Friday, October 31, 2008

Why I'm For Barack Obama

It's time to set aside my typical ranting and simply state why I just voted for Barack Obama. This will be about the issues as I see them, about the things I consider important and worthy of consideration, the substantive differences between him and John McCain.

Temperament. This is perhaps the most subjective issue, but in no way do I see it as inconsequential. In the last several months we've been able to see Barack Obama maintain a calm and thoughtful demeanor, in the face of smears and attacks, and in the face of the biggest economic crisis of our time. To me the contrast has been dramatic: John McCain fired off a tirade against Christopher Cox, behaved histrionically and ineffectively, and then claimed both sides of the issue of the bailout. Obama remains steady and coherent. McCain has changed everything about himself that was admirable eight years ago.

More important, as I've said many times, is Obama's appeal to our commonality, his statements that there are good ideas to be mined from all points along the political spectrum. It's what I believe, too. It's the opposite message coming from John McCain and most especially from Sarah Palin. It's divisive at exactly the wrong time in our history.

Has Obama engaged in negative campaigning? Yes, of course. But not nearly to the extent of the other side; and it's generally been fact-based and not personal. He constantly praises McCain the person, while disagreeing with his plans. McCain and Palin are attacking Obama personally, deceptively, and destructively.

I don't know where to place it on this list, and I have nothing very original to say: but the first "presidential" decision either candidate made was in choosing their vice-president. (The second was the bailout; see above.) Joe Biden drives me crazy: he can be brilliant, he can be screeechingly boring, and, worse, wildly off-message. But he's clearly a good guy, a smart guy, and a very knowledgeable guy. When McCain picked Palin, my first thought was that it was brilliant politics, lousy governance. I was half right. Once the facts came out, revealing how antithetical was her behavior as governor and mayor to the image being promoted, the brilliant politics part came loose. In choosing Sarah Palin, McCain showed his impulsive side, his cynical side. He thought about the politics of it in the most immediate sense, forgoing any real vetting or consideration of her readiness.

And I worry about McCain's temper and his tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. To me, it appears he prefers to see the world in a binary way: good vs evil, them vs us, with me or against me. In other words, in that regard he's exactly like George Bush.

The economy. I don't agree with everything Obama says on this: for example, I think he may be going too far in tax cuts. But McCain is way worse, and directing his cuts where they're not needed: Exxon Mobil just reported the highest ever profits in any quarter of any business in history.

But where I see the biggest and most important difference is this: Barack Obama wants to inject money into the economy where it's most valuable. Jobs. He wants to spend money on infrastructure projects -- schools, bridges, roads, ports, the electricity grid, alternative energy research. John McCain takes what I think is exactly the wrong approach during these perilous times: he wants to freeze government spending. You don't see much analysis on that subject, but when I think about it, it seems absolutely the wrong idea at the wrong time. Impulsive, simplistic, poorly thought-out. An applause line for his crowds, and not much more. As Senator Obama said in the interview linked in my previous post, we have run up enormous debt with nothing to show for it. If the government has any ability to affect the recession and banking crisis, its spending needs to be smart. Sadly -- because our children's children are already mortgaged beyond imagining -- we may have to make deficits worse for a while.

The war. Wars. Before we invaded Iraq, I was saying to everyone who'd listen what a mistake I thought it was. I saw it as much like Yugoslavia, where I spent some time many years ago, doing medical research. My Yugoslav counterpart predicted that when Tito died, the country would erupt into vicious factional fighting. And it did. I saw the same in Iraq; and I felt it would be doing exactly what al Queda wanted; and that it meant leaving Afghanistan undone. Barack Obama said the same things. John McCain got every single thing wrong, despite his touted expertise in security and foreign policy. He agitated in favor of the war, said it would be easy, quick, we'd be greeted as liberators, and would pay for itself. He'd like to have us judge him only on a tactic he advocated five years later, the success of which is not yet certain, and which in fact was, in the opinion of most experts, far less important in the decreased violence than was the "Sunni Awakening."

And whereas the Iraq war seems to offer only bad choices at this point, it's clear that Obama has been right all along in calling for timetables for withdrawal. It's the stated policy of the Iraqis now, and has been for some time. Moreover, they've made it clear that prolonged US presence exacerbates their problems, which is what Obama has been saying from the beginning. The Iraqis have also made a strong statement that they'll not allow US military to use Iraq as a base for attacking any other countries; there goes one of the (presumed) reasons for the original invasion, and a talking-point of Bush and McCain.

Which brings us to judgment. Frankly, I have no idea what's right at this point, either in Iraq or Afghanistan. I've read a lot about the Russian involvement in the latter place. I think military action there is even more fragmentary and dangerous than Iraq. But this much is clear: if there was a chance to get on top of things in Afghanistan it was when we first went there, when we had the world on our side, and when we'd amazed the Muslim world with the effectiveness of our military, compared with Russia in the past. Bailing out to do Iraq was a disastrous decision, in my opinion; we are now bogged down in both places. It's on Bush; and those who most loudly supported him, who cheer-led the decision to go to Baghdad. McCain, in other words. That's the judgment, that's the understanding of complexity on which he's to be judged, not a desperate tactic necessitated by the wrong decision leading up to it.

As a surgeon, I've been asked more than once: what's more important, experience or judgment. Without question, in my view it's the latter. You can be around a long time, do lots of operations -- and do them poorly. What makes the patient safe is exercising proper judgment, in deciding whether or not to operate, which operation to do, how properly to carry it out, what to do when things aren't as they were supposed to be. Some judgment, of course, comes from experience. But not all, and maybe not even the most important of it. Some people simply don't have the right synapses. I've seen doctors who can quote chapter and verse, but can't diagnose themselves out of a paper bag. Surgeons who panic when the going gets tough, can't come up with the right solution.

Two years before John McCain was saying "the fundamentals of our economy are strong," Barack Obama was pointing out the impending mortgage default crisis, and calling for action. In other words, on the two most important and impactful issues of our time -- the wars and the economy -- Obama was prescient: he saw the dangers correctly, and McCain did not. That's judgment, and in my view it's dispositive.

Commander-in-Chief. It's not by accident that the Constitution puts the military under civilian control. I care less about personal military experience (I must say I always laughed when Hillary Clinton repeated that she and McCain had "passed the commander in chief test." As if it were a given.) than I do about quality of mind.

In Barack Obama, as opposed to John McCain, I see a person who does not shoot from the hip, who surrounds himself with smart people, who encourages broad input, and is capable of sorting through it. I come back to the Russia/Georgia conflict: McCain is a "pal" of the Georgian president. He was meddling there and encouraging the action in Ossetia. It's the old cold war strategy, pitting countries against one another for cynical gain. "We're all Georgians now," he said. Aggrandizement, black and white, thoughtless.

Each candidate can trot out generals and Secretaries of State. I'm going with Colin Powell. He's both. (Uncharacteristically, I haven't provided links in this post, because it's strictly my opinion and point of view. But the reader might find interesting what one of McCain's most prominent State Department supporters said this morning. Larry Eagleburger. Look it up.)

Health care. I'm in a minority among my peers, in that I favor a single-payor system, a la Medicare. (I've written about that on my Surgeonsblog, and I won't give the reasons again.) So I'm not ecstatic about either candidate's plan; but in my mind there's no question Obama's is far better than McCain's. It will cover more people. McCain's takes the worst of our system -- multiple insurers with multiple plans -- and exacerbates them, while complicating the tax implications to boot. By his own description, it relies on "market forces," which has gotten us where we are in the first place.

Education. Not my strong suit. My wife is president of our local school board, on which she's served nearly twelve years. She disagrees with Obama's support of vouchers. On the other hand, he's been very involved in early childhood education issues (served on a board, as we know....) and supports public schools, and innovation therein. The religious right, to which McCain caters and of which Palin is a charter (heh) member, literally want to destroy public education and make what's left of it a promoter of ignorance. I speak, specifically, of creationism and rejection of science, and promotion of Christianity in our schools. Our national dumbness is getting worse, even as the world is passing us by, in education and innovation. Sarah Palin is an active promoter of the trend.

Church and State. Barack Obama gave a speech, in a large church, about why we can't, as a nation, base policy on the teachings of a single religion, or on a single interpretation of the Bible. Like his speech on race, it was gutsy, direct, and thoughtful. He has, of course, been criticized for it by many on the religious right. But he was the one that was right. John McCain, to his credit, keeps his religious beliefs pretty closed. In fact -- and this is just opinion -- I think he implies he's more religious than he really is. He once called Falwell and Robertson "agents of intolerance." He flipped famously. So he appears to use religion cynically, as a vote-getter. That's the worst of all.

On the other hand, Sarah Palin has made it clear that she's like George Bush, only worse: she believes she's carrying out God's will, and that that is the bottom line of governance. Dangerous. As are her opinions about religion and public school.

Choice. I'm for it.

Gay Rights. I disagree with all the candidates, in that none supports gay marriage. Obama strongly supports civil unions. Far as I can tell, so does McCain, but he doesn't like to talk about it. Barack Obama came out against California Prop 8. McCain has been silent. [Update: I was wrong. McCain is for it. Bad.] On the other hand, Sarah Palin wants a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. That's repellent to me. In fact, I don't even think it ought to be a state's rights issue: some things are about equality and fairness, and the federal Bill of Rights.

Energy. [I just realized I left this out, and am adding it a couple hours after posting originally.] Both candidates seem to acknowledge the need to get ourselves off foreign oil, and off oil altogether in the long run. But McCain's craven reduction of the issue to "drill, baby, drill" raises real questions about his seriousness and commitment. One gets the sense that alternative energy sources are an afterthought in McCain's plans, and that they are at the center of Obama's. Nothing could be more important to our security.

The potential for nuclear energy is great, and I'm not highly worried about plant safety per se. But I do think disposal of radioactive waste is a huge issue, the answer to which is not yet evident. In that, I agree with Obama. And I sense, as usual, a rather simplistic view by McCain. Obama indicates a desire to commit significant federal money to research and development of alternative fuels and sources. I wouldn't anticipate much from the McCain freeze.

Foreign Policy. It's not trivial that the entire world seems to hope for an Obama victory. That George Bush has made us more hated and distrusted, that he's told the world we are law unto ourselves (and, in fact, that our own laws don't even apply to us), is a security issue. We can't protect ourselves from terrorism without the cooperation of the world. Cooperation comes from respect and a sense of common purpose. That's gone under Bush, and McCain, as referenced above, seems to have the same binary world-view. The Georgia/Russia episode is a good example.

Barack Obama sees the complexities and interconnectedness of the world. Much has been made of his willingness to engage our enemies diplomatically. I see it as absolutely essential, and the proof is everywhere: George Bush's rejection of it has made things worse everywhere. What few successes he's had -- the best example being Korea -- are those in which he finally reversed his OK Corral approach and returned to talking. McCain has been among those mocking Obama for saying he'd talk. It's simply incomprehensible to me. Nixon/Mao. Kennedy/Khrushchev. Reagan/Gorbachev. It's not weakness. It's belief in one's strength.

And finally: I truly don't see how anyone could look at the interviews in the post below and not see Barack Obama as a man of intelligence, thoughtfulness, inclusiveness, humor, wisdom. I'm starving. I'm longing to -- and I know how the right likes to seize on such statements -- be proud of my country again, as I have always been until eight years ago. I traveled in the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. Race riots were happening in Alabama, police and dogs attacking Blacks. In museums, schools, parks, I'd be accosted by Russians claiming how bad our country was; and I'd defend it strenuously. We are fighting this fight for the world, I said. (I was fluent in Russian, back then.) Racial hatred is everywhere, I argued. We're going to deal with it and solve it. I can't defend Guantanamo, torture, preƫmptive invasions, suspension of habeus corpus. I can't argue that our denial of global warming, that our forcing religious views on others (I refer to tying certain foreign aid to reproductive choice) reflects the best we can do.

In John McCain I see more of the same: arrogance and dismissiveness. Tough talk as substitute for deep thinking. In Barack Obama, I see a president, a commitment to engaging all parts of our country, and of the world. Most important, I see a man of great intelligence, calm, and wisdom. I see neither perfection nor worship-worthiness. But I see depth and breadth and the potential -- to the extent that a president can actually do things -- meaningfully and successfully to address the nearly impossible problems we face. And I happen to believe, as he does, that getting it done really does require change from the bottom up: that citizens have a duty to be heard, constantly, to hold our politicians accountable.

Which is why I'd see a loss as so tragic. It would mean, once again and finally, that division and deception and narrowness are what drives our politics; that our democracy, with its degradation by hyperpartisanship, by magical thinking, by ignorance, is no longer capable of facing and solving the really tough problems. It will be -- and I mean this absolutely literally -- a vote for our own destruction.


  1. Sid, I heartily concur with practically all that you say here. It echoes much of what I've said, one way or another, on my own blog. I especially applaud what you say about health care. A single payer system is the =only= thing that makes any sense to me.

    But there's one area that I cannot agree with our guy about: defense spending. I wish he were more foursquare for slashing defense. Yes, I know he's pledged to look at everything in the budget line-by-line, but I dont' think that's going to be near enough when it comes to defense. I spent my entire career in the DoD, mostly as a civilian historian for the Air Force; I also spent some time with Special Operations Command. I can tell you that the waste of money in so-called defense spending that I witnessed just through my little keyhole is positively staggering.

    But on foreign policy, everybody seems to favor the US remaining an empire, which practically guarantees maintaining an ungodly and scandalous outlay for the military, weapons, and war. It's axiomatic that billions more can be devoted to sorely needed domestic problems with billions carved out of DoD waste.

    But not a soul anywhere that I know of favors this.

  2. baysage: I agree with you. Actually, Sarah Palin today is decrying the Dems, quoting Barney Frank as saying they'll cut defense spending by 25%. I'd like to think it possible. I'm no military expert (I served, which certainly confirmed the impression of wastefulness); my view has always been than our security would be better served by spending on positive foreign aid, and by such things as port security, etc. On the other hand there's an argument to be made that maintaining a strong military is necessary as long as other countries do the same. But I think of late we've relied on military power too much, and diplomacy not enough.

  3. Sid, you're a brilliant writer and rigorous thinker. However, your lack of PoliSci training shows.

    In the least amount of words possible: it's the party, not the personality that dictates what a candidate will do. Both candidates propose a "conditional withdraw" in Iraq, and the economy is not something that can be fixed through government intervention.

  4. jonathan: I don't deny a lack of PoliSci education. But I disagree, in this way: a president can shape legislation, and he can veto. My prediction is that Obama will be, if elected, more centrist than expected, and that he'd not shrink from vetoing Democratic legislation in the name of restraint. He's already annoyed some parts of the Democratic party with his moderate positions on a few issues.

    Most economists think the "bailout" will have some effect on the economy. Likewise, I'm not the only one arguing that government spending on infrastructure will be of benefit, not only for the security and well-being of the country (can't survive forever as it crumbles), but for job-creation, which has a significant domino effect. I'll bet several of those people also took some PoliSci; some of them may have even stayed awake in class.

  5. And Obama will go on TV in an emergency--like FDR did in 1929.

  6. I'm simply applauding your ability to put into concise words many of the things I've been saying during this election season and throughout the past 7 years. Thank you.

  7. Barack will make a fine Senior Senator from Illinois some day.
    Effect, your name is "Bradley". Can't wait to see the exploding heads Tuesday Night.
    McCain 285
    Obama 252
    Nader 1
    You read it here first,


  8. Sid,

    There is no doubt the bailout will effect the economy---what we think about the effects is a matter of political philosophy. I liken a bailout to dropping coins in a homeless persons cup. It's a short term solution with often negative consequences.

    If you want to know what Obama will do in office look at the Dem's party platform (which is word-for-word Obama's proposals). I cannot stress this point enough: the party is the strongest indicator of a what an elected official will do in office.

    When Obama proposes legislation, you'd better believe the parties priorities are going to get passed first. It's impossible to know exactly how he'll perform in office. Odds are that he'll follow the party's platform.

    You can take those odds to Vegas, as long I get half the winnings.

  9. Jeez, Sid, why don't you just marry the Guy?? It'll be OK in a few days.

  10. Johnathan,

    "the party is the strongest indicator of a what an elected official will do in office."

    Doesn't that mean that the current and past policies of Bush are those of the Republan party? And as such they needs must be those of McCain, too?

    That, frankly, does not encourage me to vote R (assuming I could, of course).

  11. Frank: thanks for a thoughtful, point by point response to my positions. It's that kind of incisive and well-constructed argument for which you are rightly famous. If I had a hat, it'd be off to you.

  12. Sili,

    That's exactly the point I'm trying to make.

    Frank's comment made me chuckle. :P

  13. I have a beloved cliche regarding the paragraph beginning, "As a surgeon, I've been asked more than once: what's more important, experience or judgment." It goes, There’s a big difference between twenty years’ experience and one year’s experience repeated nineteen times.

    In the field of software one often sees requirements such as "Three years Java experience." This is frustrating because a good programmer before long will outperform a mediocre one in any language.

    Also the depleted uranium disposal problem is I believe mostly solved. The latest thinking is to seal the material in glass blocks. These are then stacked in a cordoned desert area. I believe such an operation is under construction in Eastern Washington state.

    Wonderful posts lately. You are so much more accomplished and well spoken than I, thus your apparent depression makes me wonder if my own lightheartedness is unreasonable. Nevertheless I will point out some things that I hope may cheer you. I hope not to be presumptuous!

    First, peak oil is quite possibly an antidote to climate change.

    Second, today's Republican party is largely a strained alliance between three groups: the unscrupulous rich, zealots, and culture warriors (granted there is some overlap), and the future looks dim. The coming economic hardships ought to shine a bright light on the first of these factions. Also the zealots and culture warriors are already bitter about the GOP giving short shrift to their pet projects. They are going to demand a Palin or Huckabee for the foreseeable future, and middle America is showing a refreshing suspicion about such characters. W is a singular event: I don't see anyone else pleasing the three prongs of the Republican party.

    Third, we are very likely to get out of Iraq in the near future.

  14. Are you sorry yet? lol

  15. I'll make an exception to the clearly posted rule about posting without some sort of identifying moniker, because it's evident that you can't read, or write intelligently; so I must give you sympathy.

    The answer to your question is no. Absolutely not.

    (insert silly signoff here, eg: lol)


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