Friday, September 29, 2006
A July Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that only 18 percent of Midwest residents feel they’re doing better economically than a year ago, while 43 percent said they’re doing worse. That makes the Midwest the most pessimistic region in the country, reports the American Prospect magazine.
Good morning. I appreciate the opportunity to speak here at the Call to Renewal's Building a Covenant for a New America conference. I've had the opportunity to take a look at your Covenant for a New America. It is filled with outstanding policies and prescriptions for much of what ails this country. So I'd like to congratulate you all on the thoughtful presentations you've given so far about poverty and justice in America, and for putting fire under the feet of the political leadership here in Washington.
But today I'd like to talk about the connection between religion and politics and perhaps offer some thoughts about how we can sort through some of the often bitter arguments that we've been seeing over the last several years.
I do so because, as you all know, we can affirm the importance of poverty in the Bible; and we can raise up and pass out this Covenant for a New America. We can talk to the press, and we can discuss the religious call to address poverty and environmental stewardship all we want, but it won't have an impact unless we tackle head-on the mutual suspicion that sometimes exists between religious America and secular America.
I want to give you an example that I think illustrates this fact. As some of you know, during the 2004 U.S. Senate General Election I ran against a gentleman named Alan Keyes. Mr. Keyes is well-versed in the Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson style of rhetoric that often labels progressives as both immoral and godless.
Indeed, Mr. Keyes announced towards the end of the campaign that, "Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama. Christ would not vote for Barack Obama because Barack Obama has behaved in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved."
Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.
Now, I was urged by some of my liberal supporters not to take this statement seriously, to essentially ignore it. To them, Mr. Keyes was an extremist, and his arguments not worth entertaining. And since at the time, I was up 40 points in the polls, it probably wasn't a bad piece of strategic advice.
But what they didn't understand, however, was that I had to take Mr. Keyes seriously, for he claimed to speak for my religion, and my God. He claimed knowledge of certain truths.
Mr. Obama says he's a Christian, he was saying, and yet he supports a lifestyle that the Bible calls an abomination.
Mr. Obama says he's a Christian, but supports the destruction of innocent and sacred life.
And so what would my supporters have me say? How should I respond? Should I say that a literalist reading of the Bible was folly? Should I say that Mr. Keyes, who is a Roman Catholic, should ignore the teachings of the Pope?
Unwilling to go there, I answered with what has come to be the typically liberal response in such debates - namely, I said that we live in a pluralistic society, that I can't impose my own religious views on another, that I was running to be the U.S. Senator of Illinois and not the Minister of Illinois.
But Mr. Keyes's implicit accusation that I was not a true Christian nagged at me, and I was also aware that my answer did not adequately address the role my faith has in guiding my own values and my own beliefs.
Now, my dilemma was by no means unique. In a way, it reflected the broader debate we've been having in this country for the last thirty years over the role of religion in politics.
For some time now, there has been plenty of talk among pundits and pollsters that the political divide in this country has fallen sharply along religious lines. Indeed, the single biggest "gap" in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't.
Conservative leaders have been all too happy to exploit this gap, consistently reminding evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design.
Democrats, for the most part, have taken the bait. At best, we may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that - regardless of our personal beliefs - constitutional principles tie our hands. At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word "Christian" describes one's political opponents, not people of faith.
Now, such strategies of avoidance may work for progressives when our opponent is Alan Keyes. But over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives -- in the lives of the American people -- and I think it's time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.
And if we're going to do that then we first need to understand that Americans are a religious people. 90 percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves with an organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed Christians, and substantially more people in America believe in angels than they do in evolution.
This religious tendency is not simply the result of successful marketing by skilled preachers or the draw of popular mega-churches. In fact, it speaks to a hunger that's deeper than that - a hunger that goes beyond any particular issue or cause.
Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds - dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets - and they're coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough.
They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They're looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them - that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness.
And I speak with some experience on this matter. I was not raised in a particularly religious household, as undoubtedly many in the audience were. My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I've ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I.
It wasn't until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma.
I was working with churches, and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me. They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me that remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst.
And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well -- that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.
And if it weren't for the particular attributes of the historically black church, I may have accepted this fate. But as the months passed in Chicago, I found myself drawn - not just to work with the church, but to be in the church.
For one thing, I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope.
And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship -- the grounding of faith in struggle -- that the church offered me a second insight, one that I think is important to emphasize today.
Faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts.
You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away - because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.
It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.
That's a path that has been shared by millions upon millions of Americans - evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims alike; some since birth, others at certain turning points in their lives. It is not something they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values. In fact, it is often what drives their beliefs and their values.
And that is why that, if we truly hope to speak to people where they're at - to communicate our hopes and values in a way that's relevant to their own - then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.
Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome - others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.
In other words, if we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway.
More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical - if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.
Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address without reference to "the judgments of the Lord." Or King's I Have a Dream speech without references to "all of God's children." Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.
Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical, though. Our fear of getting "preachy" may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.
After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness - in the imperfections of man.
Solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds. I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturers' lobby - but I also believe that when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we've got a moral problem. There's a hole in that young man's heart - a hole that the government alone cannot fix.
I believe in vigorous enforcement of our non-discrimination laws. But I also believe that a transformation of conscience and a genuine commitment to diversity on the part of the nation's CEOs could bring about quicker results than a battalion of lawyers. They have more lawyers than us anyway.
I think that we should put more of our tax dollars into educating poor girls and boys. I think that the work that Marian Wright Edelman has done all her life is absolutely how we should prioritize our resources in the wealthiest nation on earth. I also think that we should give them the information about contraception that can prevent unwanted pregnancies, lower abortion rates, and help assure that that every child is loved and cherished.
But, you know, my Bible tells me that if we train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it. So I think faith and guidance can help fortify a young woman's sense of self, a young man's sense of responsibility, and a sense of reverence that all young people should have for the act of sexual intimacy.
I am not suggesting that every progressive suddenly latch on to religious terminology - that can be dangerous. Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith. As Jim has mentioned, some politicians come and clap -- off rhythm -- to the choir. We don't need that.
In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they're something they're not. They don't need to do that. None of us need to do that.
But what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of "thou" and not just "I," resonates in religious congregations all across the country. And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of American renewal.
Some of this is already beginning to happen. Pastors, friends of mine like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes are wielding their enormous influences to confront AIDS, Third World debt relief, and the genocide in Darfur. Religious thinkers and activists like our good friend Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo are lifting up the Biblical injunction to help the poor as a means of mobilizing Christians against budget cuts to social programs and growing inequality.
And by the way, we need Christians on Capitol Hill, Jews on Capitol Hill and Muslims on Capitol Hill talking about the estate tax. When you've got an estate tax debate that proposes a trillion dollars being taken out of social programs to go to a handful of folks who don't need and weren't even asking for it, you know that we need an injection of morality in our political debate.
Across the country, individual churches like my own and your own are sponsoring day care programs, building senior centers, helping ex-offenders reclaim their lives, and rebuilding our gulf coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
So the question is, how do we build on these still-tentative partnerships between religious and secular people of good will? It's going to take more work, a lot more work than we've done so far. The tensions and the suspicions on each side of the religious divide will have to be squarely addressed. And each side will need to accept some ground rules for collaboration.
While I've already laid out some of the work that progressive leaders need to do, I want to talk a little bit about what conservative leaders need to do -- some truths they need to acknowledge.
For one, they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.
Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.
And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles.
This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing. And if you doubt that, let me give you an example.
We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.
Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God's test of devotion.
But it's fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason.
Finally, any reconciliation between faith and democratic pluralism requires some sense of proportion.
This goes for both sides.
Even those who claim the Bible's inerrancy make distinctions between Scriptural edicts, sensing that some passages - the Ten Commandments, say, or a belief in Christ's divinity - are central to Christian faith, while others are more culturally specific and may be modified to accommodate modern life.
The American people intuitively understand this, which is why the majority of Catholics practice birth control and some of those opposed to gay marriage nevertheless are opposed to a Constitutional amendment to ban it. Religious leadership need not accept such wisdom in counseling their flocks, but they should recognize this wisdom in their politics.
But a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation - context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase "under God." I didn't. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats. And one can envision certain faith-based programs - targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers - that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems.
So we all have some work to do here. But I am hopeful that we can bridge the gaps that exist and overcome the prejudices each of us bring to this debate. And I have faith that millions of believing Americans want that to happen. No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don't want faith used to belittle or to divide. They're tired of hearing folks deliver more screed than sermon. Because in the end, that's not how they think about faith in their own lives.
So let me end with just one other interaction I had during my campaign. A few days after I won the Democratic nomination in my U.S. Senate race, I received an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School that said the following:
"Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you."
The doctor described himself as a Christian who understood his commitments to be "totalizing." His faith led him to a strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage, although he said that his faith also led him to question the idolatry of the free market and quick resort to militarism that seemed to characterize much of the Republican agenda.
But the reason the doctor was considering not voting for me was not simply my position on abortion. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website, which suggested that I would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." The doctor went on to write:
"I sense that you have a strong sense of justice...and I also sense that you are a fair minded person with a high regard for reason...Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded....You know that we enter times that are fraught with possibilities for good and for harm, times when we are struggling to make sense of a common polity in the context of plurality, when we are unsure of what grounds we have for making any claims that involve others...I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words."
So I looked at my website and found the offending words. In fairness to them, my staff had written them using standard Democratic boilerplate language to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade.
Re-reading the doctor's letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in fair-minded words. Those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.
So I wrote back to the doctor, and I thanked him for his advice. The next day, I circulated the email to my staff and changed the language on my website to state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own - a prayer that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.
And that night, before I went to bed I said a prayer of my own. It's a prayer I think I share with a lot of Americans. A hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all. It's a prayer worth praying, and a conversation worth having in this country in the months and years to come. Thank you.
“Unfortunately, as the newly declassified National Intelligence Estimate testifies very clearly, our current course is, in many ways, playing into the hands of the terrorists. It is stirring up virulent anti-Americanism around the world. It is drawing new recruits to the jihadists’ cause. And it is making America less safe.
“We have to do better job. It’s not good enough to be strong and wrong. We need to be strong and smart.
“And this is especially true when it comes to our policies on interrogating and trying suspected terrorists. Again, we all want to extract information from these suspects. We all want to try them and, if guilty, punish them. The only disagreement is about how best to do this. What is the smartest, most effective way to interrogate and try suspected terrorists?
“There is plenty of evidence that our current course, which clearly includes torturing suspects and imprisoning them without trial, is not working. To take just one case in point, consider the Canadian citizen – whom we now know to be completely innocent -- who was arrested by the CIA and sent to Syria for interrogation under torture. Not surprisingly, he told his torturers exactly what they wanted to hear: that he had received terrorist training in Afghanistan. The truth, of course, is that he was never in Afghanistan, had no terrorist ties, and is completely innocent.
“The cost to the United States for this miscarriage of justice, in terms of our forfeited reputation and moral standing, has been disastrous – just as the revelations of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib were disastrous. What’s more, it has endangered our troops in the field -- now and in the future -- should they fall into the hands of captors who say that they have the right to subject American prisoners to the same torture and abuse.
“Again, it’s not enough to be strong and wrong. We need to be strong and smart. We need to be true to 230 years of American jurisprudence, our Constitution, and the humane values that define us as Americans. Regrettably, the bill before us fails this test. And I cannot, in good conscience, support it.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Independent Congressional candidate Roy Nielsen is pressing for a three-way debate with U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa and Democratic challenger Joyce Schulte of Creston. Nielsen, an Orange City businessman, hasn't received a nod from King who has told newspapers like The Sioux City Journal that he doesn't believe the debates would be anything but attacks on the incumbent. For his part, Nielsen did put out the above cartoon.
“I appreciated having the opportunity to meet with the EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson today to discuss how countries can find a way to resume World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Doha Round negotiations.”
“Obviously, the U.S. and EU are key players in the World Trade Organization, and the gap between their positions in agricultural negotiations was a significant factor in the suspension of the WTO’s Doha Round talks last July. Mr. Mandelson’s visit to Washington this week is part of his effort to understand and hopefully bridge that gap.
“There is one thing that I want to make sure that Commissioner Mandelson understands. In its agricultural proposal in 2005, the United States offered to make significant reductions in trade-distorting domestic support programs if other countries would make comparable concessions on export subsidies and market access. If adopted as part of a Doha Round Agreement, the proposed cuts in domestic support programs would in fact require Congress to make significant changes in U.S. farm programs. So it is essential, and no more than fair, that Europe and other countries reduce their trade barriers to allow U.S. agriculture better export opportunities. I clearly conveyed this point to Commissioner Mandelson.
“A successful Doha Round agreement can be good for the U.S. economy and for the rest of the world as well. Most of the global economic gain from the round is expected to come from agricultural liberalization. All the major studies of agricultural trade liberalization indicate that the majority of the benefits are created from reducing high agricultural tariffs, as opposed to lowering domestic supports or eliminating export subsidies. For the Doha Round to succeed, the EU and other countries must step up and offer significant reductions in their tariffs, without insisting on loopholes which would largely negate the effect of those tariff cuts.”
INDIANOLA - With soaring rhetoric and a rare magnetism, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama Sunday burnished his growing reputation as a political descendent to the barrier-breaking, nation-inspiring John F. Kennedy.
Trailed by a horde of media and circled like a popular evangelist or rock star by well-wishers, many of them seeking autographs for copies of his best-selling memoir, "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," Obama, an Illinois Democrat, spoke individually with hundreds of Iowans before giving a 45-minute keynote speech at U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry at the Warren County Fairgrounds in Indianola.
The major Democratic event attracted some 3,000 people. Several members of the national media were there to see Obama, who rocketed from relative obscurity to the political stratosphere with a stirring speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
Harkin, D-Iowa, joked that he'd originally tried to book U2 singer Bono, a global celebrity, for the featured speaking role.
"I couldn't get him so I settled for the second biggest rock star in America," Harkin said in introducing Obama.
Several Iowa Democrats, including Harkin and gubernatorial candidate Chet Culver and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack gave rousing speeches, as did potential presidential candidate Mark Warner of Virginia, but the Sunday stage belonged to Obama, who spoke with no written text or teleprompter.
"Despite the much-vaunted individual initiative and self-reliance that has been at the essence of the American dream, the fact of the matter is there has always been this other idea of America, this idea that says we have a stake in each other, that I am my brother's keeper," Obama said.
He said Americans intuitively understand that idea in churches and families.
"But it also has to reflect itself in our government," Obama said. "Nobody here expects government to solve all our problems for us. But what they do expect is that the government can help, the government can make a difference in all of our lives."
Obama, who worked in Chicago as a community organizer, civil rights lawyer and law professor, is the son of a Kenyan father, Barack Obama Sr., and Kansan mother, Ann Dunham.
He joked that one of the first questions he fields from people is the origin of his name.
"People wouldn't always say it right," Obama said. "They would call me 'Alabama' or they would call me, 'Yo mamma.'"
He added, "My father was from Kenya. That's where I got my name. And then my mother was from Kansas, which is where I got my accent."
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama, 45, is frequently mentioned by Democratic Party regulars and pundits as a possible presidential candidate in 2008.
"As you travel across the country there's a certain anxiety," Obama said.
Americans are confident in their nation but frustrated with their leaders, he said.
"It's not that they don't believe in the possibilities," Obama said. "They continue to believe that the possibilities of America are limitless. They're just not sure the leaders still do."
Obama said the nation can regain a sense of hope and possibility he believes has been lost.
"In America there is no challenge too great, there is no injustice too crippling, there is no destiny out of reach for those of us who are lucky enough to be born in this country," he said.
In his speech, Obama quoted Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and even former GOP Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Obama noted that Gingrich famously said the Democratic strategy in the face of Republican negatives in 2006 should be "had enough."
"I don't think that George Bush is a bad man, I don't," Obama said. "I think that George Bush wants to do right by America. I think he's a patriotic person."
But Obama said he has a fundamental disagreement over philosophy of government with Bush and his Republican supporters in Congress.
"They believe in different things," Obama said. "They have a sense that in fact the government is the problem, not the solution and that if we just dismantle government piece by piece, if we break it up in tax cuts to the wealthy, and privatize Social Security and get rid of public school … if we just break everything up, everyone's going to better off.
"That's the basic concept behind the ownership society. That's what George Bush and this Republican Congress have been arguing for the last six years, and it's a tempting idea because it doesn't require anything from each of us. It's very easy for us to say that I'm only going to think selfishly about myself, that I don't have to worry that 46 million people who don't have health insurance."
Obama said that everywhere he goes in America he gets a sense that people want a change.
"At some level even those of us who are involved in politics feel a certain cynicism right now about politics and public life," Obama said. "We get a sense that it's become a business and not a mission, that power always trumps principles. We've got a lot of self-appointed leaders that are long on rhetoric and short on substance."
He said the nation is at a crossroads, with choices that will define a generation.
"We understand that all across America people are struggling because they sense that in a new globalized world we have given power through communication and changes in technology not only to our economic competitors but also to those who would seek to destroy our way of life," Obama said.
He said Iowa children must be taught the skills to compete not just in places like Des Moines and Chicago and Boston, but with people in China and India.
"If we don't make sure that we're preparing our children, we may be the first generation in history, or at least in a very long time, in which our children have inherited an America that's a little bit meaner and a little bit poorer than the one we inherited from our parents," Obama said. "That's not what we believe as Americans."
Moving to foreign affairs and security, Obama said he's tired of the Bush administration and Republicans' use of terrorism as a wedge issue.
"I don't know about you but I think the war against terrorism isn't supposed to just crop up between September and November in even-numbered years, and yet that seems to be the pattern," Obama said.
He publicly opposed the invasion of Iraq in a rally in 2002 before the war started.
"We understand that fundamentally our effort in Iraq has been misconceived," Obama said.
But people shouldn't read the Obama family as pacifists, he said, noting that his grandfather, a man he wrote about extensively in his memoir, fought in Gen. George Patton's Army in World War II.
"There are times when we have to ask all of us to sacrifice on behalf of future generations," Obama said. "But this is not one of those times."
He said U.S. priorities should be in Afghanistan and with the broader war on terror.
"Whether you are for the war or against the war I can't imagine that there is anyone here who would agree with Dick Cheney that they wouldn't do anything different," he said.
Obama said that when Bush took office there were no nuclear weapons in North Korea, a nation now believed to have eight.
What's more, he said, the "chaos" in Iraq doesn't strengthen the U.S. position with Iran.
"When we fight a war, it's got to be a war of necessity, not a war of choice," he said, not on the "fantasy" of remaking the Middle East.
All of that considered, the Democratic Party must do more than just say "no" to George W. Bush, Obama said.
"We have to say 'yes' to the idea that we're going to invest in science and technology," he said.
The party also supports stem-cell research to cure diseases thought incurable, Obama said
"We want to be the party that says we want to match our military might for diplomatic strength and the strength of our alliances, that we want to be respected in the world and not just feared," Obama said.
He added, "It's time for us to realize that our parents and our grandparents faced greater challenges than we face and yet somehow they were able to overcome it, somehow they were able to accomplish what people thought was impossible. That's the essence of America."
Monday, September 18, 2006
WHITE OAK, Texas — Former Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Ross Lightfoot, a social conservative who represented large parts of Iowa in two districts over 12 years, said he thinks former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is a strong presidential candidate – and that the more liberal Republican’s mayoral leadership skills could help him transcend differences with the GOP right.
“The one person I think could probably get elected is Giuliani because of what he did in New York,” Lightfoot said. “I really think that governors and mayors of huge cities like New York, I think from the standpoint of demeanor, they are probably better suited for the presidency than a member of Congress or the U.S. Senate.”
Congressmen and senators are little more than CEOs of their own campaigns, Lightfoot said.
“The president is like the head of GM or IBM or any huge company,” Lightfoot said. “The governors have had that and Giuliani has had that in New York.”
Then Lightfoot posed this compelling question: “Pick any member of Congress and put them in New York on 9/11 and what would they have done?”
For his part, Lightfoot was elected in 1984 in western Iowa and saw his district change to include a long stretch of southern Iowa in 1990 after redistricting. He lost a senate race to Tom Harkin in 1996 and the governor's race to Tom Vilsack in 1998.
Iowans for Nussle and Mitt Romney’s Commonwealth PAC Join to Support Republican Headquarters in Key Iowa Counties
DES MOINES – Jim Nussle, Republican Candidate for Governor, and Mitt Romney, honorary chair of the Commonwealth PAC and Republican Governor of Massachusetts, today announced a joint effort to provide financial support to Republican Headquarters in five key Iowa counties.
“I want to thank Governor Romney and Commonwealth PAC for their support. Together, we’re proud to put the best possible grassroots campaign together to turn out the vote on November 7,” said Nussle. Nussle went on to say that the county headquarters program they are funding will serve as key phone banks and volunteer centers in critical counties.
Governor Mitt Romney’s Commonwealth PAC has already given substantial financial support to Republican candidates across Iowa and the country, but says he’s particularly proud of the support for volunteers.
“We know that Republicans win when they combine the best message, the strongest candidate, and the most organized and effective volunteer effort,” said Romney. “With Jim Nussle, Iowans have an extraordinary leader to take the state forward – with vision and purpose. Now it’s time to give the volunteers the tools they need to win. I’m happy that we can be a part of this campaign.”
David Overholtzer, co-chairman of the Pottawattamie County Republican Party, says the Nussle and Commonwealth PAC funds will help their county deliver a winning margin to the Nussle campaign. “Jim Nussle’s campaign can count on our county – not just winning the county, but with enough votes to help win Iowa. We appreciate his campaign’s support and the support of Mitt Romney and his Commonwealth PAC. Funding our headquarters means we can focus on getting out the vote, and not have to worry as much about fundraising,” said Overholtzer.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
DES MOINES, IA – "Chet Culver’s risky scheme to raid the state’s public pension fund is in the spotlight again, now as the focus of Jim Nussle’s latest statewide television commercial," reads a release just issued by the Nussle camp.
The new TV spot coincides with the Culver campaign late yesterday reiterating Culver’s commitment to using pension funds to finance startups:
Entitled “Economic Plan” the TV spot educates Iowans on Culver’s recent proposal to use the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS) on high-tech start-up businesses.
“The more Iowans are educated on Culver’s risky scheme to raid IPERS and bankroll hard-earned pension dollars on high-tech start-ups, the more they understand Chet really doesn’t have a responsible, common-sense plan for economic development,” commented Nussle’s running-mate, Lt. Governor Candidate Bob Vander Plaats. “For our next Governor, Iowans deserve experienced leadership with proven results who won’t get caught with their hand in the public pension cookie jar. Jim Nussle will fight to preserve, protect and strengthen Iowans’ retirement, not use precious pension dollars for an overt political agenda.”
To view the ad, go to: http://www.jimnussle.com/nussle/wrapper.jsp?PID=4086-942
Script of Economic Plan (:30)
ANNOUNCER: Chet Culver’s economic plan starts with cash -- your cash -- your IPERS pension money. Culver wants to “redirect” pension funds into high tech startups that go bankrupt 60% of the time. If you don’t remember these startups, it’s because they go bankrupt. Culver’s plan tells you he will use your pension money. Politicians should keep their hands off of your retirement money. On Culver’s plan, newspapers say it best: ‘…pension funds are not the chips to gamble.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Iowa Christian Alliance is calling on Chet Culver, Democrat candidate for Governor, to explain exactly where he stands on abortion.
“We have heard a lot about abortion in the last few days, and have asked a man to clarify his position who has a 16 year voting record and has filled in our survey clearly telling us where he stands on abortion. Since Chet Culver has chosen to disregard our attempts to secure answers to our survey, we would like to ask him three simple questions about abortion,” stated Steve Scheffler, President of the organization.
“First, would Chet Culver sign a bill banning partial birth abortions in the state of Iowa; second, would Chet Culver sign a bill designed to mandate that the doctor provide notification to the parent(s) before a child under the age of 14 undergoes an abortion; third, would Chet Culver sign a bill that outlaws abortion in the ninth month of pregnancy? Our questions are simple and the answers should be simple too. All we need is a simple yes or no to each of the three questions,” finished Scheffler.
DES MOINES, IOWA – Iowa gubernatorial candidate Jim Nussle received the endorsement of the Iowa Farm Bureau Political Action Committee (PAC) today. Nussle was named the 2006 Friend of Agriculture, receiving the support of one of the most extensive grassroots organizations in the state. The Farm Bureau honored Nussle for his proven commitment to Iowa’s agriculture industry and positive vision for making Iowa the Renewable Energy Capital of the World.
Neil Shaffer, PAC Committee Chair announced the endorsement. “We are supporting Jim Nussle for Governor because he has a positive view of Iowa and recognizes agriculture’s contribution to our state’s future. Nussle’s past voting record, his commitment to making Iowa the renewable energy capital of the world and his drive to make rural communities thrive all make him an ideal candidate to lead Iowa into the future.”
Jim Nussle said, “I am honored to have the support and commitment of the Iowa Farm Bureau. I am proud to stand with the members of this organization and look forward to working together to build upon our strengths and energize Iowa’s future.”
“Agriculture is the foundation of Iowa’s economic growth which is why I’m committed to capitalizing on our homegrown resources and promoting row crop and animal agriculture,” Nussle said. “With important issues like eminent domain and the expansion of the ethanol industry on the table, Iowa farmers need a Governor committed to Iowa agriculture. As Governor, I will set the tone from the top-down for a positive, cooperative relationship that will ensure farmers’ voices are heard.”
The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation is a grassroots, statewide organization dedicated to enhancing the People, Progress and Pride of Iowa. More than 153,000 families in Iowa are Farm Bureau members, working together to achieve farm and rural prosperity.
In it we learn from writer Jacob Weisberg that Obama is not, not running for the presidency in 2008.
The Illinoisan will be keynoting U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin's steak fry this weekend.
A great line from the Weisberg piece in Men's Vogue: "Obama, of course, would never be so immodest as to compare himself to those two men (Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln). But being clear-eyed he must see what others do: that among American politicians, he alone has the potential to one day be mentioned in the same breath."
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Daily Times Herald Columnist
But his clone in Congress, Republican Tom Tancredo, a man who looks and talks like western Iowa's representative in D.C. to the point that it recalls the old Spy magazine feature, "Separated at Birth," is lighting some fires with the base as a dark-horse candidate in 2008.
King (who has actually joked that he's the "blue-eyed Tom Tancredo) often appears with his twin on the House floor to make passionate cases for walls on our southern border (perhaps with some electrified wire) to reduce the flow of illegal immigration.
Both men are brilliant with paeans for the radical conservative movement.
The current edition of the progressive American Prospect magazine features a graphic of King's face with several of his white-hot comments on issues like the sex appeal of purported virgins in the alleged Muslim afterlife.
For his part Colorado's Tancredo is a Curtis LeMay throwback type who when asked how the United States should deal with another terrorist attack said, "Well, what if you said something like - if this happens in the United States, and we determine that it is the result of extremist, fundamentalist Muslims, you know, you could take out their holy sites."
"You're talking about bombing Mecca," said the interviewer. "Yeah," Tancredo responded.
The message is resonating with likely GOP voters.
A highly influential poll conducted by John Zogby, one that lists candidates' resumes and biographies and no names, shows that Tancredo comes in fourth among several likely presidential candidates with Republicans.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich finishes first with 21 percent, U.S. Sen. John McCain is next with 13.3 percent, followed by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, 11.2 percent and Tancredo with 9.9 percent.
In a much less meaningful poll, Tancredo is coming in second (to Pennsylvania's U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum) with a 2008 presidential political button contest sponsored by the on-line T-shirt, book and brick-a-back store, Café Press.com.
And last Saturday at an anti-illegal immigrant protest in Maywood, Calif., a group fronted itself with a banner promoting Tancredo for president.
The Web site, Iowapolitics.com reports that Tancredo has made five visits to Iowa since November 2004.
Then, a couple of days ago, he chaired a field hearing on border security in Montana.
It's easy to see how Iowa conservatives could embrace Tancredo in the caucuses.
Immigration may very well be a winning issue for a Republican in Iowa.
What's more, his major weakness, name recognition, can be overcome. We see so many presidential candidates in the Hawkeye State that we can be under-whelmed like no other peoples by celebrity. That means the star power of a Rudy or McCain could be effectively countered with Tancredo's persistent position on immigration.
Cardinal rule in politics: winners with the bases play the race card. Tancredo and his supporters insist immigration issues are about security, the rule of law, and not race. But the truth is the brown skin of the people they're talking about factors heavily into the calculus.
With the lion king of hate speech at Tancredo's side in western Iowa, vouching for him and making the intros in towns that time left behind, Tancredo could pull off a caucus win. It's even easier to see the math work for him in a crowded primary field where, say 21 percent, could be the magic number.
I'm not suggesting that this scenario is a good thing.
Only that it could unfold.
Here is The Journal's editorial:
That Iowa Democrat gubernatorial candidate Chet Culver didn't want to include Sioux City as one of the sites for a debate with his Republican opponent, Jim Nussle, is a snub, plain and simple.
The three cities agreed to by the Culver and Nussle campaigns this week as debate host locations are Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Des Moines. Once again, the mindset appears to be that Iowa's borders are the Mississippi River and the city limits of West Des Moines. Residents of western Iowa have become accustomed to that way of thinking through the years, but that doesn't make it right.
In this case, the Culver camp gets the blame.
Nussle proposed eight debates, with one of them scheduled for Sioux City. Culver wanted only three and wasn't interested in including Sioux City. The final agreement reduced the number and locations to what Culver wanted, eliminating Sioux City from the mix…
…the proper strategy, it seems to us, would have been to divide the state into thirds, with each third - east, central and west - hosting one debate. The debates could have been scheduled in the largest population center in each section.
That the debates will be available statewide via television, as a Culver spokesman said in an effort to favorably spin the matter, isn't the point. Neither is the Culver campaign's proposal for a debate in Sioux City between running mates Patty Judge and Bob Vander Plaats.
By not agreeing to physically hold a debate in western Iowa between the candidates at the top of the ticket, the Culver campaign demonstrated a disappointing disrespect for this side of the state.
As a result, it seems, voters in these parts legitimately might ask how Culver would represent them and their interests and concerns as governor.”
Saturday, September 02, 2006
Democrats enter the 2006 midterm election season with a strong playing field advantage, new polling by Zogby Interactive suggests, but Republicans have also forced two vulnerable Democratic incumbents into tight races, leaving the fall’s elections up in the air.
The online polls of Senate and gubernatorial races in 26 states find Democrats with an edge in several contests, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, where two–term Republican incumbents Rick Santorum and Mike DeWine continue to trail their Democratic challengers, while Democrats in New Jersey and Michigan are battling against surprisingly strong GOP challengers.
In a feature in the Sept. 4 Time Magazine U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is portrayed as a shrill left-coaster given to such self-aggrandizing pronouncements as "anybody who's ever dealt with me knows not to mess with me."
Republicans are hoping the polarizing Pelosi is more visible this fall. Look for that to happen with ads showing her second in line for the presidency right behind Dick Cheney. That's a frightening prospect for many considering the inherent dangers of the presidency and Cheney's health issues. Here's the GOP reasoning: A vote for a Democrat in a congressional race anywhere in the nation could be a vote for President Nancy Pelosi. The ad script is easy for the Republicans on this one: "Are you comfortable with a San Francisco liberal, a woman who reminds many men, particularly in the heartland of their first wives, only two heartbeats away from the presidency?"