Barack Obama heads into Super Tuesday with a bunch of new, serious endorsements, a ton of money, and enough charisma to keep all those JFK comparisons coming four years after his Democratic Convention keynote speech. He has managed to energize Americans from all walks of life, built an army of eager young campaign workers, and his inaguration speech is virtually guaranteed to include at least one moment that rivals Kennedy’s 1960 “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” And he still has another 9 months to inspire unity among the Democrats in a way that hasn’t existed in my lifetime. Why is that not enough to secure my endorsement?
I can’t fully support Obama because I can’t manage to forget one part of my freshman history class: for all the rose colored memories and inspring speeches, JFK wasn’t a very good president. The most apt comparison that causes me worry is JFK’s handling of Vietnam and his handling of relations with the USSR. The assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem? Bay of Pigs? Cuban Missile Crisis? The Kennedy administration was not exactly filled with high points. What does this have to do with Obama? Barack Obama has been in the Senate for 3 years, and his political experience before that consisted of local and state politics. He has served on a national level, and has had exposure to the intricacies of international relations, for a small fraction of the time that Kennedy had.
The damage wreaked by the war in Iraq cannot easily be reversed. Tensions with Iran and North Korea and the unrest in Pakistan cannot be defused through eloquent speeches alone. Hard choices are going to have to be made, unpopular choices, choices that damage idealism and probably hurt people. Can somone so renowned for his ability to appeal to a wide audience really be expected to alienate those who believe in him? This is a man who said he wasn’t going to run for President in 2008. Many of the best approaches to the problems America faces today are decisions that lead to a one term tenure in the White House. If keeping the White House for 8 years is the goal, where is the urgency to sacrifice the allure of legacy for the reality of change? I’m wary of the prominent place that that word has in Obama’s campaign. How much will really change?
I’m not sure about Hillary Clinton either. She has stonewalled the release of documents that would illuminate an important part of her political history, she is well known to be funded by large corporations and industries that I despise, and she is far too militaristic. My (already significant) reservations on the issues only get greater when I think of how polarizing she is and the unifying effect a Clinton nomination would have on the Republican party. Even so, I know how she’ll screw me over is she is elected. Comparisons to her husband are apt. She would most likely continue to liberalize trade in ways that cause Americans to lose jobs. She would probably couch her health care plan in language that obscures the real cost to middle-class and poor Americans. She won’t reverse the tax cuts.
Neither candidate has articulated serious, well-thought-out plans for the economy, withdrawl from Iraq, or health care. What good do comparisons to Presidents past do if neither of them will tell us what kind of president they will be? At the moment they allow us to fill in the gaps left by their silence on questions of substance. The only candidate who actually spoke in those terms was Edwards, and he was done in by his inability to call up memories of times better. That’s what is so screwy about politics these days. Actually admitting what kind of leader you want to be makes it too easy for people to knock you down for not being inspiring enough.
I don’t really want to be inspired anymore. I just want progress. Real progress. 2008 marks my ten year anniversary of political involvement, and for the first time in my life I’m undecided. I don’t want the next JFK or the next Bill Clinton. I want someone who is willing to ignore the siren call of historical significance and actually fix things. Both Obama and Clinton fail that test for me. Where do I go from here?