Where Would Obama Take the Nation?
Among the recent flood of celebrity endorsements, one that has received little attention came in a Washington Post op-ed by President Dwight Eisenhower's granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, explaining why she's backing Barack Obama.
Her principal argument was that she believed Obama could help this generation of Americans pull together to address worsening problems and "leave America a better, stronger place than the one it found," like her grandfather's generation did.
But Susan Eisenhower also recalled her grandfather's great insight, the warning in his farewell address about the danger looming from the "military-industrial complex" and the potential that democracy might become the "insolvent phantom of tomorrow." [Washington Post, Feb. 2, 2008]
When combined with the endorsements of President John F. Kennedy's daughter Caroline and his surviving brother Edward Kennedy, this Eisenhower support suggests that heirs to leaders from that earlier era see something in Obama that gives them hope that he can get the United States back on track with an earlier vision of America.
In Obama's rhetoric, there are echoes of both Eisenhower's cautionary advice and Kennedy's famous speech at American University on June 10, 1963, when the President spoke about "the most important topic on earth: world peace."
Kennedy continued: "What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave.
"I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women -- not merely peace in our time but peace for all time."
While recognizing the daunting challenges then presented by the Soviet Union, Kennedy went on to say: "So, let us not be blind to our differences. But let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. ...
"For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."
Ending a War Mindset
Of the five remaining major candidates for President, only Obama seems to offer that kind of direction for resolving disputes through negotiations, not ultimatums.
In the Jan. 31 debate in Los Angeles, he not only criticized Hillary Clinton's vote authorizing George W. Bush to invade Iraq but he disputed the critique now prevalent in opinion circles of Washington, that the war was a good idea, just poorly executed.
"I don't want to just end the war (in Iraq), but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place," Obama said.
The Illinois senator apparently was referring to his readiness to hold discussions with U.S. enemies without preconditions, a position that Clinton has called naÃƒÂ¯ve and a sign of his inexperience.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, the leading contenders -- John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee -- are competing over how enthusiastically to embrace Bush's Iraq War and how lavishly to finance the Pentagon and its many military contractors.
The Republicans are advocating locking in military spending at four percent of the gross domestic product or higher, essentially guaranteeing that Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex" will remain a well-financed fixture in American politics.
The four-percent-or-higher sum is roughly the amount that President Bush is recommending for the next fiscal year, which when expressed in dollars and adjusted for inflation is the highest military spending since World War II. [NYT, Feb. 4, 2008]
Obama is the only major candidate left in the race who sounds like he would even contemplate changing this dynamic, by negotiating with enemies and looking for ways to avoid the bellicosity of the Bush years.
Obama also may have the most sophisticated understanding of the U.S. Constitution and how the Founders structured this complex system of checks and balances to protect individual liberties and to compel reasoned debate.
A Harvard-educated lawyer who has lectured on the Constitution, Obama devoted a chapter in his memoir The Audacity of Hope to a discussion of how constitutional principles apply to today's political challenges.
In the chapter, Obama doesn't do what many politicians do, cite the Constitution to support some favored position. He views the Constitution instead as an ingenious device that compels debate and compromise, while protecting individual liberties.
"The answer I settle on -- which is by no means original to me -- requires a shift in metaphors, one that sees our democracy not as a house to be built, but as a conversation to be had," Obama writes.
"The genius of Madison's design is not that it provides us a fixed blueprint for action, the way a draftsman plots a building's construction. It provides us with a framework and with rules, but fidelity to these rules will not guarantee a just society or assure agreement on what's right. It won't tell us whether abortion is good or bad, a decision for a woman to make or a decision for a legislature. Nor will it tell us whether school prayer is better than no prayer at all.
"What the framework of our Constitution can do is organize the way by which we argue about our future. All of its elaborate machinery -- its separation of powers and checks and balances and federalist principles and Bill of Rights -- are designed to force us into a conversation, a 'deliberative democracy' in which all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas against an external reality, persuading others of their point of view, and building shifting alliances of consent.
"Because power in our government is so diffuse, the process of making law in America compels us to entertain the possibility that we are not always right and to sometimes change our minds; it challenges us to examine our motives and our interests constantly, and suggests that both our individual and collective judgments are at once legitimate and highly fallible."
Obama continues: "The historical record supports such a view. After all, if there was one impulse shared by all the Founders, it was a rejection of all forms of absolute authority, whether the king, the theocrat, the general, the oligarch, the dictator, the majority, or anyone else who claims to make choices for us. ...
"It's not just absolute power that the Founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or 'ism,' any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad.
"The Founders may have trusted in God, but true to the Enlightenment spirit, they also trusted in the minds and senses that God had given them. They were suspicious of abstractions and liked asking questions, which is why at every turn in our early history, theory yielded to fact and necessity."
While some Democrats mock Obama for the naivety of his "Kubayah" goal of bringing sides together, his thinking is infused by this view of the Constitution.
Obama acknowledges that his constitutional analysis seems "to champion compromise, modesty, and muddling through; to justify logrolling, deal-making, self-interest, pork barrels, paralysis, and inefficiency -- all the sausage-making that no one wants to see and that editorialists throughout our history have often labeled as corrupt.
"And yet I think we make a mistake in assuming that democratic deliberation requires abandonment of our highest ideals, or of a commitment to the common good. ... For most of our history it has encouraged the very process of information gathering, analysis, and argument that allows us to make better, if not perfect, choices, not only about the means to our ends but also about the ends themselves. ...
"In sum, the Constitution envisions a road map by which we marry passion to reason, the ideal of individual freedom to the demands of community. And the amazing thing is that it's worked."
If Obama wins the Democratic nomination and manages to gain the White House, the American people would be getting a President with a subtle grasp of the nation's founding document.
That would be in stark contrast to Bush, who claims, in effect, that the 9/11 attacks gave him unlimited powers to suspend the Constitution and its concept of inalienable rights for the duration of the open-ended "war on terror." [For details, see our book, Neck Deep.]
It is less clear how the other candidates feel about Bush's expansive presidential powers. The Constitution has not become a significant issue in the dozens of debates -- although the Republican contenders have generally endorsed Bush's actions and his choices for Supreme Court justices and the Democrats have been more critical.
Another issue that mostly has remained outside the frame of the presidential debate is the question of releasing historical records from both the Cold War and the more recent era of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, from the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979 to the Iraq War.
Reliable information about this history would be crucial both for fulfilling the Eisenhower-Kennedy vision of reducing the power of the war-makers and for understanding the secret relationships that developed between America's political-business elites and the countries of the Middle East.
When taking office in 1993 -- as the first President elected after the end of the Cold War -- Bill Clinton had a unique opportunity to create "a truth and reconciliation commission" to give the American people this history. But he viewed the potential battles over the past as a distraction from fights he planned over his domestic agenda for the future.
Upon succeeding Clinton in January 2001, George W. Bush derailed laws that would have required the swift release of historical records, including those from the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
After 9/11, Bush expanded those secrecy provisions, essentially giving to former Presidents, Vice Presidents and their descendents permanent control over historical records relating to foreign policy and similar sensitive issues.
In other words, at some future date, Jenna Bush might have control over 20 years of American history, from her grandfather's 12 years in office and her father's eight.
On this front, it's unclear what Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would do if one of them becomes President. From the record of her husband -- and her own tendency toward secrecy -- it might be expected that Sen. Clinton would be less likely to open up government files than Obama would be.
But one of the questions that someone might put to Sen. Obama during the campaign is whether his eloquent statements about how the Founders asked questions and valued facts would extend to appointing a truth commission for the United States.