Sunday, January 25, 2009

Obama on politics

Barack Obama's book The Audacity Of Hope is a very pleasant read. It's easy, lively and thoughtful, and gives an impression of grace.

The chapter on politics gives a few interesting insights into his experiences. He discusses the danger of "transformation into the stock politician of bad tv movies", and every politician's fear of losing an election - more, a fear therein of "total, complete humiliation". Winner takes all. He compares this to the business executive who can prosper by coming second, year after year.

He also discusses the burgeoning need for money to fund campaigns. He is aware of the process of increasingly spending one's time in the company not of ordinary people, but those who are well off enough to donate thousands to one's next campaign. Despite efforts to maintain one's stands on particular issues, the voices one hears become increasingly slanted to those people and their interests: "the problems of ordinary people... become a distant echo rather than a palpable reality, abstractions to be managed rather than battles to be fought". On the other hand, Obama says: "One of my favourite tasks of being a senator is hosting town meetings... my time with them is like a dip in a cool stream."

He recognises the tangible difference in motivation between lobbyists who represent profit-making interest and those that represent public issues. Yet he mentions filling in 50 questionnaires from interest groups in his senate primary campaign, and the difficulty in ticking all of any one set of boxes. For example: "I might agree with a union on the need to enforce labor and environmental standards in our trade laws, but did I believe that NAFTA should be repealed". He says he lost some endorsements on his answers, although on occasion he was surprised in getting an endorsement despite a "wrong answer".

And he goes into some detail on the convoluted practices of the Senate and the House of Representives, which of themselves are a demoralising indictment on the subversion of political processes.

The chapter exhudes integrity - but of course, words written by a politician about politics can very easily be seen as self-serving, whether they are or not. He rounds off the discussion about the demerits of the system with a set of ideas for campaign reform. They include: "nonpartisan districting, same-day registration and weekend elections" to increase participation (and thus scrutiny) levels. "Public financing of campaigns or free television and radio time could drastically reduce the constant scrounging for money and the influence of special interests. Changes in the rules in the House and the Senate might empower legislators in the minority, increase transparency in the process, and encourage more probing reporting".

He frames this challenge in terms of the willingness of those in office to yield some of their power base: a change in attitude, an amount of courage, and - implicity - a generosity, a harkening back to the reasons for public service.

He now has his best opportunity to influence some of these adverse political practices. He has already made a start, in mandating a greater distance between serving in his administration and joining the lobbyists on the other side of the fence. Let's see how far he can get.

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