Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama's Hope

The human energy was palpable approaching the Obama campaign’s epicenter in Chicago on the eve of his election rally.

A dynamism akin to the advent of every religious and secular holiday made my spirit tingle. You could close your eyes and feel it. In the city’s gorgeous front yard set against the splendid lakefront on a perfect November day –- a miracle in itself given Chicago’s nasty weather from Halloween to Memorial Day –- the hopeful gathered, attempting to get into a park that was cordoned off to anyone without Secret Service credentials.

I didn’t obtain clearance in advance and was sent away by security with the long-honored Chicago dismissal ``who sent you?’’

"Nobody sent me, I'm a columnist," I said with a smile. "I did this spontaneously." I was turned away. There wasn't much to see at that point anyway as the nation's first African-American president hadn't been elected quite yet.

Obama’s fete was on hallowed ground in the history of the Republic. Abraham Lincoln was nominated in a long-forgotten place called the WigWam just up the street, an election that fomented the civil war. An even more-forgotten statue of Union general John Logan sits opposite the Obama fest site.

The Chicago police riots of 1968 took place two blocks away when the cops set upon Viet Nam war protestors. Students camped out in the park where Obama’s dais stood and more than one million celebrated on election day. Mayor Richard J. Daley angrily proclaimed ``we are here to preserve disorder, not to create it.’’

Martin Luther King was hit in the head with a brick a short taxi ride from Obama’s home. So much progress has come to the hog butcher to the world and the nation. Segregation came and went in my lifetime. Voting rights came to the South. A president, his brother and Dr. King were assassinated. The economy had many more violent gyrations.

Obama's Identity

Yet who was this man, the first person of color to be elected president? The son of a wayward Kenyan economist and teenage mother. Harvard Law School graduate. University of Chicago law school professor. State and U.S. Senator. Community organizer.

Once a little-known Illinois state senator, he ascended to his U.S. Senate seat when wealthy commodities trader Blair Hull bowed out of the race when details were revealed of an ugly divorce. His Republican opponent also had domestic issues.

With roots in the Midwest and Africa, Hawaii and Indonesia, Obama brings to the job a deep experience of many cultures. Because of his unique background, he may have a greater understanding of economic violence and social dislocation than any modern president.

When I met Obama twice during his Senate campaign almost three years ago, a voice echoed in my head: ``This man can become president. He has the complete package.’’

He spoke to my neighbors and I a few blocks away in my community, situated about 45 miles northwest of Chicago deep in Republican territory. At the time, and in many speeches thereafter, Obama echoed Lincoln when the 16th president spoke of his central idea of equality ``the principle that clears the path for all –- gives hope to all – and, by consequence, enterprise, and industry.’’

By illucidating this concept of economic equality, I saw something in Obama that had a powerful resonance. In an America where middle class wages were falling behind inflation, pensions were being cut, health care not available to some 40 million and retirement security fractured by numerous market crashes, he reached the core of the troubled American economic experience.

Big Troubles

With the economy a priority, I suspect the man who has been drawing millions to his speeches and ideas, wasn’t about to neglect the streets of Chicago nor the forlorn urban pockets of despair from the Central Valley of California to the Bronx.

His economic revival plans are ambitious. There’s everything from middle-class tax cuts to incentives for minority business owners. Everything seems to be on the table in an effort to promote financial equality.

For those who have called him a socialist, they had best look to his intellectual roots at the University of Chicago, the mother ship of laissez faire market economics. The virtual Nobel Prize factory has cradled or crippled the global economy, depending on your world view. Some of his top advisors are from that Hyde Park enclave, the spiritual home of free-market godfather Milton Friedman.

Will Obama be able to replace the nearly 3 million manufacturing jobs that have been lost since 2000? Or repair the disemboweled financial markets? Like all presidents, he may not have that much direct impact. It took World War II to re-engage the U.S. economy after a decade of FDR’s New Deal programs.

And what of the human misery that is borne of economic despair? Just blocks away from Obama’s celebration were the meanest streets of Chicago, where joblessness and the poisonous power struggles between street gangs have already claimed more than 420 lives. Such an ongoing wholesale waste of human potential needs to end.

Obama’s Insights

Fortunately, Obama is a uniquely qualified expert on economic violence. When he was a community organizer on the South Side, he was trying to restore a measure of dignity to tens of thousands of steel and other manufacturing workers who were impoverished by the brutal recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

How ironic and utterly mean-spirited was the fact that he was ridiculed for his community efforts on the floor of the Republican National convention.

We could want for no greater authority on how neighborhoods and families could suffer during a recession than Obama.

I know of his work because I walked the same streets when I was writing about the same people who had gone from decent wages and guaranteed benefits to poverty nearly overnight. Their ranks are legion: Men like Frank Lumpkin, a bare-fisted boxer who came from a Georgia sharecropping family to a decent job in a steel mill, only to end up being a jobless coalition organizer when his mill closed in 1980.

I’m quite sure that Obama has the experience and intellectual rigor to understand today’s economic ills. What of the daunting social issues he faces? Can he stop the murders on the West Side of Chicago, bolster the moribund auto industry or stanch the bleeding in the housing bust? What of the greedy tentacles of K Street lobbyists, who couldn’t care less what happens in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland or to the migrant workers of California?

The Future

As I watched a gaggle of Chicago school kids march into Grant Park to see the spectacle of history, my heart skipped a beat. As I was walking away from the park, they were walking into it. The future was striding by.

Here was the future of the global economy. They’re weren’t just from Chicago, the inventor of the modern electrical grid, commodities markets, transportation nexuses and countless tons of steel, machine tools and candy.

These children were actors in the worldwide network, connected through aspirations and intelligence to street dealers in Rio, AIDS orphans in Tanzania, souk urchins in Cairo and taxi drivers in Delhi.

Would these future agents of change find room and hope in Obama’s new network of progress, one so remarkable that it linked young and old, rich and poor in raising more than $600 million, a record amount for any campaign?

Obama may not be able to boost incomes, restore sanity to financial markets, nor even make health care affordable and available to all, yet he will provide a new agenda for tackling these problems. At least he has a plan and has the will to transact change.

Genius for Re-invention

America has always possessed this genius for invention and re-invention. It’s been a Valhalla for second chances. Illinois has had its share of makeovers and leaders who were pillars of power and purpose.

Remember other renowned Illinois-bred politicians who reinvented themselves: Adlai Stevenson the intellectual. Ronald Reagan the B actor. Dennis Hastert the wrestling coach. U.S. Grant went from merchant to general to two terms as president.

Lincoln himself was transformed from failed shop owner and railroad lawyer to two short terms in the Illinois legislature and Congress to become our most revered president. He was self-taught and born poor.

Whatever Obama will do, we can hope that he will not be the captive of the efficient and ruthless Chicago political machine. Nor will acquiesce to the powerful overlords of K Street and Wall Street. I trust he will stay true to Lincoln’s dedication to the ideals of universal equality.

It’s no small irony that Obama will be inaugurated during the bi-centennial of both Lincoln and Darwin. America is still on the tortured road to equality and evolves to seek the angels of our better nature. So goes the audacity of hope.

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