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A Historian Against Obama

A star-studded group of historians, including several former Presidents of the American Historical Association, has issued a statement supporting Senator Barack Obama for President in 2008.  “…It is his qualities of mind and temperament that really separate Obama from the rest of the pack,” they write.  “Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democrat candidate for president showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness - or provided Americans with a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry older than the nation itself. As president, Barack Obama would only begin the process of healing what ails our society and ensuring that the U.S. plays a beneficial role in the world. But we believe he is that rare politician who can stretch the meaning of democracy. …”

I congratulate the “Historians for Obama” on obtaining the support of such a wide-ranging and impressive group of intellectuals, but I cannot join them in backing Senator Obama.  And since my distinguished colleagues have seen fit to offer their endorsement in their professional capacity as historians, I deem it necessary to respond to their collective statement.

I agree with the “Historians for Obama” that the situation America faces today is stark.  Ours is a nation soaked in Iraqi blood, shamed by the systematic use of torture, aggressively culpable in global climate change, increasingly unfair in domestic wealth and power distribution.  Our military is strained to the breaking point, our poor and ill increasingly helpless, our environment ravaged by corporate greed.  Seven years of regressive government have left Washington barren of moral authority both at home and in the world.  Simply put, America is in crisis.

To undo these wrongs and put America back on track, our next president will need to exercise what scholar James MacGregor Burns has termed “transformative leadership” – the ability to inspire Americans to collective action while pursuing policies of substantive change.  He or she will need to follow in the footsteps of men like Woodrow Wilson, who strode confidently into the halls of Versailles and shaped a League of Nations out of the ruins of World War I; Franklin Roosevelt, who substantially defeated the Great Depression in a mere hundred days of aggressive New Deal programs; and Harry Truman, whose Marshall Plan boldly fought Communism by rebuilding war-ravaged Europe.

Like the “Historians for Obama,” I initially had high hopes that Senator Obama would be such a transformative leader.  After hearing his electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I was prepared to enthusiastically support his candidacy.

But Senator Obama has not campaigned in the bold, pathbreaking manner in which he delivered that speech.  On the contrary, the entire record of his campaign is one of equivocation and half-measures.  To name just a few examples, Obama has sought to undo decades of successful government secularization by advocating for more overt expressions of faith in the halls of politics.  Despite his initial opposition to the war, he has refused to pledge an end to American military involvement in Iraq or to take the lead in Congress on ending the war.  He has campaigned with a homophobic minister, Rev. Donnie McClurkin, and refused to disavow McClurkin even when the man’s views were pointed out to him.  He has ceded leadership to other candidates on issues such as poverty, gay rights, and the President’s illegal warrantless wiretapping of American citizens.  These are not the actions of a strong leader, but of a man afraid to stand up for his beliefs.

(As an aside, I categorically reject the notion that I or anyone else should vote for Obama as “a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry” in what is shaping up to be easily the most critical election in a generation.  That a group of distinguished historians would advocate such a consideration, even in passing, is deeply troubling to me.  The only way to break with this tradition is to judge Senator Obama not by the color of his skin, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, but by the content of his character.)

Nor does Senator Obama’s 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, offer assurances that he comprehends the enormity of the next president’s task.  On the contrary, he appears to value compromise and civility over bold and decisive action. In his book, Obama looks longingly back to “a time before the fall, a golden age in Washington when, regardless of which party was in power, civility reigned and government worked.”  He writes, “I believe any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we’re in.”

On the contrary, I believe that Obama and his supporters misapprehend the moment we’re in.  The “Historians for Obama” want to “begin the process of healing what ails our society,” to bring back the ephemeral Camelot of the Kennedy years.  But they forget that Kennedy succeeded a moderate Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, who epitomized bipartisanship, supported the New Deal social welfare programs, and opposed McCarthyism and the “military-industrial complex” (a phrase he coined).  Kennedy’s message of unity and civility was desirable only because the opposition was respectable.

But there can be no civility or compromise with a president who spies on American citizens without a warrant, who tortures suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, who manipulates and fires U.S. Attorneys in order to politicize their positions, or who pardons an aide who has outed a CIA agent.  We do not need Obama to heal the rift between good and evil, or to bind up the nation’s wounds with Bush’s venom still in her bloodstream.  Obama’s balms of civility and bipartisanship may lull Americans into complacency, but they seem ill-equipped to end the outrages and injustices of the current administration’s policies and restore America to moral solvency.  Obama has given us no indication that he will exercise the bold, far-reaching, and, yes, partisan leadership that will be necessary to undo the travesties of the past seven years.

I believe that we as historians should not rush to support a candidate who has traded the audacity of hope for the mendacity of politics as usual.  History shows us that, in times of national strife, the American people demand transformative change; we do them no favors by endorsing a man who offers only empty words.

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