September 16, 2008

Why I'm Voting for Barack Obama, Part 1: Issues


In the wake of GOP Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin's coming out party at the Republican National Convention, there has been a concerted effort by the John McCain campaign to rebrand its candidate as a reformer. Relatedly, I have personally witnessed and been involved in a number of conversations with McCain supporters that have centered on the contention that people who are backing Barack Obama for the presidency are really just voting against Senator McCain, rather than for his opponent. This contention seems to be rooted in the belief that - in the minds of his supporters, anyway - John McCain is as much an agent of change as Senator Obama.

Leaving aside for the moment that, after the utterly disastrous performance of George W. Bush, no one really has to justify simply voting against the Republican Party, I thought it might be worthwhile to talk about what I see as the positive reasons that have driven my decision to vote for Barack Obama. With that in mind, this is the first of what will be three posts on the topic. This series (my first trilogy - try to contain yourselves!) is not in any way meant to be exhaustive or definitive or even universal; rather it is intended to provide food for thought, and one person's perspective on the candidate.

While there is no question that the personalities, demeanor, experience, reputation and records of the candidates are all valid points to consider when choosing for whom to vote, to me, the most important aspect of picking the next president is about issues. With that in mind, that is where I'll start.


Foreign Policy:
The idea that John McCain is a foreign policy expert is one of the biggest media-created myths of the current day. In fact, he is anything but, and has been notably wrong on the most important issues of the past decade. Senator McCain is on record as saying that the Iraq War would be easy - although he now says he "always" said it was going to be difficult; he has talked about trouble on the Iraq/Pakistan border (there isn't one; Iraq borders Iran, which in turn borders Pakistan); and he has also made repeated claims - despite being corrected - that Sunni al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq were crossing the border into Iran to receive training from the Shia regime there, something that is patently absurd. (See here for side-by-sides clips.)

Senator McCain has also advocated kicking Russia out of the G8 without appearing to understand that any such move requires a consensus (i.e. including Russia), and he has also backed military action against Iran, despite the fact that our military is so over-extended as to make such a move completely impossible. (See National Security, below.) Further, McCain has been notably flippant about the possibility of additional wars of aggression by the United States apparently failing to grasp the reality of current U.S. deployment and readiness.

While Senator Obama has not been there a long time, he has served, by most accounts, very capably on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and has even earned praise from Republican Senator Chuck Hagel who traveled with Obama to Israel earlier this year. Perhaps most importantly, however, Obama represents a change from the Bush/McCain policy of unilateralism and a return to diplomacy, both of which we will need if we are to begin digging ourselves out of our current hole. As former President Clinton said in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, "People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power," and polls have shown that the rest of the world is much more interested in dealing with a President Obama than a President McCain.

Iraq and Afghanistan Wars:

The Iraq War is, arguably, the single biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of the United States. It was supported from the outset by John McCain - who continues to advocate an open-ended occupation - and opposed by Barack Obama. The reality is that, whatever one's feelings about the war, the U.S. is in that country and has caused untold chaos and death. Clearly we owe the Iraqis something, but just as clearly, we can't continue pouring money and people into a conflict without end.

The Iraqis want us out; Obama advocates a time table for withdrawal that can be adjusted as conditions merit. McCain has recently changed his position to align with Obama's, albeit with the famous Bush escape line "but only if the commanders on the ground agree." The fact of the matter is that, since McCain has up until recently lambasted any departure date, no matter how tentative, his new position strikes me as untrustworthy. The president sets policy, not the commanders on the ground, and Senator McCain has been strikingly light on the specific criteria he believes would allow us to depart. To me, setting a goal for withdrawal and evaluating progress against that goal makes sense. Without genuine commitment to withdrawal or a proposed time line, success cannot be measured (think about how many times we've heard "we're winning" and "we've turned a corner") and there will be no end to this conflict.

While the "surge" - which was backed by McCain and opposed by Obama - has helped reduce violence, the media's portrayal of it as the solution to the Iraq War is inaccurate. In addition, there are two major factors contributing to reduced violence that are hardly discussed. First, Iraq has been effectively segregated into Sunni and Shia communities - and neighborhoods within the cities - and this de facto separation, the result of neighbors slaughtering one another, has provided fewer opportunities for violence.

Additionally, before the "surge," a policy of paying tribal leaders not to attack American and Iraqi government forces was instituted. (The U.S. currently doles out $30 million each month to this end.) Despite conventional wisdom, it is far from clear that the "surge" is the success it is claimed to be, and it is important to remember also that the escalation in troop levels was supposed to enable the government to reach a political solution, which is no closer to happening today than it was when the surge began.

Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan is heating up, as it has been doing for the past several years - despite little news coverage of the fact - and the Pentagon has admitted that the current patchwork strategy is not working. McCain, by focusing solely on Iraq has effectively supported that strategy, while Obama's stance has been that one of the biggest reasons we need to close up shop in Iraq is to address the problem - the real problem, rather than the false pretenses problem in Iraq - in Afghanistan.


The Iraq War - at the insistence of the Bush Administration - remains off the books despite the fact that it is now in its 5th year. That means that the reported deficit - already monumental - is even worse than most people realize. In addition to spending cuts, taxes will have to go up to even begin closing the budget deficit and reducing the national debt, so the question comes down to "whose taxes?"

A non-partisan examination of the Obama and McCain plans reveals that their plans impact wage earners across the income spectrum very differently. In my opinion, there is some pain that has to come in the foreseeable future if the grown-ups are going to repair the mess that has been made, but McCain instead advocates across the board tax cuts. Obama's plan, meanwhile, increases taxes on the people who can afford it most. If you make less than $227,000 a year, you will see a tax decrease, and if you make between $227,000 and $608,000 you'll see essentially no change. Even more interestingly, if you are a lower or middle class citizen, your taxes under Obama's plan go down more than they do under McCain's. (Again, despite McCain's repeated false claims to the contrary.)

Obama admits that his plan will not balance the budget initially. McCain, on the other hand, has said that he can balance the budget just by getting rid of earmarks, a claim which doesn't withstand even cursory examination. As a result, he is now talking about the elimination of discretionary spending. In neither case, however, do his numbers add up, and personally, I find the cavalier manner in which he has attempted to get the public to accept his bonafides as a budget hawk to be disturbing in its lack of seriousness and rigor; it's clearly not something to which he has paid much attention.

Finally, with the turmoil facing the American housing market and the chaos on Wall Street, it is clear that the nature of government financial regulation needs to change. Proponents of unregulated free markets - of which McCain vociferously counts himself one - have put the country in the position it is in today. The free market will - unquestionably - straighten itself out eventually, but the question that the Republican Party and John McCain have never bothered to address remains: "At what human cost?"

Unless we are prepared to periodically absorb massive losses resulting from the lack of oversight - losses like we are encountering today - regulation must exist to provide a marketplace in which the rules are followed and a level playing field exists. Barack Obama has consistently called for new and better regulations. Although John McCain is now echoing those sentiments, it must be remembered that, banking industry lobbyist and former senator Phil Gramm, McCain's former campaign chairman, worked very hard to kill legislation that would have prevented - or at least greatly reduced the impact of - the subprime mortgage meltdown. As with Senator McCain's reversal on a time table for withdrawal from Iraq, given the length of time and the effort he has put into supporting his previous position, I simply do not trust his commitment.

Health Care:

Neither McCain nor Obama offer truly universal health care. That said, their plans are very different. McCain's plan will cover fewer people than Obama's, and at a greater cost per insured. Obama's plan is reckoned to cost more overall, but the tax-incentive structure of McCain's plan is very likely to drive health insurance purchase toward individual (rather than government or employer) purchase, which will almost certainly provide less leverage for the insured. From where I sit, McCain's plan opens up health insurance to the private market in a way that will probably cause further problems down the road, if history - and current events - are any judge. Obama's plan, while not as ambitious as I would like, is a solid, incremental step toward universal coverage.


Both McCain and Obama target energy as a key issue. McCain, however, focuses much more on expanded domestic supplies of fossil fuels, while Obama's main lever is alternative sources and a transition away from oil. (It should be remembered that the Bush Department of Energy itself has stated that new domestic drilling would not bring oil to market for 10-12 years.) Each candidate wants to reduce emissions, raise fuel standards, and institute a cap-and-trade system for controlling greenhouse gases, but Obama is more aggressive all three instances. McCain and Obama both support government investment in alternative fuels, but where McCain advocates spending about $2 billion, Obama's plan calls for $150 billion of government investment.

Obama has buckled in the face of offshore drilling advocacy and is now backing limited drilling, but even so, McCain's plan strikes me very much as more of the same with only a few grudging adjustments, while Obama's is about seriously changing the game. Energy, in my view, is a problem that we cannot drill our way out of, and the sooner we can free ourselves from the bonds of a petroleum based economy, the better.

National Security:

As detailed above, McCain's reputation for foreign policy expertise is questionable at best. Similarly, it is important to consider the impact of the Iraq War on our armed forces. There is widespread agreement - including from Colin Powell - that the army has been "broken," and it is telling that the military has had to repeatedly lower admissions standards to even approach recruitment goals. Our Adventure in Iraq has decimated three decades of forward progress toward making the armed forces smarter and more professional, and not only are they now accepting felons, but lower-performing recruits across the board.

The Bush War in Iraq - which again, McCain supported and continues to advocate - has not only brought our military close to collapse, but the Republicans have vigorously opposed measures like a new G.I. Bill (McCain claims to have supported it but he actively campaigned against it and was never a co-sponsored), denied vets health care, and even begun providing drugs to soldiers on the front line suffering from mental trauma in order keep them functioning. McCain and the GOP talk a good game about "supporting the troops," but their actions are anything but supportive, and that's probably why service people are donating to Obama's campaign versus McCain's at a rate of 6 to 1.

Obama supported the new G.I. Bill, supports additional help for vets and their families, and appears to understand that the military cannot continue operating as it has.

Equal Rights:
I believe that homosexual couples should have all of the same rights enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts. Neither Obama nor McCain, however, support full marriage rights for same-sex couples, although both endorse the concepts of civil unions. McCain, however, has repeatedly voted against anti-wage discrimination bills in general, and against legislation to ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work, in particular. Obama has supported and continues to support such laws.

John McCain and Sarah Palin both oppose abortion, with Palin supporting exceptions only if the life of the mother is endangered; not for instances of rape or incest. Obama has a 100% pro-choice voting record, and has pointed to the Clinton model which I favor: abortion should be safe, legal and rare.

Constitution and Human Rights:
Up until earlier this year, Obama had a solid record of protecting the Constitution. That changed when congressional Democrats decided they'd short circuit any opportunity the Republicans might take during the campaign to accuse Democrats of being soft on terror. They ginned up a bill that fully capitulated to White House demands for greater power, providing retroactive immunity for telecom companies that broke the law by spying on Americans without a warrant. Obama supported that bill, as did McCain, who had been a leader in pushing for fewer constraints on the government's ability to violate the privacy of its citizens.

While Obama is just as guilty in the case above, McCain has been at the forefront in legalizing torture for prisoners in the "war on terror". (Without digressing too much, torture is a policy that originated at the very top of the current administration, and despite terms like "enhanced interrogation," current and recent policies very clearly violate international law) Obama has opposed these measures.

Likewise, Obama has backed efforts to provide judicial review to men at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. Despite the fact that more than half of the original prisoners at Gitmo have been released - and that the military has plans to try only about 70 of the remainder, with the others languishing indefinitely - McCain and the Republicans have fought tooth and nail to deny inmates fair and impartial trials, refusing to acknowledge that this very clearly indicates that at least some innocent men are incarcerated.

While issues of torture and imprisonment are usually considered to be primarily about human rights, it should not be overlooked that American policy in this area greatly affects international relations, and therefore national security. When we prove ourselves hypocrites on the world stage as we have done under President Bush, the United States loses a tremendous amount of its ability to influence the course of global events without resorting to military force. Obama appears to understand this link; McCain does not.


Although there are unquestionably other issues on which to compare Senators Obama and McCain, this post is intended to examine what I consider to be the most important problems facing the country, as well as the candidates' positions on them. Tellingly - albeit unsurprisingly, considering the manner in which he has sold his political soul to the people who thought George W. Bush was going to be a great president - John McCain is wrong for me on every single one of them. So, despite recent polling putting the race in a statistical dead heat, maybe this shouldn't be such a tough choice after all.


lokywoky said...

Great and very thoughtful analysis. I appreciate all the links and discussion - including the 'problem' issues like Obama's vote on FISA. That one nearly brought me to tears.

An editing note: in your discussion of finances you have the following:
...McCain's former campaign chairman, worked very hard to ensure that legislation that would have prevented - or at least greatly reduced the impact of - the subprime mortgage meltdown.

I think you need to finish the sentence for it to make complete sense. I understood what you were saying though.

I look forward to reading the next two installments!

PBI said...


Thanks very much for the kind words and the catch! I'd like to tell you that I put that mistake in there to see if people are actually reading the post, but I'd be lying. : ) Anyway, it's fixed now.

I agree with you on the FISA vote. That's when Obama went from a candidate I could whole-heartedly endorse to one I am backing with a few reservations. I'm hoping that the Electronic Frontier Foundation's legal challenge to the law will see it killed.


Emma said...

Thorough and detailed analysis - and very enjoyable, which can sometimes be a hard thing to do while discussing politics! You've provided an excellent point of view, and many points to ponder. Thanks.