Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
It was Barack Obama’s unique and modern brand of populism that first attracted me to him as a candidate and it is the reason I still support him today. Ironically, it is the most compelling aspect of Obama’s vision, its broadness, that has prevented it from being recognized as populism. Many Americans still equate populism with labor; being a populist means being pro-labor and anti big business. Yet while labor remains essential to any progressive movement in America, perhaps the challenges we face today call for a more expansive populism, one which views organized labor not as a means of coming together to ensure individuals’ immediate economic security, but rather as an integral part of a progressive coalition that can only rise united. The vision of the Obama movement is that by investing in each other, we can make the American dream a reality.
Obama’s critics have consistently argued that his campaign is based on empty rhetoric, ideas not grounded in the unalterable reality — ugly though it may be — of Washington politics. Because we are powerless to change the system, we need an experienced warrior who can make it work to our advantage. Some of these critics have been around Washington so long they no longer believe real change is possible, no matter one’s approach. Many of them however, have blindly accepted the media’s contention that Obama has only words, but no plan.
Obama does not go as far as to suggest that his only role is to inspire – that with him as president a million light bulbs will go off over our heads and we will discover how to save ourselves. His campaign has made it evident that he will embrace the modern role of the president as chief legislator. On his website, one can find a comprehensive policy agenda devised by Obama and a host of advisors, including prominent intellectuals such as Austan Goolsbee and Samantha Powers.
It is true that there are few substantial differences between Obama’s and Hillary’s positions on major policy issues. On health care, for example, the two plans are essentially the same. Both would create a national health care plan while heavily regulating private insurance companies. The differences — tax credits in Hillary’s plan vs. subsidies in Obama’s, mandates in Hillary’s plan and choice in Obama’s — would have little impact on the effectiveness of either plan. What distinguishes Obama’s health care plan is the small piece that ties it to his vision. As part of Obama’s plan to expand the network of non-profit organizations called AmeriCorps, he would add a Health Corps, which would enlist workers and volunteers to assist health professions, help individuals enroll in state health insurance programs and conduct health outreach.
Although this Health Corps does not constitute the major portion of Obama’s healthcare plan, it nonetheless represents that unique strand of populism that sets Obama apart form any of the other candidates. Obama’s is a populism based in an ideal of service. It is his plan for service, which merits an entire chapter in his Blueprint for Change, that is the how we can behind “yes we can.” Obama will harness the hope and enthusiasm his movement inspires by expanding existing service programs and creating new ones. He will create a teacher service scholarship that will pay for college in return for teaching in and underprivileged classroom for a certain number of years. He will create a green corps to enlist disadvantaged youth in pursuing renewable energy and fighting pollution, a classroom corps to enlist mid-career professions in improving education through mentoring, tutoring and curriculum development and a veterans corps to enlist veterans and concerned Americans in improving care for veterans. His plan also includes a large-scale enlistment of students and retirees in service projects as well as an expansion of the Peace Corps.
Perhaps the most ambitious and compelling of Obama’s service proposals is the creation of twenty promise neighborhoods modeled after the Harlem children’s zone. These neighborhoods would provide a comprehensive network of services designed to promote education, reduce crime and strengthen community. These communities would be part of a broader initiative to fight poverty by building community. This plan includes providing ex-offender supports and actively promoting responsible fatherhood in order to reestablish healthy families as the foundation of healthy communities.
While an emphasis on service may be the distinguishing factor of Barack Obama’s campaign, he will pursue a broad agenda of reform in taxation, education and economic development among other areas. A few examples of his nuanced policy initiatives include a Clean Technologies Venture Capital Fund to promote clean technologies, a National Health Insurance Exchange to regulate insurance companies, and a “Zero to Five” plan to expand early childhood education.
Perhaps the second most common criticism of Obama is that he lacks the experience to be an effective president and commander in chief. Yet in preparing him to be a new populist leader, his experience is without a doubt as valuable as senator Clinton’s. His experiences as a community organizer, a state senator, a US senator and a campaign give him the unique perspective of someone who has worked at every level of government, from grass roots organizing to the United States senate. Some critics have accurately pointed to Obama’s lack of executive and foreign policy experience, but his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, is similarly lacking.
In foreign policy, as in domestic policy, it is Obama’s vision and judgment that set him apart. He opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning and voted against the kyl-lieberman amendment to declare the Iranian National Guard a terrorist organization.
The themes of unity and reaching out will also play an important role in Obama’s foreign policy. Obama’s willingness to engage with Iran and Cuba among other countries would be part of a broader shift in how we deal with the rest of the world. Under Obama, America would once again lead the world through example and inspiration.
Hillary’s aggressive but uninspiring campaign suggests a familiar Clinton strategy of triangulation aimed at winning the fifty plus one states necessary to gain the presidency. Obama, as Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter put it, “is the only one with a decent chance for a landslide.” He has a chance to integrate a deeply compelling message with pragmatic policy in order to foster a new populist movement based on a unified commitment to service. Only Obama has the chance to abolish the tired dichotomies of handouts vs. hard work, of government helping people and people helping themselves. Only Obama can change the conversation and move us toward a stronger, more empathic America, one in which ordinary Americans help one another and government is merely a tool.