Thursday, June 2, 2005

Barack Obama at The Aspen Institute

The first time I had heard or seen Barack Obama was on my television. His charisma and articulation at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was refreshing to see from a politician. Then I saw him in person at the Aspen Institute a year later. He did not disappoint.

Barack Obama spoke in Aspen with articulation you’d expect from a man who served as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. His eloquence and intelligence proved greater than the high expectations I had before the dialogue with Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson on Saturday evening.

Isaacson began the discussion by asking, “How does a skinny black guy with a funny name, born in Hawaii, mother from Kansas and father from Kenya, become the senator from Illinois?”

Obama told of his improbable rise, how his father left when he was 2 and how he only saw him once, at age 10. How his mother portrayed Barack’s father in “mythical terms” and it wasn’t until Barack reached college that he realized her idealistic portrayal of his father had shaped his thinking of how he viewed himself. “The starting premise for me that my mother instilled in me, and my father inadvertently instilled, was that everybody was the same.” He went on to elaborate that his understanding of the human condition evolved from growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia.

“One of the wonderful things about America is that we come from these different ports and these different places and there is this sense that we can create ourselves, that our destiny is determined by us,” he said. After graduating from Columbia and Harvard Law, Obama created his own destiny, moving to Chicago in 1985 and working with church-based groups trying to improve living conditions in poor neighborhoods. “I moved there, not knowing a soul in Illinois and it turned out to be the greatest education I ever received,” said Obama. “The most important thing it taught me was that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they are given the opportunity in order to get them.”

Although listening to him you gained the impression that he might run for president or a higher office in the future, he said the Democrat Party needs to stop thinking about the future elections and decide on what’s the best way to help the American people. “I don’t care how you spin things … if you haven’t done the hard intellectual work and have something say, you’re not going to win elections.” He did say when asked that he believes Hillary Clinton is currently the most likely candidate to win the Democrat’s nominee for president in 2008.

He said the three biggest concerns the Democrat Party should have are:

1) The global economy
2) Foreign policy
3) Faith and family values

“Democrats have to talk about faith, family and community in a way that weighs diversity in politics rather than excludes diversity in politics without feeling the importance to necessarily drop a quote from the bible in their speech. There’s got to be a certain authenticity when we talk about values.”

Another big issue Obama addressed involved the media. In one anecdote, he told how two guys were arguing and finally one guy gave up and said, “Well, I’m entitled to my own opinion.” The other guy said, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” Obama said that the problem with mainstream media today is that it presents two opposing opinions, but then rarely clarifies the facts of the issue based on thorough research.

There were very poignant and funny moments during Obama’s dialogue with Isaacson that drew applause and laughter from what appeared to be a liberal white crowd. For instance, when asked about a justice replacing Sandra Day O’Connor and a possible Democrat filibuster, Obama said, “Well, I told my Democratic colleagues that there’s one way to prevent a president we don’t like, and that’s to win elections.” He went on to say, “My biggest hope is that the White House steps back and recognizes that they are representing the entire country.”

Here are some more Obama quotes on certain topics discussed:

Education: “Most importantly, No Child Left Behind did not speak to what I think is a critical issue in education, that is how do we encourage our best and brightest to continue teaching, and how do we substantially upgrade the pay and performance of the teaching profession.”

Decision for Iraq War: “When I was running, in the fall of 2002 … I said this is a bad idea. It certainly wasn’t because I didn’t think Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. I specifically said in a speech in Chicago, it was about six months before the war, I said, I’m not on the federal intelligence committee, but I don’t see any serious weapons of mass destruction. I don’t see Saddam connected to Al Qaida. This is going to cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives… and I think I’ve been pretty restrained in not saying, I told you so….”

Bush Administration: “This administration has been extraordinarily ineffective in its public polls. Some of that has to do with its policies... but some of it has to do with tone. In the same way that tone matters in the United States senate, tone matters in people’s day-to-day interaction with family…. Tone matters in international conflicts. And if our basic tone is one in which we are happy to lend help in other countries as long as they do exactly as their told, then eventually it will hurt us over the long scale....”

Tax Cuts: “You didn’t need those tax cuts and you weren’t even asking for them.”

Ways to Decrease the Deficit: “If we don’t get a hold of our healthcare costs over the private and government sector, I do not think we can solve our structural deficit problem.”

President Bush’s Persona and Beliefs: “I think when we get in trouble is when we lose … the element of doubt. There is a wonderful saying in scripture that if you can see what it is that your hoping for, it’s not hope. And part of the discrepancy by President Bush’s dialogue is he is so certain, so absolute in his views that he can’t admit that which he cannot see. He can’t admit the possibility that the other person has perspective that not only should be valued but may give him perspective on the topic. And so part of what I’m interested in is trying to reintroduce a sense of humility on what we talk about.”

Closing Remark by Obama, Quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Afterward the lady sitting next to me seemed as impressed as I did listening to Obama. I told her I’m sure he’ll move up from his current position as a senator in Illinois. She said if politicians like him don’t move to higher positions “we’re doomed.” I couldn’t agree more.