A different kind of politics

Barack Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois, filed the papers necessary to form a presidential exploratory committee last week. This is the first official step in a process expected to culminate in Obama’s throwing his hat in the ring, announcing his candidacy for president, Feb. 10 in Springfield.

Personal ambition aside, you’ve got to wonder what would make a rational-seeming person like Obama want to apply for that job. On the day he declared his intentions, a trans-Atlantic group of scientists led by renowned physicist Stephen Hawking declared that the so-called “Doomsday Clock” has ticked two minutes closer to midnight — from 11:53 to 11:55.

And there’s a war in Iraq that’ll have to be dealt with, the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us, our dependence on fossil fuels — the to-do list goes on and on.

Obama had something to say about this: “It’s not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most. It’s the smallness of our politics.”

It would be easy to dismiss this statement as glib, except that it’s true. Americans have bought into the notion that government can’t do anything right for such a long time that our politics have been reduced from sincere debate about problem-solving to name-calling. And so we’ve been hammered with messages to the effect that public institutions are self-serving, that people are not citizens but customers and that anything government can do big business can do better. Rather than talking about what our shared goals and priorities should be, we’ve boiled our politics down to a race to see who can cut taxes the most.

The result of our shrinking politics is an America where, for the first time, children are coming of age expecting a poorer standard of living than their parents experienced.

It’s no wonder that Obama seems to stir many younger voters. They are inheriting a society shaped by a Baby Boom generation that has largely squandered the civic trust fund left by their Depression-era parents. When pundits and politicos question Obama’s experience, his supporters are undeterred. From their point of view, it’s Obama’s understanding of public process, born of his experiences growing up bi-racial and working as a community organizer, that really counts, not to mention his X factor in what has become a culture driven by celebrity — the charisma necessary to lead. As far as these people are concerned, another term or two in the U.S. Senate won’t make Obama more seasoned, but more compromised.

Something’s happening here — and while those who doubt that this is Obama’s time may be correct for any number of reasons, from his racial identity to his ideas, it seems certain that time will come, if not for Obama, then for someone like him.

Obama’s call for “a different kind of politics” rhymes with other developments that were making the news last week. Union and corporate leaders joined hands in common cause to lobby on behalf of finding a solution to our health care crisis. As if that wasn’t enough, the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 45,000 churches across the country, allied themselves with scientists to call for urgent action on global warming.

These developments suggest the terms that have shaped our politics for the past quarter of a century or more are beginning to give way. For too long, we have divided the world into heroes and victims, liberals and conservatives, bosses and workers, people of faith and nonbelievers. These polarities have their bases in truth, but they are also clichés — stereotypes that block creative thinking. The forming of new alliances to speak out on issues like health care and global warming should, at the very least, begin to forge a new vocabulary for how we talk about these things, which, in turn, should help us find new ways to think.

Dire times have brought us to this point. The magnitude of our problems may not daunt Barack Obama, but they’re more than enough for the rest of us. Obama, though, is right to suggest that these ills are, to a great extent, self-inflicted. We can make a lot of what ails us better through our own works and deeds. That’s what I think he means by a different kind of politics. Barack Obama may disqualify himself from being president for any number of reasons in the next year or so, but his relative youth and seeming lack of traditional political experience will not be the reasons why. Lincoln, as Obama’s Springfield speech will underscore, was a political newcomer, too.


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