Change We Can Believe In: Barack Obama’s Plan to Renew America’s Promise by “Team Book” at Obama For America with a Foreword by Barack Obama
Three Rivers Press, New York, 273 pp $28. Reviewed by PETER DYER
Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr will administer the oath of office to Obama who will “…solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States”.
As the first African-American major party candidate for President, Obama has used a gift for inspiring rhetoric to appeal for unity in the pursuit of “change we can believe in”. A series of extraordinary events has combined with an extraordinary campaign to capture unprecedented national and international attention.
Barack Obama may very well be, at this moment, the world’s single most prominent person.
As familiar as we are with his face, his rhetoric and his history-making drive for the Presidency, how much do we know about how Obama intends to fulfill his oath to “…preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”?
What, precisely, does he propose to do as President?
Change We Can Believe In: Barack Obama’s Plan to Renew America’s Promise goes a long way towards answering this question, although it left this reader with a few others still unanswered.
“Change” is divided into two parts. Part 1, “The Plan” presents Obama’s agenda, usually in detail.
Part 2, “The Call” is a collection of seven major Obama speeches, from his 2007 declaration of candidacy to the speech delivered this July in Berlin.
The plans detailed here by the Obama campaign, especially on the domestic front, signal the revitalisation of a political entity, which for years has been on life support: the progressive Democrat.
A partial list includes:
• Tax credits for working people and families, covering 150,000,000 Americans
• No tax increase for those earning under $250,000 (98% of all households, according to “Change”)
• Guaranteed “affordable, quality” health insurance, emphasising prevention, for all Americans
• Raising the minimum wage to $9.50/hr by 2011 and indexing it to inflation
• Shoring up retirement incomes
• Ending American “addiction to oil” and the creation of 5,000,000 new “green” jobs
• Renewal of crumbling American infrastructure, including high-speed rail between major cities
• Support for labour unions
• Reduction in corporate taxes for businesses which keep jobs in the US
• Doubling of federal funding for research in science and technology
• A strong emphasis on education: investing in quality early childhood, primary and secondary education and making college affordable for all through tax credits and grants
Among the methods for financing all this will be a “small rise” in taxes for those whose annual income exceeds $250,000. As “Change” puts it: …”the Obama plan will ask families making over $250,000 a year to give up a portion of the tax cuts they have gotten in recent years…”
Other income will be generated by ending tax breaks for companies sending jobs overseas; cutting subsidies for private plans in Medicare and for high income farmers; and other tax reforms.
Crucially, the Obama plan for “responsibly ending the war in Iraq” will free up the billions of dollars a week the US currently spends there.
The ambitious domestic plans detailed in “Change” give progressives plenty of reason for cheer. But by itself this set of proposals doesn’t explain the extraordinary excitement Barack Obama has generated since he announced his candidacy for President in February of last year.
What especially distinguishes this candidate and makes him so compelling to so many is his emphasis on the necessity and power of citizen involvement. Obama insists that his administration, like his campaign, will be a call to service, across traditional barriers of political party, race and class.
This vision is articulated in the speeches printed in “The Call”: the second half of “Changes”. In his 10 February 2007 declaration of candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, Obama said: “(T)his campaign can’t only be about me. It must be about us-it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy, and your advice-to push us forward when we’re doing right, and to let us know when we’re not. This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realising that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.”
“Changes”, like the Obama campaign, is part policy and part rhetoric. It may be inevitable that, in such a wide range of subjects and concerns, there will be contradictions between policy and rhetoric.
For example, in his declaration of candidacy, Obama said “Let’s be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil”. On Iowa Caucus night (3 January 2008) he reiterated: “I’ll be a President who harnesses the ingenuity of farmers and scientists and entrepreneurs to free this nation from the tyranny of oil once and for all.
Yet, in Part 1, his call for energy independence includes “responsible domestic production”, ie drilling both offshore and on land, in Montana, North Dakota, Texas, Arkansas and Alaska.
That’s confusing. Of greater concern to this reader is the seeming contradiction between his call for the rule of law, which he will affirm if and when he takes the oath of office as chief executive, and critical elements of his foreign policy, as outlined in “Changes”.
To his credit, Obama condemns and promises to end such shameful and illegal aspects of the “War on Terror” as torture, extreme rendition, illegal wiretapping and the Guantanamo Bay detention centre. He pledges as well to restore the right of habeas corpus.
Even so, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that his vision of the rule of law is selective.
For example, there are Obama’s threats, expressed in “Changes” and elsewhere, of armed aggression against both Pakistan and Iran. Since, like Iraq, neither country has ever threatened the US, both invasion and the threat of invasion are violations of the UN Charter.
As such, they are also violations of the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution as well as the authority, which the Constitution reserves to Congress to declare war.
For a man who will probably soon be swearing “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” this is an unsettling perspective.
“Changes” leaves this reader with an unresolved question of the extent of Obama’s commitment to the rule of law.
One wonders, as well, whether Obama’s wholehearted commitment to the War on Terror, expressed forcefully in this book, will clash with his determination not to countenance torture and the other crimes which seem, sadly, naturally to flow from any war.
There is enough information in Part 1 of “Changes” for anybody who wants to get a good idea of what Obama intends to do as President, whether or not other questions are raised. And there is enough inspiring rhetoric in Part 2 to provide, for those who seek it, a fuller understanding of the broad based emotional appeal of the candidacy of this extraordinary man.
Peter Dyer is originally from the US. Although he has a degree in English he worked for 25 years as a fitter/turner, mostly supporting university research in California. In 2003 he began writing a column for his local newspaper. Dismayed by the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, he and his wife Cathy moved to New Zealand in January 2004. Two years later he left the machine shop and has since been focusing on writing. The Dyers have lived in Wellington since April of this year. They are dual NZ/US citizens.