West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 15 | September 12 - 18, 2007

Talking Point

Why Barack Obama makes sense to me, a lot of sense

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

“It’s not that ordinary people have forgotten how to dream. It’s just that their leaders have forgotten how.”

Barack Obama — November 2006

To me, politics has always been personal. I’m not talking about running for office (which gets very personal). I’m talking about choices about issues, choices involving candidates and choices about how involved to get or not get. Perhaps it grows out of being a teenager in the 1960s and having my perspective on politics shaped by the war in Vietnam, nuclear tests, the civil rights movement, the murder of Martin Luther King, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the excesses of Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy; and the desire on the part of so many from my generation to want to turn the world upside down and rid it of war, racism, poverty and the power of material greed. Having kids didn’t change that for me; it made change more imperative, because I was bringing life into a world which was full of problems.

What was great about politics in the 1960s and early 1970s was that it was about hope. Hope usually overcame anger, and hope usually triumphed over sadness. The antiwar movement had its nihilistic movements, but for the most part, the movement was about a world without war, in the words of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” In the electoral arena, first Eugene McCarthy came to embody that hope, and then, even more so, Bobby Kennedy. The McCarthy and Kennedy candidacies for president were powerful because they were framed as part of a movement. They drew from that movement and built it. They inspired broader numbers to get involved in that movement and to look at the electoral arena as part of the battlefield for social change. Within the Democratic Party their troops became agents of change and reform, of efforts to wrest control of the party from the party bosses and give it to the rank and file.

It is amazing, in many ways, how little progress we have made in 40 years. We are more aware of the issues and problems and debate them more intellectually. Racism is almost as pervasive, but far more subtle. (Imus’s comments wouldn’t have been noticed 40 years ago, much less punished.) Women have moved further up the professional ladder, but still largely hit an economic glass ceiling in every other respect. We are fighting a war in Iraq which makes no sense politically, and which drains national resources that could be put to far more useful purposes. Our president believes that his lies are O.K. and that he and his staff are above the law. And the Democratic Party has new bosses, all of whom call themselves reformers.

One reason that things did not change is that the movement of the 1960s did not march on. Some remnants, like the feminist movement, did, and we have seen flashes of movement around Iraq. But politics has become dominated by never-ending electoral campaigns and the money in these campaigns, as campaign strategists have all learned how to “go to the grassroots.” But their message is all about the candidates and not about building a movement for social change that goes beyond a candidate.

But something different is quietly happening this year. Barack Obama, a man who graduated from Columbia and decided to go back to Chicago to organize poor people around issues, is running for president. He has approached his campaign as an opportunity to build a movement — a movement based in communities around issues that matter. Using the power of the Internet, he has promoted the growth of local Obama support groups in local communities — in New York City there are already 20 — and these groups keep reaching out and out and keep bringing more and more people into the most multiracial, upbeat, positive campaign about hope, and about the future, that this country has seen since the 1960s.

Why are so many people responding to Obama? Because he is straightforward, and is clearly about a lot more than his own ego. Unlike John Edwards, for whom I have tremendous respect, Obama hasn’t had to “move to the left” or discover that he was wrong about Iraq. Obama didn’t discover unions and the rift between rich and poor after losing an election in 2004. Since being elected to the Senate, he has voted against the Bush tax cuts, against repealing inheritance taxes, against the Central America “free trade” agreement, against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, against both Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts, against Patriot Act wiretap extensions and against John Bolton’s appointment to the United Nations.

Obama has stood against the ban on partial-birth abortions, against the Defense of Marriage Act, against the Federal Marriage Amendment and against the creation of personal retirement accounts under the guise of “Social Security reform.” Unlike Hillary Clinton, Obama has been consistently solid on the key issues — and unlike Hillary, we know, if Obama is elected, where he will be on the issues. (Do we really need a second Clinton presidency, framed by lots of progressive hype, which delivers so little in the way of progressive legislation, and so much to Wall St?) And, perhaps most important, Obama’s followers have the potential — with the support of their candidate — to build a new progressive movement in the U.S. and a new reform movement in the Democratic Party. Obama speaks about his candidacy, and even his possible election as president, as part of the launching of a new movement to change America. The president of the United States encouraging a movement for progressive social change? Now there’s a thought!

There are two ways that we can look at next year’s election. We can look at it as an opportunity to stop the endless mudslide of domestic and foreign disasters that have darkened our horizons during the Bush years. This would be no minor accomplishment. But, next year, we can try to do more. We can look to elect a president who not only looks different, but who thinks and acts differently, a progressive champion who boldly reasserts government’s role as protector and uplifter of the people at home, and who can reinvent American foreign policy as a force for peace, not coercive power, across the globe.

We need a candidate, and a president, who understands that he or she cannot succeed unless the people are standing alongside him — ahead of the powerbrokers and money guys — ready to help enforce their collective will. There is no question that Barack Obama is such a candidate.

Unlike most elected officials in New York, I have not hitched my wagon to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. And I doubt that most of the “liberal,” “progressive,” “activist” politicians from Manhattan who are publicly supporting Hillary can say to us, with a straight face, that their candidate is a force for progressive change in the U.S. I know that Barack Obama is.

Having chosen to support Barack Obama, I challenge my colleagues — whether they be congressmembers, state senators, assemblymembers or city councilpersons — to rethink their support for Hillary and what it means. To my fellow Lower Manhattanites, I invite you to join our movement. Start at nyc4obama.com, click on “groups,” and hook up today with the local groups organizing in your community. I promise you that politics will never be the same again.

Schwartz is Democratic State Committeeman for Greenwich Village, part of the East Village, Soho and Tribeca. He was Greenwich Village Democratic district leader from 1995 to 2005.

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