Yet another call for “change”: The Obama Moment

February 5, 2008

In our national life, my guess is since the 1970s, there have been times when the electorate has become disgusted with the current leadership and seeks either more pragmatic leaders, or leaders who don’t have the taint of whatever the public is disgusted with. It appears that in the Democratic Party there’s a contingent that’s flocking to Barack Obama’s message of “change”. When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992 he also ran on the message of “change”.

Campaigns for change

Here’s a music video that might as well be an independent campaign ad for Obama, made by the lead singer of The Black Eyed Peas, called “Yes We Can”:

Here was then-candidate Bill Clinton in his successful 1992 campaign for president on the subject of experience and “change”:

There was the question about Clinton’s experience then. I think the question then was about foreign policy. It was kind of an empty issue. If we measured every presidential candidate with how much presidential experience they had we’d never change leaders.

Clinton’s answer sounds an awful lot like Obama’s though, doesn’t it? But there’s a difference. Then-governor Bill Clinton actually did have more experience than Obama. He was governor of Arkansas for more years than Obama has been in the Senate. He had more executive experience than his wife Hillary does now. She led the effort for universal health care during her husband’s first term as president for several months, not years.

A good question to consider is how much “change” did we really get from then to now in terms of government’s effect on society? Considering what we got, was it change we really wanted? It’s cool to get caught up in the dream of positive change via. changing the government’s leadership. I understand the excitement around that. I used to be one of those people who believed that wonderful things could come from government officials with a different consciousness.

Actually creating change on a large scale is a dangerous, ugly business. Most people will probably be puzzled by me saying this, but just ask President Bush. He’s worked for change, believe it or not. It’s one of the reasons he’s so unpopular now. So to all of the people calling for “change” in government, I say, “Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.”

Obama the lyrical

The thing is I never hear anything of substance from Obama. He makes inspirational speeches, and so does his wife. They say (paraphrasing), “We understand the problems in your lives. Let’s fix them, and live a new life with greater justice.” I don’t agree with his use of the term “justice”, but for sake of argument I’ll ask, “Great. How do we do that?” With him I have no idea.

I have no dog in the Democratic race. I’m a Republican (recently changed my registration from Unaffilliated). Personally I think Hillary Clinton’s claim of “experience” is laughable. She talks a good game, but I have yet to see evidence of her leadership experience, or sufficient experience with policy. The only way she’s “experienced” is she’s had more time in the Senate than Obama. So far she’s had 6 years there, plus free time from her campaign. That makes her a junior compared to the other senator from New York, Charles Schumer. So on that aspect alone I have no preference for either of them.

De ja vu

Obama’s candidacy reminds me of another Democrat who ran and won the presidency in the mid-1970’s: Jimmy Carter. He ran a moralistic campaign, against the perceived corruption and ineptness of the Republican Party of the time. Gerald Ford was president, but part of what Carter ran against was the Vietnam War, which was very unpopular, and the corruption of the Nixon Administration, even though it had been out of power for two years. Ford came in as president, constitutionally, after Nixon’s vice president, Spirow Agnew, and Nixon himself resigned as president in disgrace.

Carter was really an independent president, even though he ran for office as a Democrat. His policy positions tended toward the Democratic line, but he didn’t take sides with either party. This lost him friends in the Democratic Party, and he found it difficult to get much done. When he left office the mood of the electorate and the Democrats seemed to be “good riddance!”

There were two major events in the Carter Administration. The first, and most positive one was the peace that was brokered by Carter between Israel and Egypt. Anwar Saddat, the Egyptian president, was promptly assassinated by Muslim extremists after this. It was unfortunate, but I admire Saddat for the courage he had to do what he did, ultimately giving up his own life for peace with Israel. Egypt has not necessarily known peace since then. It has a problem with Islamist terrorists to this day.

The second major event is the one Carter is most associated with: the hostage crisis in Iran. In 1979 Muslim extremists overthrew the Shah in Iran, who had been previously installed by us through covert activities in the 1950s, and was subsequently protected by us. He wasn’t the greatest leader, but he was anti-communist, and pro-Western, which was all we cared about at the time. Contrary to the policy of previous presidents, Carter refused to protect the Shah. When the Iranian revolution occurred he was overthrown. I don’t know what went into Carter’s thinking, but I suspect he took a moral stand on the issue, because of our past foreign policy. He wanted the Iranian people to decide their own fate. Sounds fair, but it was short-sighted. The legacy of that decision continues to have implications for us to this day. Iran has had a fanatically theological regime ever since, and has periodically created problems for us, most recently in Iraq. Most Iranians today hate their government, but they supported it initially because back then they disliked the Shah. What neither Carter nor the Iranian people realized was that we were all better off with the Shah, regardless of the history that put him in leadership.

What happened immediately after the Shah’s ouster was the Iranian hostage crisis, which went on for weeks. U.S. personnel were taken hostage by the revolutionaries. Carter attempted to negotiate their release, offering one olive branch after another, but got nowhere. He attempted a rescue operation, but the rescuers ended up getting killed because of botched planning. The hostages were only released when Reagan became president. The final analysis was the revolutionaries were afraid of Reagan. They were not afraid of Carter, and knew they could push him around. That just goes to show you what a kind heart gets you in geopolitics.

Overall Carter’s term in office was marred by “malaise”. The economy sucked–“stagflation” it was called. And as usual, the president gets the credit in good times, and the blame in bad times. In retrospect there wasn’t much Carter could’ve done about it. The economy was reacting to the aftermath of a war. What tends to happen is the economy slows down, and inflation rises–“stagflation”. The world financial markets lost confidence in the U.S. and so interest rates rose to double-digits. It was a great time to be in debt, because inflation made your debt cheaper, but it sucked if you were trying to save money for retirement, or a new home because your money was worth less every day.

In the end Carter was a very unpopular president. People remember him as a weak leader who didn’t accomplish much during his term. He’s remembered more positively for what he’s done since then, particularly helping to found and run Habitat for Humanity.

Carter promised change in Washington. The above is what actually happened.

Real change

Real change comes from us, not our government. Obama likes to invoke our “founding documents”. Let’s listen to one of our Founders:

Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. — George Washington

The Founders believed that government is not benevolent. Not now, not ever. It is a necessary evil. Do you want “change” coming from this unreasonable, ineloquent “force”? We keep hoping that government can be changed into something it can never be. Change comes from We the People, if we so desire it. We can create change just from our own actions, without the aid of government. For the most part the change we really need from government is for it to get out of the way of our own positive change, and for it to protect our rights to life, liberty, and our pursuit of happiness. When our values change it needs to change with it, but I don’t think it really works that well for government to try to lead change.

Whether Obama’s campaign lives or dies will likely be decided on today’s “Super Duper Tuesday”. I leave you with this piece of pop culture from my generation: “Cult of Personality”, by the group Living Colour:

All you Obama supporters out there, listen and learn! Here’s a site that has the lyrics.