Obama: Who Is He Now?

In Chicago and the Illinois State Legislature, Barack Obama made a difference—he did not just 'hope'

"There are those who don't believe in talking about hope. They say, "Well, we want specifics! . . . We've had a lot of plans, Democrats. What we've had is a shortage of hope. And over the next two years, that will be my call to you. "

Presidential contender Barack Obama, town hall meeting, University of New Hampshire field house, Durham, February 12, 2007


Before Barack Obama became a correctly spelled household name in this nation, back in his early political years on the streets of Chicago and in the Illinois state senate, he did more than engage in the amorphous politics of hope. In the February 16 Kansas City Star, another former Democratic senator in that body, Denny Jacobs, described what Obama was like before his resounding speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and his subsequent bestselling books:

"He's an enigma. [In Chicago and the state senate], he's not the mayor's guy. He's not the alderman's guy. He's not the county board chairman's guy. He's nobody's guy. Usually you're somebody's guy. In Chicago, that's a way of life."

Before being elected to the state senate, Obama, during three years as a community organizer in Chicago—like Jack Newfield repeatedly and successfully reported in the Voice about New York buildings—moved the Chicago Housing Authority to get rid of asbestos in housing. He also pressured the Democratic machine to establish a job-training center in what was then delicately called a "disadvantaged" neighborhood. And he worked in the streets on voter registration.

Then, in the state senate, as reported in the 2006 Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Books), "he played important roles in welfare legislation [and] on the earned income tax credit." This latter involvement resulted, over a three-year period, in over $100 million in tax cuts for families throughout Illinois.

He also helped expand early childhood education, and—in what strikes me as quite an accomplishment—he actually got the support of some law enforcement higher-ups to pass a statute mandating the electronic recording of interrogations and confessions in homicide cases. Prosecutors opposed it, but—like some homicide detectives I've known in New York—there were police officials in Chicago who agreed that such hard electronic evidence was likely to help uphold convictions when they were appealed.

All of this involved Barack Obama working on specifics, not just hope. He's still able—rarely—to be that specific on his road to the White House. In the February 17 Kansas City Star, Steven Thomma reported that Chicago mayor Richard Daley (of that political dynasty) "recently vetoed a City Council proposal to force big retailers such as Wal-Mart to pay a living wage higher than the minimum wage, saying it would hurt jobs. [But] Obama proposed a national living wage in the Springfield [Illinois] speech" declaring his presidential candidacy."

However, on the stump, around the country, and meeting with celebrity and other donors, Obama riffs mechanically on "hope," forgetting that in this age of ceaseless instant-messaging in all forms, his aura as an unusually per- sonable fresh political face will gradually dissolve like the Cheshire Cat's smile in Alice in Wonderland.

Time magazine's Joe Klein precisely skewers Obama's current role as a pastoral harmonizer: "Obama trying to sell 'hope' through rhetoric is like Kerry trying to sell 'strength' through résumé. You have to show it, not just sell it."

Obama claims to be knowledgeable about our constitutional liberties and rights, as a former president of the Harvard Law Review and a lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago.

Let him show it by taking advantage of the extraordinary national attention he is now getting and explaining to the American people the savage assault on the Constitution made by the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals (the second-most-important court in the country) when it upheld the Military Commissions Act of 2006 on February 20 ( Lakhdar Boumediene, et al. v. George W. Bush).

This law, one of the last acts of the Republican-controlled Congress (engineered with the "dark arts" assistance of Dick Cheney), is among the most dangerous pieces of legislation in American history, and its fate in the Bush-Roberts-Alito Supreme Court is, at best, uncertain.

Next week, I'll go specifically into the astonishing further unilateral powers the MCA gives the president—not only over detainees (he decides whether and how they can be tortured), but over longtime legal immigrants in the United States who can now be designated by the president as "enemy combatants" and locked away for having given "aid" of some sort to the enemy (like contributing to a charity on a far-ranging government go-to-jail list).

Under the MCA, American citizens can also be picked up as "enemy combatants," although, unlike non-American detainees, they'll have habeas corpus rights in their cells. The MCA, moreover, frees CIA agents and other past American violators of our own War Crimes Act from prosecution.

There's a lot more in the MCA that makes key parts of the Constitution obsolete. I doubt if most Americans know much, if anything, about the Military Commissions Act of 2006—or of Judge Judith Rogers's deeply alarmed dissent in the D.C. Circuit's celebration of the MCA. An appeal of that decision is now on its way to the Supreme Court.

Barack Obama, as he glows in the cheers of the crowds on his rounds gathering votes, could inform the citizenry of what could await many of them if the Supreme Court agrees with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the President, and Dick Cheney. Obama is, if I may use the word, impressively articulate, and, unlike any of the other Democratic presidential aspirants—except for Joe Biden—he has actually taught constitutional law.

In his speech in 1936 accepting the Democratic Party's nomination for a second term as president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that our 1776 revolution was intended "to win freedom from the tyranny of political autocracy" (like that of the present George II).

The revolution, FDR continued, "was to put the business of governing into the hands of the average man, who won the right with his neighborhood to make and order his own destiny through his own government [and Constitution]."

I offer Barack Obama a bumper sticker: "Bring Democracy Back to the White House!"—but be sure, Senator, to describe and develop the specifics to get there.

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