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.