The Next Great President

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

On November 6, 2008, we will elect the 44th president of the United States.  Of the forty-three men who have previously led this nation, I count ten who could legitimately be considered “Great” presidents (try and guess).  What I think makes them Great is that their leadership profoundly changed the nation, giving us a better understanding of who we are, of what we believe, and of what we are capable.

It seems our culture often feels a distance and separation from history, forgetting that fifty years from now our grandchildren will likely revere the great leaders of today, just as we revere those of past generations.  When we compare this year’s candidates to Ronald Reagan, or John Kennedy, or Teddy Roosevelt, many quickly dismiss the idea that, yes, perhaps someday down the line history will speak of our next leader in the same breath as some of the greatest leaders of our past.

On November 6 we will make history.  Not simply because we will have the opportunity to vote for either a woman or an African American for president, but at least as importantly, because we may be voting for the next Franklin Roosevelt or John F Kennedy.

I think it is long past time that our country elected its next Great president. Someone like JFK, who can inspire us to see beyond ourselves, and unite us to tackle obstacles that once appeared insurmountable.  Someone like Teddy Roosevelt, with the strength and determination to clean up a system so broken that it threatens to destroy our democracy as we know it.  Or like Abe Lincoln, moved to act by what he clearly sees are the lingering injustices that persist in our society. 

After the last eight years, America desperately needs its next Great president.  And fortunately, we will have the opportunity to vote for him.  We can not afford to waste this opportunity in history. 

I will be voting for Barack Obama.

Some say that it’s an insult to compare Barack to our greatest presidents.  After all, FDR rescued the free world from Fascism.  Lincoln’s bravery and strength of character sustained the Union in the face of the greatest test it has ever faced.  Kennedy’s resolve and quiet determination saved the world from a potential nuclear Armageddon.  Critics ask, what experience in Obama’s past makes him ready to deal with situations like these?

This is the wrong question to ask.  Rather than judging candidates simply by what may be deemed equivalent work experience (of which there is none), we should instead judge them by the qualities and character that they have demonstrated over a lifetime.  After all, it was Lincoln’s unique character, not his previous experiences, which guided his course as president.  The same for JFK and FDR.  Our greatest presidents are revered for their own personal strengths and how these qualities helped guide and strengthen the nation.

To be sure, Hillary Clinton has some truly impressive qualities.  I believe that on the issues, she possesses an unparalleled depth and breadth of knowledge.  Furthermore, her ability to lucidly explain and communicate complex policy issues to voters has given me pause on more than one occasion.  Perhaps even more impressive is her strict and unwavering work ethic.  You can be sure that if elected president, she would work tirelessly for the causes in which she believes, just as she has done for the last eight years in the Senate. 

However, knowing your stuff and getting stuff done are two very different things – and for a President, the importance of the latter outweighs that of the former (though the former is obviously important as well).   Though Hillary has proven beyond a doubt that she is extremely well-versed on the issues, she has not shown the qualities necessary to successfully implement her ideas.  As head of the Task Force on National Health Care Reform in her husband’s administration, the then-First Lady squandered the public’s good-will and eagerness for reform by holding secret, closed-door sessions of the Task Force (can you say “Cheney Energy Task Force”?).  The closed-door nature of the process in which the Task Force produced its recommendations alienated not only the Insurance Industry and the conservatives in Congress, but it also failed to unite Democrats behind the proposal, even leading some to write and introduce their own competing legislation, eventually killing any chance at healthcare reform.  In sum, Hillary’s poor management failed to build any type of workable coalition that could have ensured passage for what would have been very positive legislation. 

On its own, this is not a reason to disqualify her candidacy.  If she had learned the proper lessons from the episode, so as not to repeat the same mistakes, and if the public simply forgave and forgot what happened, then I would be reluctant to bring up the issue of HillaryCare.  However, I don’t believe this is the case at all. 

HillaryCare has crystalized Senator Clinton’s image in the minds of many Americans as an ivory-tower liberal – out of touch, if not overtly hostile to the values of the average American.  With unfavorability ratings around 50% (and climbing as she continues her attacks on Sen. Obama), what chance does Hillary have to build the requisite national consensus to enact the comprehensive reforms that our country desperately needs?  Hillary could have the smartest plans in the world (though I don’t think she necessarily does), but if she is already distrusted by half of the country, her presidency would just be four more years of bitter, partisan fighting and little progress.  For me, that would be an unbearable disaster, especially when we have a golden opportunity to accomplish so much.

Barack Obama knows his stuff, and unlike Hillary Clinton he has proven a proven track record of getting things done, from major ethics reform in both the Illinois and US Senate, to passage of a potentially divisive police interrogation law in Illinois, to a major expansion of health care coverage in his home state. As Steven Thomma from McClatchy News says in about Obama’s time in the Illinois  Senate in an article from March 27, 2008, “Obama’s record in the Illinois Senate […] shows that he often was able to bring together opposing forces in one room, emerge with agreement and enact legislation”. 

Though he may not be as well-versed as Hillary on some issues, he is unquestionably an intellectual powerhouse, and I believe that his fresh perspective to politics leads him to embrace original, insightful solutions in problem areas such as nuclear weapons proliferation and US-Islamic relations.  Furthermore, through his writings, his speeches, and his personal comportment day in and day out, Barack has proven himself to be a bold, new type of politician, challenging the conventional wisdom and the powers-that-be in his own party on issues such as the role of faith in politics, and challenging the American people to engage intellectually on issues such as race-relations by speaking to them in language that is honest, insightful, and remarkably thought-provoking.   This is how you gain credibility and, eventually, trust – by not shying away from tough issues, but by clearly stating your beliefs, eloquently and respectfully.  By treating your opponents with respect, even when they choose to head down the road of political desperation.  As anybody who’s ever been a relationship knows, once trust is acquired, many things become easier.  Motives are no longer questioned; debate turns into discussion, which breeds into solutions.  

It is no surprise to me that Independents and even some Republicans are ready to vote for Barack.  I am convinced that our country is ready to transcend the left-right divide.  The American people would gladly trade a politician who says they agree with them on every issue for a leader who they can trust to speak to them with respect and honesty.

That is what Barack Obama is doing.  And the American people have already taken notice.  The Senator’s speech on Race in America was not only heralded by the pundits and elite, but polling taken after the speech shows a visible and stable increase in Barack’s support versus Hillary Clinton among Democrats.  Given the ugly videos of Rev. Wright that were shown non-stop on TV the week before his speech, I believe the increase in Senator Obama’s poll numbers proves that people are tired of the “Got-Ya” politics that brought the Swift-boating of John Kerry and the Impeachment of Bill Clinton.  They yearn for a politics that informs and inspires, which is exactly what Barack Obama offers.

And the inspiration is real.  It is in his life’s story, in the story of so many Americans who have overcome great obstacles to accomplish great things, and as the Senator often says, it is in the story of America itself.  He rightly recognizes that, with each new generation, our country is constantly bettering itself.  We strive to be more innovative, more tolerant, more compassionate, and more equal.  In short, we strive to bring the reality of today’s America in line with the idea dreamed up by our Founding Fathers over 200 years ago.

Senator Obama sees in the power of the presidency the opportunity to move the country more swiftly toward that reality, though he understands the great obstacles that stand in the way: an economic policy that squeezes the middle class and widens the gap between rich and poor, a foreign policy that misrepresents America’s true ideals and breeds resentment across the globe, and a society that cares too little about community and civic responsibility and too much about personal gratification.

Like Reagan, FDR, and Lincoln before him, Barack Obama possesses the character and the qualities that will earn him the trust of the nation.  Only with that trust can a President confidently lead our nation through times of great change; without it, the American people will never agree to much-needed reform.  And only with that trust can a President persuade us to demand more from ourselves and from our politics. 

Barack Obama holds the potential to transform the way America sees itself as a nation.  I believe that Barack Obama will be our next Great president.


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