Nicholas D. Kristof had a good column in The New York Times the other day that helped me define two key reasons why I'm coming to believe Barack Obama would be a great president. (Read a long excerpt here.) Kristof writes how:
Obama would bring to the White House an important experience that most other candidates lack: he has actually lived abroad. He spent four years as a child in Indonesia and attended schools in the Indonesian language, which he still speaks. ...
...Our biggest mistake since World War II has been a lack of sensitivity to other people’s nationalism, from Vietnam to Iraq. Perhaps as a result of his background, Mr. Obama has been unusually sensitive to such issues and to the need to project respect rather than arrogance. He has consistently shown great instincts.
Mr. Obama’s visit to Africa last year hit just the right diplomatic notes. In Kenya, he warmly greeted the president — but denounced corruption and went out of his way to visit a bold newspaper that government agents had ransacked. In South Africa, he respectfully but firmly criticized the government’s unscientific bungling of the AIDS epidemic. In Chad, he visited Darfur refugees.
After eight years with a president who rarely traveled abroad before his election (and whose international trips in office have been perfunctory and heavily scripted), it would be refreshing indeed to have a commander in chief with a personal command of - and commitment to - the world landscape.
Kristof's column is about Obama's internationalist bent, but in its introduction, he briefly makes another point that speaks to another key Obama strength:
His experience as an antipoverty organizer in Chicago, for example, gives him a deep grasp of a crucial 21st-century challenge — poverty in America — that almost all politicians lack. He says that grass-roots experience helps explain why he favors not only government spending programs, like early childhood education, but also cultural initiatives, like efforts to promote responsible fatherhood.
One of the best passages in Obama's announcement speech last month told of that $13,000-a-year community organizing job and how he worked in neighborhoods that had been racked by loss of good manufacturing jobs. "I saw that the problems people faced weren't simply local in nature - that the decision to close a steel mill was made by distant executives; that the lack of textbooks and computers in schools could be traced to the skewed priorities of politicians a thousand miles away; and that when a child turns to violence, there's a hole in that boy's heart that no government alone can fill."
The telling word there is alone ... no government alone can fill. Obama seems to realize that while government alone can't solve our problems, and that nonprofit and faith-based groups do much of the work, government can and must play a role.
When we elect our 44th president next year, we need someone who will be able to swiftly turn the ship of state and correct the arrogance and incompetence we've seen under the Bush administration. We need someone who recognizes that the best way to defeat terrorism abroad and at home is to help people conquer disease, illiteracy, and poverty. We need someone who can effectively chart a middle course between an unbridled welfare state and the Bush-backed "ownership society" that leaves the least among us fending for themselves. It's exciting to see someone emerge whose life's work and life experiences clearly make him up to these timely challenges.