Tag Archives: Barack Obama

A New Era of Hope

President Obama

President Obama

I’m still pinching myself every time I hear a news anchor refer to President Obama, or when I see a picture of the president with a caption that describes him as such. In some ways I feel as if I woke up in a dream. I watched history be made last Tuesday along with millions of others. Then as Barack and Michelle Obama made their way along the post-inauguration parade route, it seemed so surreal. Yet I am filled with hope for this country’s future despite the overwhelming nature of problems the U.S. (and the world) faces. But to be optimistic is the only wise course at this time. If there is a chance that we all get through these next few years or decades, we have to be optimistic that true change will come. I just hope it all translates into reality.

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Mocking Community Organizing Is Telling

The most consistent theme of last week’s Republican National Convention seemed to be Anti-Community Organizing. Speaker after speaker belittled Sen. Barack Obama’s community organizing experience — as if it wasn’t experience at all. This, however, was actually quite telling. It seems the apparently out-of-touch GOP does not understand what community organizing is. And, that is quite ironic. For, as Peter Dreier and John Atlas argue in their excellent piece in The Nation magazine:

At a convention whose theme was “service,” GOP leaders ridiculed organizing, a vital kind of public service that involves leadership, tough decisions, and taking responsibility for the well-being of people often ignored by government.

What Republicans do not seem to understand is that community organizing is what ordinary people do to try to make their community a better place in which to live. It is all about empowering people to become leaders themselves when politicians have failed them.

Craig Newmark, the founder of the web-site Craigslist (his own contribution to community organizing), said the attacks on community organizing seemed to reflect something bigger:

I’m personally more than a little disappointed by the attacks on grassroots democracy we heard at the Republican convention. As you see, it’s basically an attack on American values and democracy, and that’s not right.

So, could it be that when GOP Vice Presidential Candidate Gov. Sarah Palin dissed community organizing, she wasn’t putting “Country First,” but rather “Politics First”?

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It’s All About Narrative

So in my attempt to “understand” the American electorate and how we make decisions about who to vote for in political campaigns, I came across this article by Dr. Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Dr. Westen is the author of the book, The Political Brain: How We Make Up Our Minds Without Using Our Heads. In his article, “Why Voters Say they Don’t Really Know Barack Obama (and Why They Don’t Really Know Much about John McCain, Either)” Dr. Westen explains that while we think that political campaigns (well, at least presidential campaigns) turn on substantive debate about the issues, they are rather all about the narratives you weave about yourself and your opponent. He argues that a winning campaign focuses on four stories:

the story you tell about yourself, the story your opponent is telling about himself, the story your opponent is telling about you, and the story you are telling about your opponent. Candidates who offer compelling stories in all four quadrants of this “message grid” win, and those who leave any of them to chance generally lose.

I am personally intrigued by this idea due to my own focus on and fascination with media/communications, news, and how people get their information. Dr. Westen goes on:

Regardless of how detailed your policy positions, that isn’t enough. It isn’t memorable. It doesn’t capture the imagination of a brain wired over the long years of our species’ evolution for a particular kind of narrative structure, when the only way to pass knowledge and values down across generations prior to the rise of literacy–and when our children have not yet learned to read–was through stories.

Right now, John McCain is doing a better job than Barack Obama in telling these four stories in a compelling way. I believe Westen’s article is a must read for the Obama campaign and his supporters at this point in the summer campaign. I also think that if Obama can weave together “the four stories” in this current political climate, he will have a very high chance of winning in a landslide this November.

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Just One Additional Poll Question

A Rasmussen poll from yesterday finds that 53% of voters (including half of Democrats and 2/3 majority of Republicans) think Barack Obama’s “dollar bill” comment was racist, while 38% disagree. (In the same poll, only 22% of voters think that the McCain commercial with Obama and Brittney Spears/Paris Hilton was racist, while 63% say is was not.) Watch Obama making his “dollar bill” comment and judge for yourself, but keep the following in mind:

  1. This is something Obama has talked about consistently for the last year. He has been saying that “they” (any of his opponents) will be trying to make voters afraid of him — “and did I mention he’s black?” — at a fundraiser in Florida in mid-June. Not a word from the McCain campaign then. So timing (not even a full week after Obama arrived back from week on the world stage, on which he seemed to excel) is something to keep in mind here. Maybe something of a, “Quick, change the subject” type move.
  2. Obama never said that the McCain campaign (nor the candidate himself) was racist. He never used the word “racist” or the word “McCain” in the “dollar bill” comment.
  3. Excelscior1, blogging at DailyKos, says that perhaps Obama’s comment was in direct response to a McCain web ad where Obama’s face is placed on the $100 bill, as the voiceover asks, “what will he change next?” It is possible that he was indirectly referring to this web-ad (I believe the ad first ran in late June, but have not verified that yet).

Most importantly, in my opinion, the Rasmussen poll should have included one more question that directly addresses the substance — which I’ve been saying is sorely lacking from the discussion on all of this — of Obama’s “dollar bill” comment: “Is it racist that every one of the 43 presidents of the United States has been a white male?” I think the results of that question would add some context to Rasmussen’s poll numbers. Now, it is an incontrovertible fact that there have been 43 white male U.S. presidents (i.e. all of them). This is also obvious, and I think Obama’s “dollar bill” comment basically alluded to this fact. So I’m going to have to assume, based on common sense, that the Rasmussen poll results from above and from my additional question would correlate with one another. Regardless, the results, I think, would say something about Americans’ understanding of what is “racist” and what is not, as well as well as how we generally understand racism.

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When Race is Forced Front and Center

It’s the first week of August, and instead of talking about the enormous challenges (and crises) this country faces, the McCain campaign and its surrogates have driven the “Double-Talk Express” and the debate into the mud. The last week has been almost entirely about Barack Obama and his character. The constant chatter and shouting matches on cable news have been about race, Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton. Excellent political analysis of the last week can be found in this John Heilemann article.

So all this got me thinking: is this really where we’re at in this country? Why do we settle for such garbage? The McCain campaign is hitting every possible negative angle through, as Heilemann notes, “distortion, innuendo, and outright slander.” In one word, deliberate lies. The caricature of Barack Obama is, as we speak, being painted and hustled out to the American public in an extremely calculated fashion.

I think that Bob Herbert hit the nail right on the head today by discussing what I was writing about in my last post. Some choice excerpts from Herbert’s column:

You knew something was up back in March when, in his first ad of the general campaign, Mr. McCain had himself touted as “the American president Americans have been waiting for.”

There was nothing subtle about that attempt to position Senator Obama as the Other, a candidate who might technically be American but who remained in some sense foreign, not sufficiently patriotic and certainly not one of us — the “us” being the genuine red-white-and-blue Americans who the ad was aimed at.

and

Nevertheless, it’s frustrating to watch John McCain calling out Barack Obama on race. Senator Obama has spoken more honestly and thoughtfully about race than any other politician in many years. Senator McCain is the head of a party that has viciously exploited race for political gain for decades.

This week, what many earlier this year were worried would happen if Obama became the Democratic nominee, i.e. a presidential campaign with race being forced front and center, happened. Why? Because Republicans know that if the campaign is about Obama and his race (cleverly disguised in code language like “other” and “American”), they have their only real shot at winning the election.

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“Playing the Race Card”

I’m sure I’m not the only one who is annoyed by the phrase, “playing the race card.” Today, the McCain campaign is accusing Barack Obama of using — what conventional wisdom calls — one of the most vile cards in the politics deck.

The idea of playing the race card is just a silly catch-all phrase that is designed to elicit some sort of negative response about the cardholder. Really, what does playing the race card mean? First of all, race is something that will be in this campaign no matter what. There have been 43 white male presidents in U.S. history. Here we have the first black major-party candidate with a real shot of becoming president, do you think that white males will just sit back and let that happen without reminding voters, “uh, excuse me, but he’s black.”

Of course not. There is too much history here. The unfinished business of slavery and its legacy continues to this very day because it was never dealt with fully, and Americans like to pretend that “we have moved beyond that.” So, until we actually deal with our history, race will be a part of the conversation.

Second, what journalists should be doing — instead of hyperventilating over who is “playing the race card” — is having real discussion about the content, or substance, of what is being called “playing the race card.” Most importantly, journalists should ask, who is actually benefiting from the focus of race in the campaign?

In this case, it’s the McCain campaign that will benefit. Their narrative so far about Obama (and amplified by the series of viral smear emails going around) has been all about Obama not being American enough, not patriotic enough, not putting his country first (see McCain’s new tagline), being the quintessential “other” (read: too black, or a Muslim which he is not — not that either of these should preclude one from becoming president).

And one last thing: the notion that the Obama campaign is playing the race card is just ridiculous. Why? Because, when you look at Obama, he is clearly black, or at least not white (though he is half, yet identifies as black; but more on identity/race/perception in the U.S. at some other time). So in a way, I guess Obama is a “walking race card.” Please. Look at history. It does not benefit him to be black when running for the presidency, and even if it did, he would maybe only be on equal ground with a white male at that point.

Late Update: I just want to re-emphasize the new McCain tagline, “COUNTRY FIRST” (refer to why a few paragraphs above), because there is a big kick-off (and free) “Country First” Concert tonight 8/1/08 in Panama City, Florida. This, combined with the negative ads this week, combined with the viral smear emails, is clearly the new unified message strategy. Everyone, repeat after me. The new tagline says it all. Check the screenshot below of the campaign website with the tagline blazed across the top.

"Obama is not quite American enough"

"Country First" -- read: "Obama is not quite American enough"

Later Update: The “Country First” Concert with John McCain last night only draws several hundred people, which is only a fraction of what country music star John Rich normally gets at his concerts — usually in the thousands — and remember, this concert was free.

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On the Definition of “Success”

Due to Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama’s trip to Iraq early this past week, there’s been a lot of seeming consensus in the news media again around the idea that the so-called “surge” has succeeded. The campaign of Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain has been aggressively pushing this narrative mostly because it’s virtually the only thing McCain is running on now (i.e. saying he was right about the surge). However, early in the week the New York Times rejected McCain’s op-ed piece (which was a rebuttal to Obama’s op-ed piece a week earlier) on the grounds that it offered no new information (in terms of overall strategy with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan) and that it did not define “victory” (read: success) in Iraq.

Let’s have a look at the definition of “success”:

success: (noun) the accomplishment of an aim or purpose

While on his whirlwind international tour this week, Obama was interviewed by CBS News anchor Katie Couric. She asked him three different times, within a few minutes, some variation of the McCain Campaign talking point: “Why don’t you admit that the surge has succeeded?” Obama said there was no doubt that the work U.S. troops did was one of the things that had helped to reduce violence (see below for more info on what the other things were). Obama has consistently said the aim or purpose of the Bush surge strategy was to reduce violence enough to enable significant political progress between different Iraqi factions and interests; and to bring an end to the de facto civil war which had engulfed the nation in sectarian violence.

So has this aim or purpose been met? If adding tens of thousands of additional troops wasn’t the only thing that contributed to a reduction in violence, what were the other things? Can we actually, in all honesty, say that the surge has succeeded? Was the only goal of the surge to reduce violence? And if so, now what?

Independent journalist Dahr Jamail was interviewed on Democracy Now! back in January right after President Bush touted the surge as a success in his SOTU address. Jamail emphasized that we understand the surge (or more appropriately termed, escalation) in the context of a then almost five-year war.

JAMAIL: Well, the surge—and what’s very interesting, too, is not only do we have a US surge, according to Mr. Bush, we have an Iraqi surge—two Iraqi surges, actually, the first of which he mentioned in his talk last night, the concerned citizens or the awakening groups. Well, it’s really interesting that the same time last year, as Mr. Bush was happily doing during his speech, comparing where were we last year to this year, well, last year, these same people, these concerned local citizens, according to the US military, were called al-Qaeda or insurgents or terrorists. And now that there’s 80,000 of them on the US payroll, they’re concerned citizens and they’re an Iraqi surge. And these same people, as we look at the situation on the ground, this is causing deep, deep—a deepening of the political divisions in the country. The US-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been vehemently opposed to this concerned citizens group backed by the US military in Iraq, these people, most of which are former resistance fighters, because they’re now a threat to the Iraqi government forces. So that’s causing huge problems on the ground in Iraq today. And if we look at the situation, the military recently announced within the last month that there was a sevenfold increase in the use of air power last year. So these are some of the reasons why right now there are fewer US troops dying, but the reality is they’re paying off resistance fighters to stand down. And Muqtada al-Sadr, who commands the largest militia in the country, has his militia on stand-down until next month, where that stand-down might end and things would change dramatically.

The current debate between the presidential candidates about who was right about the surge (and moderated by the news media) would, I think, like Jamail, be better understood in terms of the broader context of the Iraq War as a whole. Not to mention framing it using clear defintions of words like “success.” You would think that the news media that did so poorly in covering the rush to war in 2002-03 would try a little harder to get this part of the story right. Or maybe not.

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