Back when Senator Obama started his campaign for the Democratic nomination, I was as thrilled as any left wing democrat, with his brilliant, inspiring speeches filled with promises to do just about everything we thought needed to be done. The man seemed almost too good to be true. Since previous disappointments, personal and political, have left me deeply committed to the mantra, "watch what he does not what he says," I decided that before going any further, I had to do a bit of research on the man.
What I found out:
While much of his voting record, especially in the Illinois legislature was very good, some of his actions were disturbingly contrary to the rhetoric and the idealistic image he conveyed. Three examples follow:
Obama professed to be deeply opposed to the Iraq war and committed to getting our troops out as soon as possible. But in the 2007 Connecticut Democratic primary he endorsed Joe Lieberman, probably the senate's most enthusiastic supporter of the war. He contributed funds from his own Pac to Lieberman, and even flew to Connecticut to speak at a fund-raising dinner for him. Lieberman had been challenged by anti-war candidate Ned Lamont. When Lamont won the nomination -- leading Lieberman to run as an independent -- Obama supported the Democratic candidate, but according to a former Lamont senior staff member, his support was lukewarm at best. Among other disappointments, was the fact that he refused to come to Connecticut to support their candidate.
While Senator Obama voted against a bankruptcy bill that would have made it more difficult for people to file for bankruptcy, he voted against an amendment the would have set a 30% limit on interest charged.
In the year 2006, when Illinois residents living near an Exelon nuclear plant, learned that the corporation had not disclosed radioactive leaks at the plant, they were outraged. This led Obama to introduce a Senate bill that would have required all plant owners to inform local and state authorities immediately of even small leaks. In Iowa, candidate Obama boasted that this bill was "the only nuclear legislation that I've passed ... I just did it last year."
Just one problem -- the bill never passed. While he initially stood up for the bill, he eventually made changes wanted by Republicans, Exelon, and nuclear regulators. The revised bill which did not require mandatory reporting, was never taken up in the full Senate, and never passed.
I loath the loan shark traits of our credit card industry, have been vehemently opposed to the Iraq war from day one, and horrified by the subsequent slaughter. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have left me highly skeptical of nuclear energy and in favor of the most stringent regulations when nuclear plants already exist. Not surprisingly, Obama's actions left me both disappointed and convinced that far from the idealistic left winger that so many people thought he was, he was in fact a very pragmatic middle of the road politician.
But why had he taken these particular steps, I asked myself? In the case of Lieberman, it seems that he was ingratiating himself with the Democratic establishment which wanted Lieberman as their candidate.
His vote against putting a 30% cap on charge card interest rates, can only be understood by the fact that Wall Street financial firms were among his earliest and most generous supporters.
His willingness to water down his nuclear legislation to a point where it was essentially meaningless can be understood by his inclination to seek compromises, however weak they may be. Besides which, since 2003, Exelon executives and employees have contributed hundreds of thousands to Obama's Senate and Presidential campaigns.
For those of us who have been through many cycles of political hope and disappointment, President Obama's record so far represents an all too familiar mixture of negative and positive acts. We are deeply disturbed that Obama has surrounded himself with economic advisors such as Larry Summers and Timothy Geitner who bear some responsibility for our economic collapse, that he has chosen not to prosecute Bush, Cheney, Rove, and other such political criminals, that it seems unlikely that a significant public option will be included in his health bill, to mention only a few of our frustrations. We are disappointed that he recently signed into law a bloated $680 billion defense bill for the coming year. But on the other hand, we appreciate that he ended production of the F-22 fighter jet, as well as a number of other unnecessary, expensive weapons systems. We appreciate that President Obama has made significant investments in technology jobs and green energy, has expanded stem cell research, expanded health care for children, and has turned around our foreign policy to consult with our friends and negotiate with our enemies. So we see considerable improvement and we are so grateful that Dubya is gone, and that we have President Obama, not President McCain.
But there are indications that millions of young people who for the first time in their lives became politically involved and worked tirelessly for a highly idealized Obama, are already becoming disillusioned and are liable to not only not get involved but in some cases, not even vote in future elections.
Obama the pragmatic politician knows that he owes his election in large part to the enthusiasm, high energy, and support of these young people, and that he will need them in 2012. This empowers them: Instead of walking away from politics, young people need to bring that same energy and enthusiasm into major and ongoing political action aimed at making him take major steps toward living up to his promise.