Can We Still Build One America? Yes We Can
(Note: I was the former Director of Online Engagement for John Edwards for President. The following reflects only the personal views of the author, and in no way represents the views of John Edwards, his campaign, nor anyone else currently or formerly affiliated with his campaign.)
The first time I spoke to John Edwards about joining his campaign, I mentioned the Wellstone quote that's in my email signature, 'Politics isn't about big money or power games; it's about the improvement of people's lives.' His voice brightened considerably. "That, right there," he said, "is the point of this campaign." I believed him. I gave up everything and moved to Chapel Hill. And that remained the point of our campaign for One America through the very end.
Now I, like many Edwards people, face a choice we never wanted, but we cannot ignore. We must decide after John, which remaining candidate is the best bet to finish what we started -- making real improvements in the lives of the people who really need it?
After many conversations, comparisons, and soul searching, my personal answer, and my advice to other Edwards believers wrestling with the same question, is Barack Obama. Here's why:
Throughout the campaign, John Edwards talked about ending poverty in America as the moral challenge of our generation. For me, this was always at the heart of our effort to build One America. And no issue better represents our fierce commitment to look out for one another, not because it's politically popular, but because it's just the right thing to do.
So which candidate would be most likely to fulfill the dream of ending poverty in our time? It can't be about simple agreement. Surely, both candidates would flip a switch to end poverty right now, if they could. No, it's about priority. Changes this big require leaders to put it all on the line and inspire a nation to stand up and join them. So the real question is: Who is more willing to put this cause front and center, and who is more able to get the job done?
I'm a web guy. So I went to the campaign websites to see what they had to say. Here's what I found:
Obama lists "poverty" on his main issues list, which is accessible from any page on his site. It links to a dedicated page that names the problem of 37 million Americans still trapped in poverty, and offers a 15 point anti-poverty agenda to solve it.
Obama's proposals run the gamut from familiar progressive pillars like indexing the minimum wage to inflation, all the way to innovative new projects like replicating the highly successful "Harlem Children's Zone" in 20 high risk neighborhoods across the country.
His agenda includes plans for creating entry level jobs, reducing recidivism, anti-poverty tax reforms, pre-natal care for at risk populations, urban community development funds and significant rural investment.
Hillary, unfortunately, does not list poverty (or any equivalent) amongst her major issues. Nor, as far as I can tell, does the word "poverty" appear on any of her policy pages. I don't doubt for a moment that Hillary genuinely cares about poor people. But how can you lead a nation to combat a problem you don't even mention?
Because there is no "poverty" issue page, an apples-to-apples comparison of their agenda is tough. Hillary's "Strengthening the Middle Class" page, presumably the closest thing, has nine proposals. But if you take out items that either affect poverty only incidentally (like "Returning to fiscal responsibility") or explicitly aren't about the poor, (like "Lowering taxes for middle class families") you're left with only five points. And that's counting three proposals, ("Hillary's Innovation Agenda," a "Strategic Energy Fund" and "Confronting growing problems in the housing market") which might very well help reduce poverty, but they don't mention how, or seem explicitly designed to even try.
I'm not a policy expert, and I'm not qualified to parse the details. But I do think there's a clear difference in priority here. And while the details of plans will invariably change, core commitments will not. Obama comes out ahead.
Another way to tell what a candidate will prioritize in the future is what they've chosen to prioritize in the past. As a voter I can't know either candidate personally or fact-check the mountains of he-said-she said on every side. So once again, I went to the websites to let the candidates speak for themselves.
Obama's poverty page references his work in the Illinois legislature expanding tax credits for the poor and fighting for affordable housing. Hillary's site makes no coherent case for her record on poverty, but does frequently reference her accomplishments on some important relevant issues, such as children's health care.
It's perhaps even more instructive to look back at the choices they made before they knew anyone was looking, and how they talk about those choices now.
Obama's "Meet Barack" page describes his first job as a Chicago community organizer as a choice to "improve living conditions in poor neighborhoods plagued with crime and high unemployment." It goes so far as to say Obama chose a career in politics specifically as a long term strategy to "truly improve the lives of people in that [poor] community and other communities." In the list of overall issues he works on now, the very first is: "the poverty exposed by Katrina". Not bad.
"Hillary's Story" also shows admirable commitment. It describes how she ran a legal aid clinic for the poor when she first arrived in Arkansas, and that Carter appointed her to the board of "the United States Legal Services Corporation, a federal nonprofit program that funds legal assistance for the poor."
The distinction here is somewhat subjective. To my mind, Obama's career choice was likely more deeply formative, more comprehensive as an anti-poverty strategy and more noteworthy in its lack of connection to routes towards traditional success. But honestly, they both deserve real credit, and the fact that both major contenders for the nomination began their careers in these ways makes me proud to be a Democrat. Onward.
If the candidate's commitment and record tell us who is most willing, how can we evaluate who is most able? From where I sit, both Hillary and Obama appear to be both highly intelligent, competent people. But as John Edwards so often reminded us, no president can end poverty on their own. Transformational change of that magnitude requires an equally large movement of people fighting to make it happen. So who is building that movement?
Again, I'm a web guy. If you look at the numbers, they both have passionate grassroots support, but the difference is clear. Obama supporters have created 9x more local groups, 10x more national groups, and 15x more personal blogs. Obama's web traffic, donors, and online to offline volunteers smash all records. And I can tell you, there's no technology or trick to generate that kind of energy -- it just has to be real.
But this goes beyond the numbers, and yes, far beyond the web. After all, Barack Obama isn't John Edwards, and I can't know if he'll actually put ending poverty at the top of his agenda. But by inspiring millions of people to believe in their own power to create change, I do know his campaign is laying the groundwork for those of us who will.
We always thought of winning the presidency as merely the first step in a generational effort to build One America -- and so it remains. We must keep speaking out, organizing, and fighting at every opportunity -- in every town hall, statehouse, Congressional house and the Whitehouse until poverty is history and the dream of One America becomes reality.
And right now, I believe we have to pick our best hope for a president who will be a partner in that effort. If Hillary is nominated she will deserve our vigorous support. But because of his commitment, his record, and his unique ability to swell our ranks with people fired up and ready to begin the struggle of a lifetime, I believe Barack Obama is that best hope.
So, can we still build One America? Yes. Yes we can.