Lately I've been thinking alot about trust and how it does or does not apply to politicians. I think healthy skepticism of elected officials is important to maintain. But just as I would never blindly trust, I can't go to the opposite extreme and assume they are always corrupt and/or lying. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that, in my professional life, I work with several elected officials that I not only trust - but who have become mentors. On a local level, I've gotten to know a few - which is easier to do than with national figures. And while there are some that are certainly corrupt (and a lot more that just aren't playing with a full deck), there are some stand-outs that break the mold and challenge a complete slide to cynicism.
I also find that having been represented for 6 years on a national level by someone like Senator Paul Wellstone (and now Senator Franken), gives me pause when I want to think in general terms - even about national politicians. They aren't all cut out of the same corrupt mold.
All of that leads me to at least keep the door open and requires that I take a look at each elected official without a pre-conceived notion about who they are as human beings. They are as complicated as any group of individuals - both in their ability to display courage and in their weaknesses. For example, as much as I valued and respected Senator Wellstone, he let all of us down at one point by voting for DOMA. No one is perfect - and I know he learned from that experience, which is all we can ask of any fallible human being.
But there's one other important piece of history that informs my evaluation of President Obama. The first Presidential primary where I really got involved heart and soul was in my support for Howard Dean. My initial draw to his campaign was his stance against the Iraq War. At the time, there were no other national candidates speaking out as strongly as he was. But I was troubled by some of his other policy positions. He was not a traditional progressive in many areas.
What drew me to the Dean Campaign in the end was his notion of "people power." The more I got involved, the more I saw that this wasn't just a campaign slogan...it was very real. I think I had been waiting all of my life for a politician to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." And Dean was asking alot of all of us - much more than making promises of what he would do for us. This...to me...was what democracy was supposed to be all about.
With the onslaught of attacks from the media, the Republicans, and yes...the Democratic establishment, Howard Dean's campaign ended. I was crushed...as was my belief that we still lived in a democracy. Perhaps that was hyperbole on my part, but its how I felt at the time. So I not only watched my hero go down in flames, I watched another 4 years of Bushco happen and decided that there was not much sense it trying to change things through electoral politics.
And then I started hearing about Barack Obama. Again, it wasn't his policies that I noticed, it was how he was running his campaign. Early on I read stories like this about Camp Obama. Looked to me like he was following Dean and taking it up a notch. So I was intrigued and got on board. It took some doing to get over my cynicism, but the more I watched the more I saw something that woke up that craving for real democracy - the one where the people could have a say. So I decided to believe again. But it wasn't so much about believing in Obama, it was about believing that perhaps the people could have a voice.
What I've seen since then from Obama is a man who is prepared to lead the people of this country as far as we - the people - are willing to go. He laid it all out to us over 4 years ago in a diary at Daily Kos.
We won't be able to transform the country with such a polarized electorate. Because the truth of the matter is this: Most of the issues this country faces are hard. They require tough choices, and they require sacrifice. <...>
And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.<...>
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.
The fact of the matter is...I'm wondering if the real question of trust isn't more about how wise it is for someone like President Obama to trust the American people this much. He's calling us to a dialogue with each other that can lead to the kind of sacrifice that's necessary for real change to happen. Where some would prefer that he beat the country over the head with that change, he's asking if enough of us are ready for it. The change we're looking for will not happen unless enough of us are. That's because one man - even the one occupying the White House - can't do this alone. If we want democracy - we have to do it together.
I truly believe that President Obama is willing to take on that challenge. The question that remains is whether or not enough of us are ready to join him in sacrificing over the long haul that will be required. My read on that one is that not enough of us are ready at this point. Too many people still expect him to do it for us. And when you add to that the number of those who prefer their current comfort to the kinds of sacrifices that are required, the coalition for change is not there yet. I suspect that it can/will happen when those of us who are on board quit looking to politicians to do it for us and get busy with our fellow citizens in building the kind of coalitions that demand to be heard.
So in the end, I'm more of a believer in the process - one that is required to revive democracy and a voice for the people. Certainly the policies are important. But absent the kind of engagement in authentic debate and consensus-building by the people, those policies will simply sustain the status quo.