of Chicago, he worked with a church-based group that sought to speak to poverty by understanding the language of its painful expression in crime and high unemployment. Obama rolled up his sleeves–something he was used to in satisfying his basketball jones on the courts of many a concrete jungle–and applied elbow grease and hard thinking to the persistent ills and unjust plight of the poor. Such practical training in relieving the burdens of the beleaguered will stand him in good stead as leader of the free world–as the poignant memory of the most afflicted replays in his mind.
Young Obama soon learned the limits of local remedies, however, and imagined how law and politics might help him positively change the lives of the vulnerable at the national level. While Reagan spread skepticism about government as a political mantra, Obama’s hopeful–but far from naïve–belief in the political process sent him to Harvard Law School in the late ’80s, with a round-trip ticket back to Chicago, where he served as an Illinois State Senator for eight years before entering the US Senate in 2004.
If Obama’s community organizing and work in the Illinois Senate–especially his bipartisan efforts to earn families across the state more than $100 million in tax cuts, his advocacy of legislation in support of early childhood education and his opposition to racial profiling–offer a glimpse into his political pedigree, so does his stay in the US Senate. Obama has fought for disability pay for veterans, worked to boost the nonproliferation of deadly weapons and advocated the use of alternative fuels to cure our national addiction to oil. He has spoken out against the vicious indifference of the Bush Administration to the poor–and to political competence–in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and he has rallied against genocide in Darfur. Long before it was popular, he stood against the war in Iraq as a futile gesture of American empire that would do little to beat back the threat of terror. Sadly, he has been proved prophetic.
If Obama’s credentials for the highest office in the land have been gained in the give-and-take of community organizing and power politics, his belief in the American people–a reflection, in part, of the profound belief they have invested in him–derives from his molding in the crucible of various cultures, colors and communities. Obama’s multiracial roots and multicultural experiences are not a liability; instead, they offer him an edge in the national effort to overcome the poisonous divisions that plague the American soul. His fascinating mix of race and culture shows up in lively fashion–including his love for the upper reaches of Abraham Lincoln’s emancipating political vision, as well as his compassion for the black boys and girls stuck on the lowest rung of the ladder of upward mobility. That he is aware of race without being its prisoner–that he is rooted in, but not restricted by, his blackness–challenges orthodoxies and playbooks on all sides of the racial divide and debate. But it also makes him curiously effective in the necessary pledge to overcome our racial malaise by working to deny it the upper hand in restoring our national kinship.
Barack Obama has come closer than any figure in recent history to obeying a direct call of the people to the brutal and bloody fields of political mission. His visionary response to that call gives great hope that he can galvanize our nation with the payoff of his political rhetoric: a substantive embrace of true democracy fed by justice–one that balances liberty with responsibility. It is ultimately the hard political lessons he has learned, and the edifying wisdom he has earned–and is willing to share–that make Obama an authentic American. He is our best hope to tie together the fraying strands of our political will into a powerful and productive vision of national destiny.
Other Essays in This Series
John Nichols for Joseph Biden
Ellen Chesler for Hillary Clinton
Katherine S. Newman for John Edwards
Bruce Shapiro for Christopher Dodd
Richard Kim for Mike Gravel
Gore Vidal for Dennis Kucinich
Rocky Anderson for Bill Richardson