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In response, Obama reiterated his call for a “new security” that would involve the doubling of foreign aid. “We have come to view security only in terms of military spending, and military action,” he complained. He said he has spoken to terrorism experts who have told him that there are only about 10,000 committed terrorists, and the rest are people facing hardship, or being educated in madrassas that teach hate. “That environment allows the hardcore terrorists to recruit,” Obama said.
It isn’t “naive” or “soft” to argue that humanitarian assistance could be used to reduce terrorism, he said, but simply a matter of making a smart investment. “If you spend the money up front, you don’t end up having to spend as much money on the back end on much more costly military interventions,” he said.
Obama provided the example of the Marshall Plan as an instance of foreign aid contributing to our long-term security. There is an obvious problem with that analogy. Before instituting the Marshall Plan, we first had to defeat the Nazis. We didn’t attempt to deliver humanitarian assistance to Europe or try to re-educate Germans while Hitler was still in power. The prime breeding grounds for terrorists are in nations ruled by corrupt totalitarian governments hostile to the United States. As long as those governments are still in place, it is unlikely that they will take too kindly to American efforts to feed and re-educate their people.
Obama does not even bother to pay lip service to going after terrorist groups in his standard stump speech, which indicates where his heart really lies. In outlining his top priorities, he talks about pulling out of Iraq, fighting global warming, achieving energy independence, creating universal health care, and improving education. He sounds quite genuine in his concern about all of those issues, but fighting terrorism does not make the cut.
The core of Obama’s message in his run for president may be captured in a refrain he uses in his speeches, that “it’s time to turn the page.” More than anything, Obama’s candidacy taps into a desire among a certain portion of the electorate to move beyond September 11, to return to a time when terrorism may have been a part of political life, but far from the central focus. It is only human nature that the more time that elapses after a traumatic event, the less it stings, and the more people desire to return to normalcy. As we move farther away from September 11 without another terrorist attack, it is only natural that this tendency will manifest itself and people will want to “turn the page.”
That is why, though it is just a silly button slogan, the phrase “Carpe Diem” may be the best way to describe the rationale behind Obama’s candidacy. Before he announced his intention to run, many pundits argued that the 45-year-old with less than three years in the U.S. Senate should wait until he gets more experience. Some still consider his campaign a dry run, or a bid for the vice-presidential nomination. But clearly, he intends to capitalize on this particular moment in American history. He is, in fact, seizing the day.
TO SEIZE THE DAY, HOWEVER, he’ll have to get past Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, and she will not go quietly. Over the course of the campaign, it is likely that everything about Obama will come out in the worst possible light, from his admission of past cocaine use to his controversial land purchase from indicted businessman and fundraiser, Tony Rezko. Clinton still has the support of many in the party establishment, and benefits from Bill’s popularity among black voters. Rep. Charles Rangel has already endorsed her over Obama.
Hillary will also do her best to portray herself as battle hardened. In campaign appearances, she recalls the 1993 fight over her healthcare plan, joking, “I still have the scars to prove it.” And in February, she said of Republicans, “I’m the one person they are most afraid of. Bill and I have beaten them before, and we will again.”
But considering that Democrats vehemently oppose the war, want change, and are sick of divisiveness, it would actually be odd for them to choose somebody who voted for the war, who is the most polarizing figure in politics, and who has already occupied the White House for eight years, over a fresh face who opposed the war all along.
Hillary has dispatched Bill to make the case that the media has exaggerated the differences between her and Obama on Iraq, arguing that since Obama joined the U.S. Senate, their voting records are practically identical. But the bottom line is that she voted to authorize the war (for which she still hasn’t apologized) and in 2002 Obama called it a “dumb war.”
Another problem Hillary faces is that to the extent she tries to use her years as first lady to emphasize her experience, and to deploy Bill, it reinforces Obama’s narrative that he’s the candidate who most represents change. It is interesting to speak to Obama boosters about why they prefer him to Hillary.
“You know, my feeling is the country is too big to go from Bush to Clinton, from Bush to Clinton,” Robert Gomperts of Richmond told me before Obama took the stage there. “Enough already. That would be 28 years of two families. We don’t have dynasties here. I think [Hillary Clinton’s] general inclinations are right, but she’s too calculating for my taste. I think everything she does is calculated by what kind of effect it will have, and we’ve had a lot of that. So I’m looking for something new.”
Brenda MacLellan, an eighth grade teacher from Londonderry, New Hampshire, said she was turned off by Clinton after meeting her at a February town hall meeting in Concord. A one-time John Kerry delegate, she is now actively supporting Obama, along with her husband.
“Here I am a woman, who wouldn’t mind a woman president, a lot of my friends are going to vote for her because of Bill, so I was really torn,” MacLellan told me after the Rye town hall meeting. “But when I think of Barack, and where he stood on civil rights, and thinking about the real people, that’s what we need again. We don’t need a Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton dynasty.”
One can see a scenario in which this desire for change expresses itself not only in the primary, but the general election itself. Historically, when Americans are unhappy with the way things are, they elect presidents to repair flaws they see in the current administration. Jimmy Carter seemed like an honest guy to help us recover from Watergate, Ronald Reagan was the ideal choice for us to recover from the malaise of the Carter years, and Bill Clinton felt our pain at a time when the elder President Bush was seen as out of touch. With many Americans tired of hearing about war and terrorism, and fed up with the divisiveness of the Bush years, there is a certain demand for a healer, and the Oprah-approved Obama is well suited for such a role.
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