Saturday, February 2, 2008

Barack Obama

Part seven in my 2008 Presidential Election commentary series, I present to you my take on Barack Obama's positions, as stated on the issues page of his website.

Barack Obama through the lens of Kelsey Atherton


Civil Rights - Obama's site reads differently than those of other candidates I've profiled so far. He opens with a quote, has a bullet point list about his priorities with regards to civil rights (each point redirecting further down the list to the section containing a one-two sentence statement), a synthesis of the problem, the previously mentioned short exposition list, and at the end there is a paragraph statement concerning his record, followed by a link to a .pdf of his plan. It's an interesting approach, and a very accessible one. It also means that the bulk of the plan, as stored in an inconvenient file type, is harder for the casual observer to critique; this is not a unique criticism, but it still holds merit.
Pay inequity, hate crimes, vote suppression, and drug policy are all labeled as civil rights concerns, and he is on solid ground with all of them. I am especially impressed by the inclusion of the disparity in crack vs powder cocaine laws as an issue of civil rights - powder cocaine is associated broadly with wealth, and more generally with the white, wealthy, suburban upper middle and upper class, while crack cocaine is a drug of poverty, associated with poor urban areas and minority, especially black communities. Federal law holds the penalties for crack cocaine as 100 times greater than the penalties for powder cocaine usage, and only two states of addressed this disparity as racist. Ohio increased the penalty for powder cocaine to the same as that of crack, and California recently considered (and I believe passed, though I may be wrong) lowering the penalty for crack down to the federal standard for powder cocaine.

This discussion of drug policy isn't a digression - it just shows some of the prior knowledge required for simple yet intelligent statements about how to reform the criminal justice system.
In his policy goals that follow, it makes sense that half of his plans focus on protecting both the suspected and the convicted from civil rights abuses and from unfair policy which is implicitly if not explicitly racist. Understanding the complexity of the issue, and the nature of institutionalized racism in our criminal system, and how fair treatment for criminals is a civil rights issue, is all very impressive and means he'd be an incredible attorney general, at the least. In his treatment of the one matter that seems less a legal issue and more of a standard "can we solve this with money well spent" issue, that is to say, in his treatment of ex-offenders needing support to avoid recidivism, it looks like a keen mind is at work here, and am ind that grasps the full reality of the issue. The only weakness of all this is that every statement is short, and that fuller explanations are going to be found in an elaborate pdf, the kind of material no fun to root through.

Economy - This section is large, and broken into eleven parts. The first part is "Tax Fairness for the Middle Class", and it focuses on a collection of relatively small refunds, aimed at the people least able to pay taxes. Most benefits are geared towards those making $50,000 a year or less, and are aimed a $500 to $3,000 refund or credit, combined with easier forms. It sounds knowledgable, which is a mixed blessing. I would like to think he knows what he's talking about, but I don't have the requisite knowledge to call him on it. Still, the premise I can support, and while I am generally opposed to tax cuts, this is after-tax returns mostly, and its to the people who cumulatively contribute the least of any income bracket, and tend to need government services and their few dollars the most. This is, as far as I can tell, good, but it is very little for the middle class.
Strengthen America's Workforce - this is an overlap with his education plan, so I will detail it there.
Strengthen and Enforce International Trade Agreements - The most interesting part of this plan is getting China to start playing fair in the global economy, which would mean a general cost increase to American consumers (who benefit the most from this) but a boon to American business (who are hurt by this). I'm intrigued, to say the least. His defense of US copyright is less fun, but it is against obvious counterfitters, and so doesn't have fair use implications, which is what I would worry about. Money for retraining is also good.
Support Small Businesses -His health care plan factors in here a bit, but the rest of this section is small measures, aimed at reducing (not eliminating) taxes to small business and making it easier to get loans (but not outright giving them capital). On the whole, this plan aims at lessening the cost of being a small business owner at a minimal cost to government. Sound if unexciting.
Investment in American Innovation - This section offers tax credits for research, words without plans about the need for more money to American scientists, and expansion of broadband, and addresses the digital divide. It's almost as though we have a presidential candidate (besides Ron Paul) who understands the internet - better, we have one who sees the internet as a potential common good.
Address the Subprime Mortgage Issue - This section is filled with a technocrats jargon, and it is simultaneously impressive and rather inaccessible. There's a lot, aimed at hitting many aspects of credit, and it sounds good, but again I don't have the knowledge to evaluate how good it is. It's reasoned out, and logically it makes sense, but gah. So much to look through, so much to go over, and when the summaries are hard to read I can only imagine the actual legislation will be rough.
I'll surmise the rest of this section, without excessive detail. If you feel the need to read a specific section, go for it, but I recommend no more than one section per sitting. It's rather dense.
A crackdown on tax havens is good, as a way to get money that should be paid to the government into the treasury is a good idea, and I have a hard time seeing how that money is better utilized in the hands of its rightful owners. Promotion of a competitive marketplace is good. New ways to protect intellectual property is good, so long as it supports the creative commons, and doesn't criminalize such activity as file sharing. His "help low income workers enter the job market" plan is decent, and includes the knowledge of multiple factors contributing to both un- and em- ployability. A living wage is good.

Disabilities - this section is bare bones, but the sentence it contains is nice, and it is good to include everyone. Community living I hope sounds like a good idea, but I am a bit skeptical.

Education - He likes the goal of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but is upset at the implementation. He finds the dropout rate appalling. There are other qualms, but I like to focus on the many kids who don't make it out of high school, rather than those who have to take remedial classes in college. Not that both aren't problems; one just seems more grave to me.
His head-start plans extend to infancy, making him the second democrat fundraiser to tackle education that young. It includes providing child care for working class families, which is always good. He'll fund NCLB, and make it so that schools that need improvement are granted more funding, rather than punished. It's novel, really. He also has about eight plans aimed at getting kids motivated, the help they need, the idea that they can go to college, and instruction appropriate to the language they know, all geared at reducing the dropout rate. Yay. He proposing a military-academy like teaching system, with paid tuition in return for years in the profession, which is also really good. " He will also provide incentives to give teachers paid common planning time so they can collaborate to share best practices." Yay again. College tax credits (at around $4,000) for just the first year for most eligible Americans is a nice move, but with too many qualifiers to really stick. Simplified financial aid forms for college also sound good, and I am rather excited about the whole of this plan in general. It has the ring to it of someone who understands how public education works, and has an eye towards fixing flaws instead of abolishing the whole system.

Energy and Environment - He refers to oil consumption as an addictive behavior, and he doesn't question global warming, preferring to list observed changes that are negative. I'll ask John to verify the list, but here they are: "glaciers are melting faster; the polar ice caps are shrinking; trees are blooming earlier; more people are dying in heat waves; species are migrating, and eventually many will become extinct." I know at the least that heat wave death is offset by fewer deaths due to cold, but that doesn't mean more people aren't dying in heat waves. That's critique of his framing, however, and not critique of his knowledge or plan.
The carbon cap market appears again, as is appropriate. There's a good many plans here to fund clean energy programs, train clean energy workers, and help businesses become green, or start out that way. Seems like the sensible thing to do. Less reasonable, as the economy experiences all sorts of problems with food shortages, is the many plans to improve biofuels production. It is nice to know that Obama's plan is aimed at rural investment, though. An increase in fuel economy standards is another blow for sanity and intelligence, and the rest of the post (energy efficiency, US leadership in climate change) is good, good stuff. Excepting biofuels (and thats a large exception to make), this is a good plan. Not great, but certainly decent.

Ethics - The section opens with jabs at the Bush Administartion, and the segues into good statements, like this one: "Obama will create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format." Searchable is key here, and that is all kinds of exciting. This is something Creative Commons founder and now anti-corruption worker Lawrence Lessig has called for, in such brilliant speeches as this one. This reform takes precedence for me, though independent watchdogs and campaign finance reform are fine too. The searchability of databases is mentioned in several other places in this section, and that's great. He understands the power of the internet to check on the government, and then he drops this little slice of awesome "Sunlight Before Signing: Too often bills are rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them. As president, Obama will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days." Wow. There's lots of gems here, and the whole thing reads as though someone watched every problem with lobbyists for the past seven years, maybe twenty, and then sat down and wrote out how to prevent every single one. Not that the methods will be terribly effective at first, but my god, they will be there. This is fantastic, and on this alone, he'd make a great attorney general. This is an incredible chunk of solutions. Simply incredible.

Faith - I'll start by saying the idea of this section scares me. The section is small, contains a video of a speech, and allays my fears with this quote "Senator Obama also laid down principles for how to discuss faith in a pluralistic society, including the need for religious people to translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values during public debate". I like the discussion of the role of faith with moral imperialism, so this is good.

Family - This overlaps with a lot of sections, notably economy, education, civil rights (where absent fathers are concerned), and healthcare. I'll start with unique mentions, like universal seven sick days a year, for every employed person. A new automatic workplace pension program is proposed, which seems like it should be different than Social Security, but functions on the same government mechanism of pay removed from wages (only this time, moved to accounts that are different in a way I don't understand), and is coupled with more tax credits. The overall family plan is good, and it is good that the effect these many programs have on the family is recognized, but the section feels largely redundant.

Fiscal - The problem is simply stated here, as tax cuts and increasing debt both leaving an awful lot of money out of the national treasury. Combined, they make a nice $8 trillion. Unsurprisingly, the Bush tax cuts are gone. More surprisingly, the public accountability and watchdog proposed in ethics are both expected to reduce pork barrel spending to 2001 levels. Competitively bid on contracts are mentioned, and so efficiency must be the money saver here. Wasteful Medicare spending, wasteful oil and natural gas subsidies, and wasteful subsidies to the private student loan industry are all marked for elimination. Wasteful is a good word to put in front of a program to justify cutting it. Ending tax havens is addressed again. It's too bare a program for those who really want to see a stab at fiscal conservatism, though the flaw has no plans. I'd expect this section to change the most by the time the election cycle is over, to accommodate moderate voters motivated by fiscal responsibility.

Foreign Policy - This page has a militancy to it, and a moral purpose behind it, which is great for those who idealize political theorists that are not Machiavelli. His "Ending the war in Iraq" plan shares one caveat with Hillary Clinton's, and that is the shift from ending the war as a senator to ending the war as a president. It leaves a year to campaign, where valid action should be taken towards this end, and where it hasn't been and won't be, because the president will fix this, and not the senate. Otherwise, his record on Iraq in fantastic, and I'm all for having a candidate that didn't support the war. His withdrawal plan takes 16 months, leaving it slower than Kucinich, Gravel, and especially Richardson, but unlike Hillary, his plan has a determined end. Sort of. Some troops kept to protect the embassy and US personnel, and some troops so that "if al Qaeda attempts to build a base within Iraq, he will keep troops in Iraq or elsewhere in the region to carry out targeted strikes on al Qaeda." That quote sounds a bit absurd, as al Qaeda is only barely paramilitary, and its actions lend itself to hideouts and not headquarters. Leaving troops just doesn't strike me as good, and expecting those troops to find a nice enemy barracks strikes me as silly. Moving on, he calls for an Iraqi constitutional convention, under the guidance of the United Nations. Bragging about the aggressiveness of his plan for involving Syria and Iran in Iraq's border security strikes me as silly again, but having such a plan is good. Money for reconstruction is good, and $2 billion sure is a lot of money, and the aim of humanitarian aid to Iraqis in bordering countries is good, but I am wary of money sent into chaotic political environments.
Iran - While he condemns Iran for denying the Holocaust and having sought out nuclear weapons (both of which are easy to condemn, and one of which affects political realities in dealing with Iran), he says "but Obama believes that we have not exhausted our non-military options in confronting this threat; in many ways, we have yet to try them", which is a good point. He favors tough diplomacy, which is a rather blunt instrument and an unsavory approach. It's offering a child the choice between a toy and a beating, and while it means the choice is obvious, it doesn't really allow the country much dignity in making the choice. Hopefully, Iran would begrudgingly play along.
He favors actual diplomacy and engagement with world leaders instead of refusing to talk to belligerent states, which is a "well, duh" sort of a thing for me, and so good to see in place. Several multinational groups and programs are mentioned and supported (the section is long, so you'll have to go there for more details). An important note is working with East Asian nations to check China.
Nuclear Weapons - Keeping nukes away from terrorists is a good start. A global ban on the production of nuclear materials is interesting, but may feed the black market more than controlled production would. Hopefully, nukes are such a good that can be permanently secured away, but people are really good at getting around restraints. Good objective, though. Sanctions against North Korea and Iran for break the non-proliferation treaty seem a bit late and a bit useless. Working with Russia to reduce stockpiles, halt production, and move away from cold war readiness is a decent move, and made politically viable by his refusal to eliminate a US stockpile so long as nuclear weapons exist.
Building a 21st Century Military - More guys in boots for the Army and the Marines is good. Expanding the National Guard to serve overseas is something I'm opposed to. Adapting the military to new capabilities only makes sense, and restoring trust to soldiers who were sent into battle ill-equipped and untrained (perhaps by equipping and training them?) is sensible.
He makes more good points, the most interesting of which is a Director of National Intelligence insulated from political pressure by having a fixed term. Technocratic but smart.
Oh, and in his last bit about standing by Israel, he mentions missile defense. Gah!

Healthcare - The first part of his program can be boiled down to a "National minimum Healthcare Standard", similar to a minimum wage. This standard will be part of a plan all Americans are welcome to partake of (a plan provided by the government, and will be enforced by a government agency that monitors all health insurance plans and makes sure they hold up to the minimum standard. Employers will have to make meaningful contributions to private insurance plans that exceed the national minimum standard, or they will have to pay into the national plan. Portability (from job to job or to unemployment) will be facilitated by the new agency. Two other important points from the first part of this section: all children have to be covered, by this plan or another, as a matter of law; states are allowed to experiment with healthcare programs, provided the guarantee the federal minimum standard in their coverage.

The second section is focused on modernizing healthcare. Lots of emphasis is placed on the cost-cutting use of information technology, coupled with more complete coverage that can result with everyone operating from the safe information about a patient. There's a piece about reimbursement of insurance companies to help them deal with the costs of a catastrophic illness, provided that the reimbursement is used to make insurance still affordable. The section ends with two statements, one about wanting to break up insurance trusts to foster free-market competition, and one about generic drug accessibility to US consumers, including safe drugs from other countries. The statements about transparency help place trust in the power of consumer choice, and the rest of this section aims to let the free market function so as to greater benefit the consumer while still making the business a viable one. It's a very center-left approach, using government to keep capitalism viable, and making sure that government power, even in guaranteeing such a right as healthcare, serves primarily to regulate and promote competition; that the government provides a standard of healthcare functions more to raise the bare minimum than to substitute government provided goods for privately provided goods.

The last section of his healthcare page is devoted to a series of diverse issues. He covers lots of ground, supporting biomedical research as well as fighting AIDS worldwide, and protecting children from lead and mercury poisoning. What is remarkable about this bit here, though, is the way he addresses disabilities and autism. He mentions his background as a civil rights lawyer, and he connects that to advocacy work for these people, understanding how different things need to be so that these people can "have equal rights and opportunities", and in doing all of this, he treats these people with human dignity.

Homeland Security - While the section could be terrifying, it was instead rather mundane, arguing for protecting chemical plants against terrorist attack, tracking spent nuclear fuel, protecting drinking water, and protecting against radioactive seepage. Run of the mill "yes, lets protect ourselves sensibly" stuff. It also calls for evacuation plans for special needs evacuees (elderly, low-income, disabled, homeless), and for centralized databases to be formed after an emergency so that separated families can reconnect. Simple, sensible, a tad dull.

Immigration - His plan summary is too brief for my tastes. His mention of "additional infrastructure" could be read as fence (which is what I think is intended) but is too vague to know for certain. His notions of making legal immigration easier, faster, and allowing for large families seems sensible. Crackdowns on those who employ illegals will further drive the practice underground, but doesn't seem to me to be a sufficient way to remove the appeal of immigrating illegally. Provisions for "undocumented immigrants who are in good standing" to legally become US citizens are good; the fine, mandatory learning English, and movement to the back of the line for legal immigration are okay, but nothing spectacular, and is probably a move towards moderates and centrists. Promoting economic development in Mexico is a good move, though it ignores the large percentage of illegal immigrants from the rest of Latin America (unless it aims to employ them in Mexico). It's an okay plan, and I'm sure the .pdf fleshes it out more, but on the whole it is more towards the center than I would like. It fits in with a legalistic mindset, although it fails to address those in the nation illegally and in good standing for the duration of becoming a citizen, and it fails to address those in the nation illegally who are not in good standing.

Iraq - What is said here overlaps with the first section I've discussed under "Foreign Policy", so my analysis of his Iraq plan can be found there.

Poverty - This section overlaps (as one would expect) with Economy, Civil Rights, Education, and Energy and the Environment, leading a sensible observer to believe that Obama understands that seemingly simple problems are complex and have complex solutions. Since there is a lot of ground to cover, I'll hit upon the notable points and aim at avoiding redundancy. Federal oversight in urban planning and dollars towards public transportation for low income areas is good. A "Green Jobs Corp" aimed at disadvantaged youth that employs them in energy efficiency fields and features job training is very cool, provided it actually happens. "Promise Neighborhoods", modeled after a program from Harlem, and aimed at providing community support networks for youth in high-crime/high-violence/low academic performance neighborhoods is interesting; like all small model programs proposed by candidates, I am skeptical of its effectiveness and of its genuine benefit to that nation, but the proposal seems solid. No new drawbacks are presented in this section; programs I fin fault with her I have found fault with in sections prior to this one.

Rural - This is another surprising place to find programs for yeoman farmers (Richardson's site being the first), but Obama has a plan to help make being a small farmer more economically viable and competitive. The gist of that is requiring nation of origin labeling on food, allowing for organic certification, promotion of local food networks, and breaking up of farmer-meat packer trusts, which discriminate against independent farmers. Seemingly hypocritically, he is also willing to make it easier for farmers to own meat packing operations. There are also lots of environmental protections included, incentives to make the rural life better (internet, doctors, teachers), and support for biofuels, that latter of which I discuss above in his "green energy" section.

Service - This involves a lot of jobs for youth (and some for retirees). More than tripling the size of AmeriCorps, doubling the PeaceCorp, and creating new service organizations are a large part of his plan here. Also important are 50 mandatory hours of community service/year for middle and high school students, as well as 100 mandatory hours for college students accepting a $4,000 scholarship (mentioned in "Education), and a requirement that at least 25% of college workstudy jobs become service-study. Being someone who chose workstudy tutoring as a job because it was meaningful, and someone annoyed at the lack of civic duty generally found in the population, this stuff is great. Also, it hearkens back to "ask what you can do for your country", and the notion of willing sacrifice to promote change, and these are good things. The approach may be a bit heavy-handed, but given that there seems to be lots of freedom of choice as to what community service is done, it doesn't seem an excessive imposition to me. People won't like it, and its moral imperialism to assume that they should suck it up and do it, but I have to admit, I like the idea.

Seniors and Social Security - He doesn't want to privatize Social Security or raise the retirement age, and he instead wants to increase the maximum amount of income that can be taxed into social security, raising it up from the current, just under 100,000 limit. I'd say abolish the maximum entirely, but certainly raising the limit is a step in the right direction. Reforming corporate bankruptcy law contains gems like "telling companies that they cannot issue executive bonuses while cutting worker pensions", and seems a fairly comprehensive way to place the burden of a companies failure (cost foremost among that burden) on the executives and not the workers. Automatic workplace pensions (that employees can opt-out of) are another good move, and all tax credits offered seem reasonable. Affordable healthcare is key to this segment of the population, so lots of his healthcare reform aims are stated here. Improving the Senior Corps also sounds neat.

Technology - His defense of the internet as free and open and as a democratizing entity is incredible; needless to say, he support net neutrality. He also support net neutrality without saying "net neutrality", and instead explains the debate and why he doesn't support internet providers being allowed to charge sites for faster load times. He genuinely understands the internet, and he likes it, and he wants it to remain as it is. Yay is an understatement.
Encouraging diversity in broadcast media is another good point, though he doesn't say he will break up media conglomerates. Sure would be nice if he did.
Public broadcasting online? Realizing that kids may be on the internet and that it can be beneficial to them? This is fantastic. Optional safety controls, and ratings instead of automatic censorship, put the parenting back in the hands of parents (and not the government), and give parents the tools needed to effectively parent is very good. His whole emphasis on safety without violating the first amendment is all kinds of sensible, and attacking the people who "abuse the internet to exploit children" through increased law enforcement resources is again the sensible way to go.
His protection of privacy is good; his support of "updating surveillance laws and ensuring that law enforcement investigations and intelligence-gathering relating to U.S. citizens are done only under the rule of law" leads me to believe he favors legalizing more forms of surveillance, which is a bit scary.
There's a lot of redundancy with his ethics reform here, as the internet is key in that, but it's more fleshed out, and it's almost tasty.
A person (and, presumably, the appropriate number of underlings) responsible for technology is very good. This office will also allow for both the communication network recommended by the 9/11 commission report and the capacities necessary to avoid many of the Katrina aftermath problems.
Expanded broadband and wireless is good.
The section is gigantic, and lots of it is elaborations of uses of technology touched upon in other sections. The overwhelming point is that he gets technology, and he gets the internet, and he would make sane and sensible polices regarding the internet and technology while protecting freedom of speech and the consumer against abuses by business.

Veterans - Veterans deserve healthcare, and everything our government can offer them to honor them for their service. Special attention paid to mental health and to integration back into civilian life are good. The section is a bit thin on detail, but that's where the .pdf can come in handy.



Barack Obama is a knowledgable individual, whose technocratic vocabulary seems geared to overriding fears about his inexperience. This is a double-edged thing, as it means that he sounds like he knows more than I do (and, to be fair, he almost certainly does), but it also means that I can't adequately analyze a lot, especially in the earlier sections. My impression is that he knows his stuff, and that he is fully capable of drafting and initiating legislation that will be effective; this is the role of a Senator, not a President, but it is valuable knowledge to have, especially when a lot of what a president promises has to be handed to someone else to introduce as a law.

There are some tough sells for me hear, notably on Iraq and Iran, and on security (as mentioned in background statements) and Immigration. I think these polices are too militant, too hard-line and dismissive of the humanity of the people being dealt with. I am, however, won over by the overwhelmingly brilliant ethics reform, and the generally agreeable policies everywhere else. The transparency offered by ethics reform provides for a new check and balance, of voter awareness on corporate campaign donation, and also generally allows for a better government, more responsible to voters. Not everything is as comprehensive as I would like, which probably means that it is doable and even in its present form would have a possible if hard fight through Congress.

Barack Obama is a gifted senator, and in that office would do our nation a great good for as many years as he served. He'd make a keen Attorney General, as his legal mind is sharp. Other offices suit him less, with the exception (as is most relevant here) of the Presidency, where he'd be a principled person with noble ideas and the sense to not expand his own power. Indeed, a lot of what he proposes limits the benefits to elected officials, and it is reassuring to see that politicians exist who are still willing to do that.

For Democratic candidate to the Presidency of the United States of America in 2008, I endorse Barack Obama.

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