Against all odds, Obama might take the White House
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    Barack Obama speaks in New Hampshire. (Photo by Tim Llewellyn, courtesy of Barack Obama on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

    Defying conventional wisdom and confounding political scientists, come Jan. 20, 2009, Barack Obama very well might be sworn in as America’s next president. This simple, irrefutable fact is a very big (pleasant) surprise to those like me, who try to apply historical trends in order to predict the political future.

    Why would the scholarly skeptics have written the junior senator off? Certainly his age and relative novelty on the national stage, his meager foreign policy experience, his status as a first-term U.S. senator (no senator has had a successful presidential bid since Kennedy in 1961) all are significant reasons why Obama should theoretically have difficulties on the campaign trail.

    But the real reasons why many have remained skeptical of the senator’s chances are based on unfortunate but undeniable calculations of an American political character that can at times be both petty and outright racist. The obvious fact that Obama is black cannot be taken out of the calculus determining the chances of the senator’s campaign. One need only look to the recent sleaze from the Republican campaigns of Bob Corker and George Allen to see how endemic racism still is in American politics.

    Consider also the senator’s name — Barack Hussein Obama, an inconvenient mix of nearly the exact names of two most loathed figures in post-9/11 America — or that he was schooled in a “madrasa,” the term applied to Islamic fundamentalist training camps, while living in Indonesia as a kid.

    Considering today’s current state of divisive partisan politics, to hope that America will swear in its first black president in January 2009 seems like asking for a miracle. It would be asking that citizens take the time to uncover the truth; for instance, that Obama is a sincerely devout Christian whose moral compass blows away much of the Republican Party, shamed by Ted Haggard and its culture of corruption. Or that Obama did not attend what most consider a madrasa (although the term simply means “school” in Arabic), but a secular school which allowed non-Muslims and was certainly not a terrorist training camp.*

    Much to the skeptics’ surprise, so far those are exactly the sort of rational considerations that Americans have been making. Despite his perceived vulnerabilities, Obama is secure among the front runners for the Democratic nomination, in some polls edging out Hilary for the top spot. His recent campaign contribution stats are comparable to Clinton’s and more grassroots in nature — Obama’s $25 million came from an astounding 100,000 donations. All this bodes well not only for Obama, but also for the American political soul.

    Obama’s college finance plan

    On May 15, Obama did something most politicians of his stature would have little patience for. He held a half-hour teleconference with student journalists from around the country (including me!) to propose and discuss his plan for reforming the way college students receive financial aid.

    Specifically, the plan eliminates costly subsidies to private lenders in favor of mandating that all student loans be provided through a direct loan program which would circumvent private banks. According to the senator’s estimates, the money spent on subsidies for guaranteed loans over the last few years would have been enough to provide every low-income college student an additional $4,000 in grant aid.

    In the interview Obama spoke of a rotten system that needs to be amended.

    “The system needs to be fixed,” Obama said. “We shouldn’t be providing billions in taxpayer-funded giveaways to private banks. We should be providing an affordable, accessible college education to every American.”

    The current system essentially allows for a federal payout to banks of roughly $15 million per day in subsidies.

    The effects of this subsidy to lower the amount of federal aid available to students is compounded by the increasing costs of higher education, Obama said. Tuition and fees at private colleges and universities have gone up 11 percent in the past five years and nearly 6 percent in the last year alone. And the problem is worse at public institutions. Over the past five years, the cost of attending a public university has jumped an astounding 35 percent. As a result of these increases, a few years ago more than 200,000 students were priced out of a college education altogether, the senator said.

    What accounts for the senator’s successes so far? On May 14, 2007, Obama gave a teleconference with student journalists in order to propose his reform plan for the national student loan program. The plan is relatively simple: It would cut bank subsidies that cost the program roughly $6 billion a year and redistribute that money to needy students. (see sidebar)

    This event is important not only because I got to be on the phone with Barack Obama. It points to some unique traits about the senator and his campaign strategy: He is trying (and succeeding) to energize the youth demographic (something that most pollsters would tell you is impossible) and he is proposing pragmatic legislation that might actually make our government and society function better. All this is curious, of course, coming from a politician.

    When asked if he thought this campaign season has marked a change in American politics, Obama answered: “One of the reasons we are seeing young people engaged in this campaign so early is because they recognize the significant challenges we are facing in the years to come. It is absolutely critical that we address not only the issues we are facing on college loans, but climate change, federal debt, globalization and whether we are going to be able to sustain progress economically. We keep on kicking the can down the road, and unless we start making progress you guys are going to be left holding the bag.”

    More important than his message being pragmatic, it’s uplifting and hopeful. Politically, Americans are arguably more dispassionate, apathetic, unhappy and embarrassed than they have ever been. And increasingly, Obama has ignited a sense of urgency especially amongst the youth (with the help of a few others: Al Gore, Bono, etc.) that things both need to and can change.

    So far, college students, a significant part of the senator’s base, seem to be responding.

    “I think Barack Obama reminds people, and me too, of President Kennedy,” said Medill junior Theresa Bowman. “He is young, handsome, a wonderful speaker and seems to give a lot of even really jaded people hope.”

    One NU alum, Erin Fitzgerald, SESP ‘06, has gone on to work for Obama.

    “Often people feel intimidated by their own government, but I’ve always known Senator Obama to have a unique capacity to welcome people into discussion and teach them about their life challenges through his own,” she said. “He reaches individuals in a way that I believe is transforming politics by establishing a heightened pride and comfort people have with the their government.”

    Obama is convincing the cynics that government doesn’t necessarily need to be over-fed and pathetically underachieving. Holding government accountable for its mistakes will always be a mission attainable not primarily by the media, watchdog organizations or interest groups, but by the American people.

    Obama is by no means out of the woods yet. So far, he’s had a blessed career without the typical base political maneuvering and scandals that typify the politics of today. In his latest book, The Audacity of Hope, he admits how lucky he was to face the weak and polarizing Alan Keyes, whom he defeated in a landslide victory with 70% of the vote to capture his seat in the U.S. Senate. It’s hard to imagine Obama will have such an easy road to the White House.

    If Obama is seen as the inevitable winner of the Democratic nomination after the major primaries, you can expect the Republican negative-ad campaign machines to be up and running possibly as early as Jan. 2008.

    Republicans somehow turned John Kerry with his multiple purple hearts into an unpatriotic draft-dodging hippie with their Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign. Bush’s fellow Republican and loyal supporter John McCain wasn’t immune to the venom of the negative ads either. The former POW who endured torture in Vietnam was accused of betraying veterans on health care issues.

    Anti-Obama smear tactics aren’t hard to imagine: “Obama says he wants to reform our education system to give our children a fighting chance to secure America’s future. Does he plan on using his own experience in an Islamic fundamentalist madrasa school as a blueprint?!”

    Yet it is hard to discount the senator’s chances. The timing of Obama’s campaign of hope is remarkable. Barack’s message is one for which Americans are increasingly desperate: American politics need not be endlessly partisan, polarizing, and patronizing. Americans are thirsty for a new politics of progress, commonality, morality and hope — and many are increasingly convinced that a Barack America might fit that bill.

    *Clarification — February 4, 2008: This article originally stated that Obama attended a mardrasa as a child. Though a madrasa can refer to any type of school, Obama did not attend a madrasa in the sense it’s been used in recent political debate: that of a Muslim school that teaches fundamentalist Islam.

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