September 17, 2008

Obama vs. History

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We all know the narrative of this presidential election. Poll numbers show that voter support for Democrats far outweighs that of Republicans. However, in some polls McCain is actually marginally ahead while Obama leads by only slim margins in others. So, why is the election much closer than it should be, based on voter support for generic Democrats versus Repulicans? There is a litany of answers, but the answer is simple when it comes to foreign policy: Obama’s narrative and vision of America’s role in the world is at odds with the historical norm.

Senator Obama’s history and vision of the world is contrary to the one America is familiar with. Obama does not subscribe to the notion of American exceptionalism, an idea that has long prevailed. Rather, he views the world as one in which America simply plays a supporting role. He would claim that this role has become one that is too large and too powerful. If elected, Obama would in essence apologize for the mistakes the U.S. has made (certainly there are many) and subsequently integrate America into the global community rather than re-establish the U.S. as a superpower.

When it comes to the major threats facing the U.S. – for example, Iran, al Qaeda, the Taliban, North Korea,. – Sen. Obama correctly states that all options are on the table in terms of dealing with our foes. Arguably, he has put on a tough guy persona in some instances in order to move more towards the center. However, it has become ever more apparent that Obama’s philosophy is one that is fundamentally opposed to the use of force. Sen. Obama is often compared to President Kennedy in many respects, one of which is Obama’s supposed level-headedness and “worldly” view. Let us remember, however, that President Kennedy got the U.S. involved in Vietnam, launched the Bay of Pigs invasion and was a fierce Cold warrior. These characteristics do not seem to be present in Sen. Obama.

The problem with Obama’s view is that historically it has not been the American view. Obama is really a product of the 1990s. It was during this period, the era of Bill Clinton, that he solidified his political philosophy. Other than the exception of the Clinton presidency, Americans have voted for the candidate who illustrates not only that he will use force, but also that he understands the necessity and importance of the armed forces. In his commencement speech at Wesleyan, Sen. Obama focused on the importance of civil service. Further, he said he wishes to, “engage the young people of other nations.” This intense focus on the world outside of U.S. borders, as well as the failure to make mention of service in the armed forces, is a manifestation of his ideology and rejection of American exceptionalism. On a related note, it used to be that widespread support from abroad for a candidate rubbed Americans the wrong way. While many praise Obama’s oratory skills and his ability to inspire the world, it would not be surprising if Americans view foreign support of Obama in a negative light.

This is not to say that all of Sen. Obama’s policies are wrong or misguided. Furthermore, no one can fully know if as a president he would use force when necessary, or if his political philosophy might prevent him from doing so. America may be changing, but the trend of American exceptionalism as the prevalent view in the U.S. is likely to continue. Sen. Obama must convince voters that he subscribes, at least in some part, to the idea of American exceptionalism, or he risks losing the presidency.