Smile Politely

Obama Doesn’t Flinch

As much as I try to dampen my enthusiasm during this election, I’ve somehow let myself become a super-partisan. I guess it’s because I’ve complained about weasely Democrats not standing up for their values over the last 8 years, and Obama’s rhetoric has provided a much needed catharsis for this, despite his occasional disappointments (see wiretapping vote).

But ironically, my expectations for his presidency are not actually that high. I fully expect him to be corrupted by power by the end and to leave office in shame, because that’s what happens to them all. The thing is, he seems to know this, which just makes me a bigger fan. Michelle Obama once said something to effect that they decided to run now because they will never again be this close to the middle class, and will start to lose perspective once they gain more power, like everyone else does. I thought that was astonishingly self-aware. By starting out less corrupted than everyone else, I’m hoping they can hold on longer to their values. I’m not expecting him to be Frodo, but I’m hoping he’s at least Faramir or Aragorn, to McCain’s Boromir or Gollum.

But something changed in my impression of Obama during his debate against McCain last night. And it all has to do with a short answer about Colombia.

My church has a sister church in Colombia, and last spring I went down there to engage is some fuzzy “relationship building” and also to learn about Colombia’s social and political context. Despite the vagueness of it all, it was a great trip. In addition to meeting some fascinating people there, my trip was enhanced by Colombian soldiers killing some Farq leader while I was there, which caused Venezuela to almost invade. We developed our relationships, learned a lot, avoided a ground war, and took some great pictures, which was all fine and dandy. However, I came home with a self-imposed mission. I learned all sorts of reasons to oppose the Colombian free trade agreement (which most common people there are against and most of the fat cats are for), and I decided my job was to advocate against it.

So, I wrote a letter to local congressman Tim Johnson about the free trade agreement last spring when it was up for a vote. Last month, a Colombian peace worker came through C-U, and we even went to Tim Johnson’s office to talk to him about it. Tim is a big free-enterprise guy, so our presence in his office was unlikely to make much difference in his vote, but we did our duty in telling his staff why it would be wrong to support it, and they listened respectfully.

Cut back to the debate last night. I was almost falling asleep towards the end because they had stopped sniping at each other about the other one being a terrorist or a segregationist. Then I heard McCain say something about Colombia and the free trade agreement. I tivoed back a little, and sure enough he was ranting about what a terrible person Obama was because he didn’t support the Colombian free trade agreement. I started sputtering and my wife looked at me a little strangely (more so than usual). In response to her, I had planned on explaining why McCain was wrong, but it had been a long day, my brain was full of debate flotsam, and I could not for the life of me remember why the free trade agreement was bad anymore. I was clicking on the link to more info in my brain, but all I was getting was a spinning icon and bandwidth problems.

So, McCain goes on and on, claiming Obama doesn’t know anything because he hasn’t been there. He finally shuts up, and Obama jumps in and says:

Let me respond. Actually, I understand it pretty well. The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have not been prosecutions.

And what I have said, because the free trade—the trade agreement itself does have labor and environmental protections, but we have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn’t being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights, which is why, for example, I supported the Peruvian Free Trade Agreement which was a well-structured agreement.

In a span of 15 seconds, Obama told me not only that he understands an issue that has been near and dear to my heart for the last six months, but that he can articulate it faster and more clearly than I can to my own wife sitting next to me in my own house. Oh yea, Obama is also in front of millions of people, dealing with dozens of issues simultaneously, sitting next to a hostile old man who keeps telling him he’s naïve and stupid. Plus, he’s never even been to Colombia.

And he did it all night with a bunch of different topics. He’s been doing it for all three debates and for the last 20 months campaigning. McCain will shake his cane at Obama about how he’s too young to understand something, and Obama will coolly explain that he knows all about whatever it is McCain is lecturing him about, how he doesn’t care how much McCain yells at him, that he will not get off McCain’s lawn and he’s not afraid of McCain’s friends who are coming over to settle this the Chicago way.

I’m sure we all have daydream fantasies of having power and control over the world (not to satisfy all our craven desires of course, but to make it a place of peace and harmony for all, I’m sure). In a few throwaway lines, Barack Obama demonstrated to me that I am no more worthy of such a daydream than Sarah Palin or Joe the Plumber. There’s a reason he is where he is. He’s smart, cool under pressure, not intimidated by all the dumb name-calling, able to hold a tremendous amount of information in his head, bring up relevant bits when it’s helpful and generally wants to make the world better a place.

So, in the end, my impression of him is no longer one of bemused fandom. I don’t think I truly appreciated how talented he really is until tonight. So, I expect more now. I still suspect he will be corrupted in the end, but I hope it’s in some small inconsequential way. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and we are going to need his A game for our once-in-a-lifetime social problems just over the horizon.

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