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Nation Building, Obama Style

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If you missed the 2004 Democratic National convention, one of the highlights was the keynote address by then senatorial candidate Barack Obama. After he spoke, several twenty-somethings in the audience told the much older delegates around them, "That was our President speaking." Thursday afternoon, America's future leader entranced yet another political audience.

The occasion was the annual gathering of Emily's List, the political action committee dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women. The junior Senator from Illinois focused his speech on a single idea, are Democrats prepared to engage in nation building?

Noting, "America is at a crossroads," Obama argued that we must stop politicians from engaging in business as usual. He quipped, "When George Bush said that he didn't believe in nation building, I didn't know that he was talking about this nation." He challenged his Washington, DC, audience to dream the big dream, to imagine an America that includes everyone, rather than the fortunate few.

Obama detailed his own version of "nation building." He recalled that in November of 2004, a day before his landslide victory in Illinois, he chatted with one of his supporters, Marguerite Lewis, age 105. The tenacious black woman had traveled a long way to shake his hand. He reflected on the many changes she'd witnessed since her birth in 1899: the invention of the automobile and airplane, "the death of Jim Crow," and women gaining the right to vote. Obama noted that through out her long life Ms. Lewis never lost hope, "She believed in this idea called America." "She figured that some day it would be her turn." "She believed that America can change [for the better]" if we all keep on dreaming and working."

The junior Senator from Illinois observed that in 2006 many of America's people "have had their faith shaken." "The world has changed but things in Washington have not changed" and this has led to an assault on the American dream. Politicians in Washington are constrained by "smallness." "The timidity of our politics is holding us back."

Barack Obama said that the solution to this problem lies in the American people. It's time for the electorate to reassert their will, to say they've "had enough." "Enough of broken promises and failed leadership. Enough of can't do and won't try." He argued that we all should have had enough of an Administration that can't make our ports safe but will spend billions on crony contracts. That claims to be serious about defending the homeland, but could not respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina. That can't come up with plan for Iraq or to ensure our national competitiveness.

Obama remarked that the roots of this problem are clear. They lie "in the philosophy of this administration, in their believe that government is the problem." He said that taken to the extreme this ideology is "social Darwinism. The belief that we are all on our own. That each of us is responsible for education, healthcare, and building levees."

The junior Senator from Illinois noted that the GOP approach does not work in a democracy. He argued that the American way of life has two components: "individual initiative and mutual regard, the belief that I am my brother's keeper and my sister's keeper." Democrats must reassert that mutual regard is a vital component of government.

Obama concluded that it is time for Americans to have a debate about where we are going and what we are about. Republicans have a timid vision, the downsizing of democracy. He called upon Democrats to proclaim, "that every American family deserves the right to the American dream." He argued that all Americans deserve to "dream without limits and achieve without constraints."

On Thursday, Barack Obama shared his vision of nation building. His image of an America restored because its citizens have regained the ability to dream and to live in community. He remembered the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." Noting that we all need to work together to bend the arc, he implored his rapt audience to join in the struggle for an America with liberty and justice for all. Obama concluded, "If [after 105 years] Marguerite Lewis isn't tired, then I'm not tired."
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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