Change We Can Believe In?

A few questions for Barack Obama

In my last column, I posed questions to GOP presidential hopeful John McCain. This week, it's Democrat Barack Obama's turn.

—In February, you said you might support vouchers and charter schools if empirical data showed that they improve education (some studies show that they do, some that they don't). Admirably, your position was, "I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn." After pressure from the teachers unions, you quickly backed off from that position, stating that your campaign doesn't support vouchers "in any shape or form." What prompted that change? And if it's important that we not "throw up our hands" and "walk away from the public schools," why do you send your own kids to private schools?

—Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) intends to terminate Washington, D.C.'s federal school voucher program, even though those vouchers are paid through a separate fund that takes no money at all from D.C.'s public schools (which already spend $10,000 more per pupil per year than the city's private schools). Del. Holmes Norton says the program undermines the public schools. You've signed on to the plan to eliminate the program. But given that the program takes no money from the city's already bloated public schools, isn't it only "undermining" the public schools if D.C. parents choose not to send their kids to them? And if that's the case, isn't that an indication that they aren't happy with the schools' performance?

—You've expressed support for the idea of a "no fly" zone over Darfur because of human rights abuses. What's happening in Sudan is certainly tragic and abhorrent. But what is our national security interest there? Should we send the U.S. military every time there are wide-scale human rights abuses happening anywhere on the globe? Should we send troops to Myanmar? Uzbekistan? Turkmenistan? Iran? Saudi Arabia?

—You not only supported the latest federal farm bill, you commended it, stating that it "will provide America's hard-working farmers and ranchers with more support and more predictability." Critics have called that $307 billion monstrosity an orgy of earmarks, corporate welfare, and protectionism. It actually increases subsidies to huge agribusinesses in an era of record grain prices—subsidies that are already crushing farmers in the developing world. The New York Times called it "disgraceful." The Wall Street Journal called it a "scam." How does the "change" candidate justify supporting a bill larded with sweetheart deals for big agribusiness when just about everyone not getting a check from the bill opposed it?

—You continue to support ethanol subsidies despite the fact that corn-based ethanol is inefficient, environmentally unfriendly, and part of the cause of rising food prices. Even liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls ethanol "[b]ad for the economy, bad for consumers, bad for the planet." Perhaps your support stems from you representing a corn producing state. But is supporting a wasteful policy to win votes "change we can believe in," or is it a good sign that you're just another politician?

—In your autobiography, you admit to using marijuana and cocaine in high school and college. Yet you largely support the federal drug war—a change from several years ago when you said you'd be open to decriminalizing marijuana. Would Barack Obama be where he is today if he had been arrested in college for using drugs? Doesn't the fact that you and our current president (who has all but admitted to prior drug use) have risen to such high stature suggest that the worst thing about illicit drugs is not the drugs themselves, but what the government will do to you if you're caught?

In a speech to Cuban-Americans in Miami, you called the Cuban trade embargo "an important inducement for change," a major shift from your prior position. The trade embargo has been in place for 46 years. Did denying an entire generation of Cubans access to American goods, culture, and ideas induce any actual change? Wasn't the real effect just to keep Cubans poor and isolated? In communist countries like Vietnam and China, trade with the U.S. has ushered in economic reform, and vastly improved the standard of living. Why wouldn't it be the same if we were to start trading with Cuba?

—In addition to the drugs, Cuba, and school voucher issues, you have also changed or revised your position in recent months on the war in Iraq, government eavesdropping and immunity for the telecom companies, and holding employers accountable for hiring illegal immigrants. Under some circumstances, changing or revising one's position can show admirable introspection—the ability to revise prior conceptions with new information. Some of your new positions are more conservative. Some are more liberal. But they do seem to have one thing in common: Should we be concerned that your shifts have been to those positions that give more power and influence to government? Are there any areas where you'd actually roll back the federal government?

—In October you asked a congregation in South Carolina to help you become "an instrument of God," and to join you in building a "Kingdom, right here on Earth." Is such lofty, sanctimonious rhetoric really appropriate from a would-be president? Why shouldn't we be suspicious of a man who believes politics—indeed, his politics—are God's politics? Isn't using the political process to build a "Kingdom on earth" the sort of thing we're used to hearing from the religious right? Should we be cautious of political leaders who believe they're agents of the Divinity?

—You have called for a "civilian national security force," essentially a non-military public service corps that in your words is "just as powerful, just as strong," and "just as well-funded" as the military. Northwestern University law professor James Lindgren has estimated that your proposal would cost somewhere between $100 and $500 billion—or between 10 and 50 percent of all federal income tax revenues. How do you plan to pay for this program?

—Your wife said that as president, "Barack Obama will...demand that you shed your cynicism... That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual." How is any of this remotely the responsibility of the president? Where in the Constitution does it say that the president should be our personal motivator and spiritual leader? Will you help us lose weight and eat our vegetables, too?

Radley Balko is a senior editor of reason. A version of this article originally appeared at FoxNews.com.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Whitey||

    Dream on, Radley. If your name ain't Brokaw, he ain't answering.

  • ||

    Where in the Constitution does it say that the president should be our personal motivator and spiritual leader?

    Where in the Constitution does it say that the president should NOT use the bully pulpit to encourage us to encourage us to be better citizens, examine our personal biases, and try to improve our nation and ourselves?

    Balko seems to miss the point of leadership. IMHO, failure to use the opportunity of being president to motivate personal improvement would demonstrate a lack of leadership.

  • ||

    Let me know when he answers...

    "Balko seems to miss the point of leadership. IMHO, failure to use the opportunity of being president to motivate personal improvement would demonstrate a lack of leadership."

    Seriously?
    The President is to provide strategic management for a nation, not motivate individuals to do anything. He can put in place or insure the mechanisms that people may take advantage of if they so choose.
    The President has no duty, nor should he, to meddle in the affairs of individuals.

  • ||

    Great article, Radley. Same for the McCain piece.

    Noticed you didn't promise to do a similar piece for Bob Barr. Is it Reason's or your policy to give a free pass on scrutiny for libertarian candidates? Or to give them a free pass until someone else dredges up embarrassing tidbits, then fall over yourself condemning said candidate for stuff that was in the public record for decades? Does this lack of reciprocity indicate a bias and lack of even-handedness on your part?

  • Nigel Watt||

    Balko seems to miss the point of leadership. IMHO, failure to use the opportunity of being president to motivate personal improvement would demonstrate a lack of leadership.

    The president isn't supposed to be a great leader. He's supposed to command the military (when it stands) and veto Congress's irrational bills. Keep in mind presidents until Wilson delivered their State of the Union addresses in writing.

  • Guy Montag||

    OMG Radley! You opened with Sen. Obama being steadfastly on both sides of the same issue?

    The St. Obama worshipers of Reason are going to be none too pleased with you Sir.

    I predict a 300 comment thread.

  • ||

    He will never answer the drug war question. Admitting that the biggest danger by far in using marijuana comes from the government is too honest for a politician seeking national office.

    He will never answer the voucher question. Admitting that many of the public school systems in this country are abject failures by any measure would piss off the NEA.

    These things are out of his "comfort zone" and he demands that only we make that move.

  • ||

    -Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) intends to terminate Washington, D.C.'s federal school voucher program, even though those vouchers are paid through a separate fund that takes no money at all from D.C.'s public schools (which already spend $10,000 more per pupil per year than the city's private schools).

    I finally agree with her about something, albeit for completely oppose reasons (It's For Teh Children (OK, OK, really for Teh Teachers' Unions) versus It's Not In the Fucking Constitution For Congress to Fund This).

  • Nigel Watt||

    It's Not In the Fucking Constitution For Congress to Fund This

    Neither are public schools.

    (And yes, I think they should go away.)

  • Radley Balko||


    Noticed you didn't promise to do a similar piece for Bob Barr. Is it Reason's or your policy to give a free pass on scrutiny for libertarian candidates?


    Barr doesn't have a chance to win the election, so I'm not sure it's worth the effort. I'm also not really sure what I would ask him. He's been pretty up front about his Road to Damascus moment, and that he's done a 180 on a host of issues. Seems like it would just be the same question, over and over.

  • ||

    J sub D -- He wouldn't answer ANY of these questions, assuming they got asked, which of course they won't. He would segue into the classic "answering the question you wish they had asked" tactic, or some other such evasion.

  • Guy Montag||

    Keep in mind presidents until Wilson delivered their State of the Union addresses in writing.

    They still do, but after delivering the written document to the press and the Congress they stand up and read it to the Congress and a television/radio audience that is outnumbered by the camera/radio crews associated with the broadcast.

  • ||

    Barr doesn't have a chance to win the election, so I'm not sure it's worth the effort.

    So Reason should quit reporting anything at all about Bob Barr, because he can't win the election? Or the Green Party candidate? Or any of the other third party candidates?

    If the polls showed that Obama had it locked up, would you quit posting anything about McCain?

    (One of) the main points of H&R is to get ad revenue by posting articles of interest to libertarians, regardless of the electability of any candidates. Do you think that a similar thread about Barr would be closer to a 9 post thread or a 300 post thread?

  • Colin||

    Read Dana Milbank's story on Obama on washingtonpost.com. It seems He only recognizes journalists that have been approved by His campaign.

    I doubt Radley (or Reason) fits the bill.

  • ||

    Follow up question -- if there was no chance of ending the WoD in the foreseeable future, should Reason quit posting about Another Isolated Incident?

    If you don't think such an article about Bob Barr is worth your time, would you entertain letting H&R commenters submit their questions for him in a quasi-open thread?

  • DJ Voton||

    Balko seems to miss the point of leadership. IMHO, failure to use the opportunity of being president to motivate personal improvement would demonstrate a lack of leadership.
    "Motivate personal improvement"? The President is not Deepak Chopra, and my "personal improvement" is none of his business, whoever he is.

  • Nigel Watt||

    You know what I meant, though, Guy. The modern president is supposed to have a cult of personality, or they're not a "leader".

  • ||

    after delivering the written document to the press and the Congress they stand up and read it to the Congress.

    Probably the only way to be sure that most members of Congress will ever be acquainted with its content, given their apparent reading skills.

  • ||

    Can anyone explain the "Feel Beautiful" auto-ad in the left margin in a post on Barack Obama?

    Oh.

    never mind.

  • Guy Montag||

    RCD,

    I am getting an odd right margin ad about how one can stay in Fairfax, VA and get gas rebates.

  • gmatts||

    No question about what the hell Obama means when he says that he is "a citizen of the world" and what this "citizenship" requires of him?

  • ||

    Thanks Radley. Obama sure has shown he is a "fair weather fan" of his own prior policies. Thanks for posting some well thought-out questions that hopefully have the effect of showing some people that are currently "high on Obama" (I think he's a class A controlled substance now) that they should not let down their guard.

    I'd add another question, and I'll even answer it: Q: What separates Obama from a snake oil salesman? A: He's just better at it.

    Don't forget how Bush molded himself in the runup to 2000- he fooled everybody. What is to say Obama isn't doing the same thing in a different fashion?

    America needs to wake up and realize the candidate who is best able to "make you feel good" is probably the one most likely to make you feel remorseful after he's elected.

  • ||

    As history has shown very few if any politicians actually do what they campaign promising if elected. As such I think that the day following every inaugeration the public should immediately start a recall on all elected officials. I feel it will be the only way to force their hand to actually do what they claimed they would do and also do what we that sent them there demanded be done.

    I got this idea after the 300% pay raise for State Legislators here in La. was shot down at the last minute by the new Gov. who ran not 6 months before promsing to not allow them to vote raises for themselves. Basically he was backing off everything he campaigned on. Once the recall petitions were started he and the Legislature started to sing a different tune as we were not going to wait for the next election to vote them out.

    IMO if we did this it would send a clear message to the politician that you had better get cracking on what you promised because we are already collecting the signatures to recall your ass in 180 days otherwise. To have all the required recall signatures in place immediately following the seating of each politician would let them know we the public are ready NOW to remove you unless you do as promised and as we tell you to do as your constituents. I think they would be a bit more pressed to do the right thing knowing the paperwork was already in place to yank them out of office in the same year they were elected. No more of this 2 years in after 38 lies and flip flops we start thinking about a recall only to say ahh just wait till the next election when they might win again. Immediate and swift removal from office always at the ready.

  • ||

    Oh it would also remove big business control over politicians since no matter how much they "donated" to the politicians. If the voters determined things are not right none of that would matter and their bought and paid for man would be removed whether they wanted him gone or not. The seating of politicians can be influenced by these corporations but they can not do a damn thing about their being unseated by the voters.

  • Guy Montag||

    One thing is certain in this election: a Democrat will win.

  • Mr Burns||

    He will never answer the drug war question. Admitting that the biggest danger by far in using marijuana comes from the government is too honest for a politician seeking national office.

    Considering that almost a majority of Americans have used drugs at one point or another, this might not be true for too much longer. Someone has to be the first one (with a high enough profile) brave enough to speak up.

  • ||

    Why is it ok for Barack Obama to want to "be an instrument of God", but the left wingers say it unconstitutional for George Bush to want to be that?

    I don't want anyone in government to think he's god's gift or supposed tobe doing god's work, but no one seems to call Obama out on that, nor when he campaigns at churches. At least if they do, it doesn't get a lot of airplay.

  • jtuf||

    Great article, Balko. To answer the last question, Will you help us lose weight and eat our vegetables, too? just read "I'm Sure That You Think You Don't Want Help" a couple posts down.

  • P1t||

    Well, it seems to confirm what I thought Obama is: a collectivist. I guess Ann Coulter was onto something when she called Obama a "small Hitler" (I don't think it is the exact quote, but that is the idea). Then again, broken clocks can be right something, which is a large stress in Ann Coulter's case, in my humble opinion.

    I can't believe Obama actually called for a national civil services force. That sounds like something a Progressive-era liberal would advocate for, not a 21st century liberal. But I guess you learn new everyday.

  • ||

    great drug war questions. by the standards of obama and bush's drug use, many of us in this thread are qualified to be president.

  • ||

    If public schools improve, and people actually learn how to think, then who's going to vote for sleazy, pandering politicos like Norton?

    She's got a strong vested interest in an ignorant electorate, and she'll do anything to keep them that way.

    -jcr

  • ||

    I can't believe Obama actually called for a national civil services force.

    Oh, I'm not all that surprised that a socialist who's way ahead in the polls would get cocky enough to call for a violation of the 14th amendment.

    I was a bit more surprised when he decided to pull a Mondale and talk about raising taxes. I guess tossing Hillary the VP spot isn't the only way he could lose.

    -jcr

  • gmatts||

    "Why is it ok for Barack Obama to want to "be an instrument of God", but the left wingers say it unconstitutional for George Bush to want to be that?"

    I think more people have a problem with Bush doing it because they think that Bush actually believes he's an instrument of God. With Obama, he's probably just pandering.

  • Kaganspawn||

    I write to express my disappointment with this latest effort by Mr. Balko. He is the best of Reason (since the departure of Mr. Sanchez), as exemplified by his relentless hounding of the dastardly coroner in Mississippi or his chronicling of botched drug raids, but this is not his best work. First, it is always faintly pathetic (as the first couple of posts highlight) when a journalist directly addresses a president or presidential candidate in writing. It makes the journalist seem both self-aggrandizing (by setting himself up as interlocutor to the powerful) and pitiful (since the piece is doomed never to be acknowledged by the target in 99.9% of cases).

    In addition, Balko's questions themselves are loaded with biased terms and assumptions -- and the fact that I agree with these biases does not make it better. Thus, while I have no doubt that the DC public schools are "bloated," this language is question-begging, since there is a defensible (but wrong) argument that more resources, not less, should be devoted to the public schools. "Critics have called that $307 billion monstrosity an orgy of earmarks." Yeah, it is, but citing some unnamed "critics" like this is hardly better than a Bushling's phatic "Some say we should let the terrorists win" line.

    Likewise calling a speech to some benighted thumpers "sanctimonious rhetoric". This only shows, as Aristotle remarked, that effective rhetoric is always tailored to a particular audience. That's why speeches by politicians to a national audience, e.g. in presidential debates, are such pablum. But maybe that's why this Balko piece disappoints: it was, after all, written for the hambone audience at FOX News. Oops, I did it again.

  • bob||

    i love to see people thinking, asking questions. on the drug issue and all others, we need to speak out, join with others pushing for change. if you are against the drug war, support L.E.A.P. LAW ENFOCEMENT AGAINST PROHABITION.

  • DannyK||

    Mr. Balko, your article starts off strong, then ends in a puddle of mush. Did it enrage you when Ronald Reagan indulged in stirring rhetoric about a "city on a hill"? The only non-bombastic recent President I can think of was Jimmy Carter, and nobody liked him.

    Also, the quote from Michelle Obama was addressed to UCLA students at an Obama rally, encouraging them to volunteer for the Obama campaign. Taking quotes out of context and putting a dishonest spin on them is standard practice at Fox, but I'm used to better at Reason.

  • classwarrior||

    Leave it to Balko to write some bullshit peice about how piddling unsubstative quotes from a candidate that don't make a difference because they don't reflect how the candidate actually v otes.

  • LarryA||

    "Barack Obama will...demand that you shed your cynicism... That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual."

    Perhaps I'm paranoid, but this sounds a little stronger than "motivation" to me. More like "I'll pass a bunch of laws and you'll toe the line or suffer the consequences."

    For the most part I like my "life as usual."

    PS. Gun control. "Mr. Obama, forty of the fifty states now have right to carry. Do you really believe licensing for concealed handguns should be abolished?"

    Leave it to Balko to write some bullshit piece about how piddling unsubstantive quotes from a candidate that don't make a difference because they don't reflect how the candidate actually votes.

    Please cite Obama votes that are in conflict with the quotes. I can't find any.

  • GG||

    Well done, Mr. Balko. I sent it to the campaign via BarackObama.com and suggested Barack give you a call.

    And if it's important that we not "throw up our hands" and "walk away from the public schools," why do you send your own kids to private schools?

    For that matter, why did he throw his own hands up and walk away from the Senator Obama Kogelo Secondary School?

    Barack Obama's broken promise to African village

    Principal Obiero, 48, tells us: "Senator Obama has not honoured the promises he gave me when we met in 2006 and in his earlier letter to the school. He has not given us even one shilling. But we still have hope."



    Hope won't pay the bills!

    Forget about Hope, Principle Obiero. Tell the kids the conservative bloggers are on it.

  • ||

    DannyK wrote:
    "Also, the quote from Michelle Obama was addressed to UCLA students at an Obama rally, encouraging them to volunteer for the Obama campaign. Taking quotes out of context and putting a dishonest spin on them is standard practice at Fox, but I'm used to better at Reason."

    Ummm...what is out of context? "Out of context" means she meant something different than the quote…like if she ended her statement with "NOT!", it would change the whole meaning of what she said before. She didn't do that. What you seem to be saying is that if she says something she doesn't believe because of the crowd she's in front of, then we should just realize that she's lying and that it's no big deal? Most people would ask: if she didn't mean it, why did she say it? Are we supposed to divine some other meaning from the words...just because she was pandering to a crowd? Aren't the words just a TINY BIT scary when the wannabe first lady (read: the wife of the one man in the world most able to force you to do what he wants, regardless of your wishes) makes demands? "Demand" doesn't imply "optional," though it might just be the crowd I'm in front of.

  • ||

    Hi Radley. I just wanted to point out, re expenditures at DC Public Schools: Expenditures are so high at DC public schools, in part because the system is required to pay for private schooling for a number of disabled students whose parents (largely affluent and/or white, of course) have succeeded in pressing massive lawsuits against the school system for its inadequate facilities for disabled students.

    Not an excuse for DC Public Schools' performance, and not necessarily a crack at your questions towards Barack Obama. Just wanted to provide that important information behind the statistic...

  • Brian Despain||

    Michelle Obama's quote was about what it would be like to volunteer and work for the Obama compaign. That's the context of the speech. Pull it out of the context of that speech and claim it means that Obama is a socialist who is going violate the 14th Amendment is silly.

  • ||

    Brian:
    Seemed like a plain political rally, at least on the video, exactly as stated, in context.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pD8cW-Ot6F8&feature=related

    Where is it mentioned that it is what it would be like to work for Obama (does it change the meaning in any case?) (question asked respectfully, not contentiously.)

  • Nike Dunks SB||

    GOOD

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