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Sherman Yellen Headshot

Obama, Emily Dickinson, Hope and Me

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It's a short poem but well worth reading past its first catch-phrase line. I haven't done so since college and that was when Emily Dickinson may well have been alive.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Clearly, Emily Dickinson was one of the lucky ones as far as hope goes. Housebound, reclusive, romantic, living a comfortable if confined New England village life, she gave her hope feathers, not to fly away from her but to accompany her during the storms that come into even the most sheltered existence. I'm not so sure about what hope has planned for Obama supporters, and there are days when I fear that hope is about to take a long flight that may not carry us along.

Last week I was watching Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster having one of those fear making focus groups with a table full of middle class Pennsylvania voters on CSpan. It was hard for a committed Obama voter like me to watch, but it was good shock therapy. Here were people suffering economic struggles, fears for their own future and that of their children, disgust with the mismanaged and misbegotten Iraq war and yet, and yet, and yet they were tilting towards McCain. It seemed to matter to some of them that Obama might be a secret Muslim (thanks to agents of the Grand Old Party on their smear-based internet fling); they feared that Obama lacked patriotism (how we rue those early days when he refused to pin the flag on the donkey) and Christianity (thank you Rev. Wright for being the gift that never stops giving) and were suspicious about him altogether -- fearing that he was not the good scout (like Hillary or McCain) who could lead them out of the dark woods in which they were presently lost. He was too new, too strange; too dark for the dark?

I write this, not to dash cold water on anyone's electoral hopes, but to introduce a note of reality into the giddy, pleasing statistics that often show Obama far ahead of McCain. These CSpan people were neither dolts nor bigots, although they often reflected their fears in a blunt way, nor were they brilliant. They were happy to consider themselves ordinary Americans, librarians, funeral directors, auto salesman, deeply concerned about their country and their personal lives. But it will take a great deal of Obama's message of hope -- grounded in specific programs that touch their lives -- to convince these people that his hope is not a thing of feathers, too light to stay earthbound and ready to lead them out of these hard and difficult time. I feel that without a strong articulation of Obama's plans, his programs for energy, the economy, education, the war, stated clearly and positively, he is in deep trouble. No, don't send me or them to the famous website to read the carefully crafted talking points. Been there. Done that.

We need to see the nuts and bolts, hear the hard truths, the how and the why of his Presidency coming from his own mouth. Most of all he cannot move to the right to capture the right. Won't happen. Triangulation might work with gas at two dollars a gallon, a rising housing market, and secure jobs at home. But today triangulation means strangulation -- killing the American dream by borrowing from the right -- the right that is so often wrong in foreign policy, banking, energy, and trade. It's going to be hard. Despite my call for Obama to hold fast to his principles to win over the doubters, I know that in such times as these people often turn to the familiar, and if McCain is nothing else, he is familiar, the avuncular figure who calls them "my friends" and who promises them security from terror, an impossible promise in an insecure world, who is selling them a car with the steering wrecked, the transmission shot -- and the brakes worn out -- but gleaming with a new simonize and a cheap sticker price. But let there be only one used car salesman in this election. Let the other be designing a new model for America to move us ahead.

For those of us who believe that Obama offers something good and wise to America in the form of a brilliant man and a potentially great leader -- albeit a flawed man who is too ready to compromise his principles as the election approaches -- we must remind the voters that McCain no longer has any principles to compromise. He has bartered them to the radical right in promises about the never-ending war (one they view as a theocratic battle), promising radical right judges for the Supreme Court, a flip and a flop and a slap on the back for everyone within flip flopping and backslapping range. Hey, haven't we been there before during these past eight years? So as I cheer on my team, "Go, Obama, Go!" I want hope to stay with us, but I fear it will fly away unless caution is thrown to the winds, and specifics are spoken loud and clear so that those folks in Pennsylvania can hear them.

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