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Wednesday, July 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 80.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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COVER STORY

Barack Obama appeals to the best parts of our national psyche

Obama raises the possibility of national transformation -- as a more inclusive, multicultural, truly democratic society.
Obama raises the possibility of national transformation -- as a more inclusive, multicultural, truly democratic society.
Credit:Joeff Davis
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A neighbor came by to give us an Obama yard sign. As I explained that I don't put up yard signs for candidates I'm writing about, my 7-year-old seized the sign and began to march back and forth in front of the house, followed by her younger sister. Some neighbor kids who had been riding their bikes on the sidewalk joined in. Three white girls and three black girls, pursued by an enthusiastic toddler, they marched up and down our block chanting "Vote for Obama!" at the top of their lungs.

"Obama did something very important, because me and Kaylanee couldn't even be friends if it weren't for him," my daughter's friend told her later. "Black and white were not supposed to be together."

"That was Martin Luther King," my daughter corrected.

"Oh," her friend said. "I don't know what Obama did."

"He hasn't done anything yet," said our 7-year-old sagely.

Maybe not. But his campaign seems like it could change the world.

Is the presidential election about race? Democrats and Republicans both say no. Obama has deliberately run a "post-racial" campaign, not wanting to scare away white voters. McCain, though he has benefited from ugly Internet race-baiting and subtler appeals to white bigotry, makes no overt references to race.

But Obama's tremendous appeal, the second-graders in our neighborhood can tell you, is largely due to the symbolic power of his candidacy. It's not just about white and black. He raises the possibility that our nation could see itself in an entirely different light - as a more inclusive, multicultural, truly democratic society. He raises hopes that we could overcome not just the abysmal Bush years, but our country's worst qualities - the meanness, provincialism and fear that have grown as America becomes increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.

At the Democratic convention, Obama did exactly what he needed to do - laid out a specific platform, appealed to working-class voters, and took a few hard swipes at John McCain.

I was there in Denver, watching the speech next to Hillary delegate William Cobb, a former machinist from Kenosha. Cobb's was the hard-luck story the Democrats highlighted throughout their convention.

"For 25 years I had a good-paying factory job with all the benefits," he told me. But he was laid off in 2004, at age 60, and now works at Pizza Hut. "That plus my Social Security pays the bills," he said. It's not the retirement he imagined.

During Obama's speech, Cobb listened intently and softly concurred "uh-huh," "mmhm," "yes."

When Obama said the "ownership society" the Republicans like to talk about really means "You're on your own," detailing how people are left without health insurance or good jobs and told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps even if they don't have boots, Cobb said, "That's me!"

He clucked appreciatively when Obama chastised McCain adviser Phil Gramm's comments about a "mental recession" and, especially, "a nation of whiners." And he nodded as Obama connected his humble family background, the themes of hard work and middle-class struggle, and the suffering of people like him under an incompetent and unjust Republican administration.

"I think he nailed everything," Cobb said afterward, as country music played in the background.

Just being at Mile High Stadium, in that diverse crowd, listening to audio of the "I Have a Dream" speech, it was impossible not to be moved. I talked with delegates from New Orleans who had lost everything in Katrina but spoke optimistically about an outpouring of youth energy that will rebuild the Ninth Ward and elect Obama.

Will all that positive emotion be overcome by Republican snarkiness and the pit bull with lipstick?

Perhaps. It has happened before.

In 2004 the Democrats put on an uplifting convention featuring inspiring speeches by Obama and John Edwards, only to lose to a Republican ticket that shamelessly played to voters' resentments and fears.

In St. Paul, the Republicans rehashed their old culture war themes and retold McCain's POW story again and again and again. Then we got the smug know-nothingism of Sarah Palin - George W. Bush in a skirt.

Whereas the Democrats are offering solutions - expanded health care, affordable college education, a serious investment in alternative fuel, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq - the Republicans offered chants of "USA! USA!" and "Drill, baby, drill!"

The difference is clear.

On the economy: Obama predicted the housing crisis back in March 2007. He has cited shrinking wages, and declining access to college throughout his campaign. He wants to put $50 billion into a WPA-style effort to rebuild our infrastructure. And while he's the biggest recipient of campaign dough from Wall Street, he calls for more government regulation and oversight of investment firms, unlike McCain, who coauthored the deregulation bill that paved the way for the current crisis.

On taxes: Despite McCain's misleading ads, Obama offers more tax relief for the middle class. Under the Obama plan, middle-income households would receive an average tax cut of 4.6%, or $2,136, compared with McCain's 0.7%, or $319.

On energy: Obama promises to invest $150 billion in clean energy over the next 10 years, reduce greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050, increase fuel efficiency standards 4% per year, and put one million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015. McCain's top energy proposal is more oil and natural gas exploration.

On health care: The Obama plan offers "affordable" (you still have to pay) national health insurance. Those who don't buy in can stay with private HMOs. There is mandatory coverage for children. McCain wants to give people tax credits to buy their own insurance.

On Iraq and foreign policy: Obama is suddenly looking more like Bush. That's because Bush has lately adopted many of Obama's ideas. Like pursuing diplomatic negotiations with Iran and North Korea; agreeing to a "time horizon" for withdrawal from Iraq; and shifting troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. Bush also has eschewed McCain's tough talk on Russia and instead endorsed the Obama idea of giving $1 billion in aid to Georgia.

On education: Obama emphasizes high-quality, affordable early childhood education, expanding Head Start and increasing federal childcare money. And he proposes a universal $4,000 college tax credit. McCain favors accountability and standards, and would "simplify" existing tax breaks for students and their parents.

Obama's choice of Joe Biden as his running mate was the opposite of the Palin pick. Where McCain went for someone with rock star quality who would grab headlines, Obama chose ballast. Biden is one of the longest-serving members of the Senate and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is extremely knowledgeable about foreign affairs, an experience boost Obama obviously thought he needed.

But Biden is also famous for putting his foot in his mouth. Remember when he called Obama the first "clean and articulate" African American candidate? If, in the VP debate, Biden sighs, like Al Gore, or otherwise seems condescending or eggheadish, the Republicans will jump all over him. But the fact that he knows what he's talking about ought to count for something.

From a progressive point of view, Obama is not a perfect candidate. He says the right things about investments in human needs and infrastructure, but his plans are actually pretty modest. And while he denounced the Iraq war when others were scared of being called unpatriotic, it's not clear if and when he'll actually get all our troops out.

Still, an Obama administration would mean a profound change of direction. And that's exactly what this country needs.

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