2000 was one of those. I sat in a chair in my college dorm room, filling out an absentee ballot to vote in my first presidential election. A milestone. I’ll never forget it, even if I ultimately have come to regret my choice in that particular race.
2008 was another. I stood in the voting booth, and I paused. I knew whom I would choose. I’d followed the race closely, and I could feel a palpable weight of historic significance. I paused to take in the moment – the electronic square colored blue, next to the name of an African-American candidate. I was proud that day to have voted for Barack Hussein Obama. I still am.
Why did I vote for Obama in 2008? I’d be lying if I pretended emotion didn’t enter into it. Obama was an inspirational candidate, whose words had moved me to tears multiple times that campaign. I was one of many reporters who had covered the Democratic National Convention for the Rocky Mountain News that year, and a highlight was sitting in a Hard Rock Cafe with two colleagues, watching Obama make history by becoming the first black man to accept a major party’s nomination for president. It gave me goosebumps to be there, in the same city, at the same event. I can’t pretend that moment was not formative.
Of course, the policies were important, too. Obama promised a more just society, one in which we did not launch preemptive wars; did not torture suspected criminals, no matter how egregious the alleged crimes; and provided affordable health care to all, among other proposals. In short, although I would not have phrased it this way at the time, I believed Barack Obama would make this a better, more compassionate place to live.
So here we are, four years later. Much has changed in that time.
Personally, I changed careers twice, rediscovered my faith after years of pretending, and entered seminary. These changes have strengthened my belief that I made the right choice in 2008 – and that the right choice for me, as a Christian, is to support Obama’s reelection next month. It’s the right choice partly because Obama’s opponent in this election has proposed unconscionable policies that cut against everything I understand justice and compassion to be – but moreso it’s the right choice because Obama has shown himself worthy of support.
Over the past four years, much has changed in the country, as well. It’s easy to forget now the economic collapse of fall 2008 and the alarm – the panic – that accompanied it. The nation was in crisis, yet it was no less alarming how quickly the bipartisan comity that typically follows the election of a new president disappeared into congressional intransigence. Obama’s high-flying rhetoric about changing the culture of Washington was subsumed into a machine of filibuster-induced gridlock from political opponents who placed making him a one-term president over solving the significant problems faced by millions of families suffering through the worst economic crisis in 70 years.
Yet despite this historically unprecedented intransigence – even when Obama had a Democratic House and a huge Democratic majority in the Senate, accomplishment was difficult; the Democrats only had a filibuster-proof majority for a few months between the swearing-in of Al Franken after a lengthy recount and the death of Ted Kennedy, then again between the appointment of Kennedy’s replacement and the election of Scott Brown – Obama’s accomplishments, especially in his first two years, before the election of a Republican House led to the least-productive Congress in history, are numerous and worthy. Let me run through the ones that resonate most with me, as a Christian, in rough chronological order:
This was also something John McCain promised to do, but it is still to Obama’s credit that he reaffirmed our society’s commitment to respecting the lives and dignity of others, no matter how heinous the crimes they are accused of committing. Is anyone more powerless than the terrorism suspect arrested and held in a secret prison, without representation, isolated from all communication (and I hasten to remind everyone that suspects are not necessarily guilty of the allegations against them)? Is there anyone more powerful than the strongest, richest nation in the world? Surely our strong, rich society can afford to respect the dignity of all people, no matter who they are or what they have (or are suspected to have) done.
The first significant piece of legislation Obama pushed through Congress despite significant and unexpected (but not quite as unified as it eventually would be) Republican opposition was the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It’s come in for a lot of criticism in the years since, but economists generally agree it saved or created millions of jobs for low- and middle-income workers, and the most legitimate criticism is that it was too small, thanks to a combination of political reality and plain old underestimation of how bad the financial crisis really was. At a time when many, many people were losing their jobs, Obama’s first major accomplishment was to put the resources of power to use in helping the newly powerless or those in danger of becoming so. I also consider the bailout of the auto industry to be part of this category, as well as the subsequent “mini” stimulus packages that extended provisions helping the unemployed and others who continued to be affected by the worst economic crisis in 70 years.
Fair Pay Act
Early in his administration, Obama affirmed the right of women to be paid equally for the same amount of work as men by signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, removing the mind-boggling statute of limitations on discrimination suits, which the Supreme Court ruled expired after six months even if the victim didn’t know about it until much later.
Health care reform
Obama’s signature legislation, the largest piece of social welfare enacted in 50 years – and the most compassionate, pro-life piece of legislation enacted in perhaps as many as 70 years. The way Christians have rallied around opposition to this bill is sickening and hypocritical, in my opinion. There is nothing unChristian about a society affirming that it will take care of those without the means to receive adequate medical care if they happen to get sick. In fact, it is distinctly and thoroughly a Christian thing to do. Obama himself risked his political career in pushing this legislation through, even after it looked dead as the result of unforeseen, protracted Republican opposition to ideas they actually created. To be honest, I will vote to re-elect Barack Obama based on this legislation alone. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a necessary and long-overdue first step toward becoming a more just society that protects the powerless and the marginalized.
Ending the war in Iraq
It’s easy to forget now that leaving Iraq was an “if” four years ago, but Obama delivered on this campaign process by ending this pointless, unjust war that was begun on false pretenses and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Yes, the war removed a ruthless dictator who had no qualms about killing his own people, and that is a positive. Replacing a tyranny of one with a tyranny of anarchy through imperial hubris, however, is not. Obama recognized this from the start – something I did not, unfortunately, and continue to regret supporting – and he did the right thing.
No sector is more powerful in our society than the banks, and Obama – again, despite unified political opposition – supported and signed legislation regulating at least some of their worst excesses. This is a bill that could have been stronger, but to the extent it makes more unlikely an economic collapse caused by the extraordinarily powerful playing dangerous games with the money of the powerless, it is a good and just piece of legislation.
Credit card reform
Similar to banking reform, Obama supported and signed legislation prohibiting some of the more egregious excesses in which powerful credit card companies took advantage of their customers, who are largely low-income and powerless – such as raising interest rates without notification and exorbitant overdraft fees.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Regardless of where we as Christians fall on the morality of gay relationships, the fact remains that discrimination against sexual minorities is not something in which a just society should engage. Ending this cruel practice – in which LGBT men and women could lose their livelihoods based solely on the suspicions and accusations of their colleagues – was a good first step on the road to ensuring that our society respects and affirms the civil rights of all its citizens, regardless of whether their actions fit into our religious or moral code.
Constitutional and foreign-policy experts disagree on the constitutionality of Obama’s decision to join NATO in airstrikes against the Libyan government, but Obama was on the right side of the Arab spring – urging Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to resign, essentially dealing that repressive regime a fatal blow, and preventing Libyan dictator Moammar Ghaddafi from massacring his own people, helping the rebels in that country eventually unseat him. The Middle East is a tricky place, and Obama can rightly be criticized for doing too little in nations like Bahrain and Syria, where protests were brutally crushed in the former and devolved into civil war in the latter. Likewise, there’s the problem of repeating our mistakes in Iraq, where we unseated a brutal dictator militarily without a plan for stabilizing the nation in the aftermath. By supporting the Arab Spring first diplomatically and then through strategic military support, I think Obama struck a good balance in supporting the humanity of oppressed people against their powerful and corrupt leaders.
Green energy policies
Through the stimulus package and the Environmental Protection Agency, Obama has taken steps to better protect God’s creation. The stimulus included incentives for green energy industries, as well as personal energy-saving initiatives, and the EPA worked with car manufacturers to double fuel-efficiency standards and has resumed enforcement of environmental regulations largely ignored under the Bush administration. Christians too often treat protecting the environment as a political rather than moral consideration, but God calls his people to steward the resources he’s given us, not trample them. Obama should be applauded for taking steps toward the former and away from the latter.
Food safety regulation
After inheriting a system that had fallen into shambles under the anti-regulatory administration of George W. Bush, Obama strengthened regulation of food safety by signing a bill to increase inspections and allow the Food and Drug Administration to order recalls of products, taking that crucial protection out of the hands of those who stand to profit by limiting their recalls.
One theme that runs through all of these accomplishments is that they benefit the powerless. In some cases, such as the stimulus and rescinding torture, a McCain presidency would likely have done the same. Likewise, some of these accomplishments could be justified by pure political motives; a better economy improves Obama’s reelection chances, so it’s within his personal interest to stimulate it. But many of these contained little such political benefit; health-care reform by the time it passed was a political liability, yet Obama pressed on with it because it was the right thing to do.
This is not to say Obama has been a perfect president. I’ll address some of those imperfections in the third and final part of this series. But the net result of an Obama administration has been more protection, help and advocacy for the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. Protection against powerful banks and credit card companies. Help for the jobless, the homeless and those without health insurance. Advocacy for the environment, the accused criminal and the minority.
Our society is more just as the result of actions taken by Barack Obama over the past four years. For that, he deserves a second term.