Think Global, Act Local: Vote Obama. And Cecilia.
Apparently there’s a Presidential Election taking place on Tuesday, although you could be forgiven for not knowing as much if you drive around my part of the Catskills. This morning, at the intersection of Rtes 28 and Rte 375, always a popular planting place for political yard signs, I counted 18 of the buggers – and not one for either Obama or Romney. Do we not care? Of course we do. But the Presidential candidates themselves, stymied by the antiquated system of the Electoral College, are unwilling to put resources into a New York State that is resolutely Democrat. If you want a yard sign for Obama this year, you have to buy it.
This is the thing that many of us only learned in the year 2000: the election for President of the United States is not a national popularity contest. As proved to be the case with Al Gore that fateful year, the candidate with the most votes may not be the person who gains the most Electoral College votes, which are counted on a winner-takes-all State-by-State basis. Every four years, we’re inclined to get passionate about our Presidential candidates, and every four years, the campaign comes down to just a handful of ‘swing’ States. The rest of us, quite frankly, are taken for granted. Whether you live in Democratic stronghold like New York or California, or Republican strongholds such as Texas or South Carolina, your State’s historical voting pattern renders your loyalties relatively worthless: the two Presidential candidates campaign relentlessly in the few States that are up for grabs. There have been times in the last few weeks where it has felt as if Ohio is the only State that matters in the USA. And perhaps that’s true: as is constantly noted, no Republican has ever won the Presidency without winning Ohio. And right now, polls show Obama winning Ohio – by a squeak.
This is seriously good news. We desperately need four more years of President Obama. Like many who voted for him in 2008, I’ve been somewhat disappointed by his first term. In truth, we only have ourselves to blame for part of that disappointment. We elected Barack Obama President on such a ground-swell of optimism – of Hope and Change – that we were obviously setting ourselves for a fall. We were pretending that Obama was Superman, when in fact he was really just Clark Kent. But Obama is also partly responsible for our disappointment. The inspirational candidate – part Martin Luther King, Jr, part John F. Kennedy – almost vanished once he got into office. His speeches lost their fire as he surrounded himself with Washington insiders, and the Harvard Law School Graduate emerged in the former candidate’s place, frequently drowning us in the rhetoric of small details, punctuated with pregnant pauses. He made promises he found he could not keep, be it closing Guantanamo Bay, bringing unemployment down to 6%, ending the war in Afghanistan, addressing climate change or truly overhauling America’s appalling health care system. Throughout at least three of these four years, the country remained in a dogged recession, resulting in a general air of pessimism. Surely we had expected something more from President Obama?
In the spring of 2008, a few months after I cast my first ever vote as an American citizen in a Presidential election – for Obama, of course, and believe me, it felt good – I ran for office myself, and was elected onto the school board in the Onteora Central School District, the largest geographical school district south of the Adirondacks, covering almost 300 square miles, and encompassing most or all of four culturally diverse towns (Woodstock, Shandaken, Olive and Hurley) with smaller parts of two more towns (Marbletown and Lexington). The position is entirely unpaid, which might explain why there were only three candidates for the three seats that year. (There are seven trustees, all serving three years terms, which means that at least two seats are up for grabs every budget vote, in the spring.) But it’s a front line position, wherein, by setting the budget, the policy, and by employing the Superintendent of Schools, we directly impact upon the education of our local children. It feels important, in the gravest (as opposed to self-gratifying) sense of that word.
And yet it didn’t take me more than a few weeks to realize what I and my fellow school board trustees were up against. Be it a shared desire to further improve school meals, consider a later start time for our sleep-deprived middle and high schoolers, or provide more collegiate opportunities for our graduating high school seniors, we found that we were up against a blockade of Federal and State laws and mandates, along with entrenched institutional bureaucracy that makes the most incremental change seem like a peoples’ revolution. I often liken turning around a school district to turning around an oil tanker. It can be done, but it’s a painfully slow process and it’s fraught with technicalities.
As such, whenever I have felt disappointed by Obama, it’s been that much easier to buck up and empathize with him instead. While by no means looking to make specific comparisons, at least I know what it’s like to have the best of intentions only to come up against a barrier of limitations. Closing Guantanamo Bay turned out not to be as easy as signing a Presidential Decree. Ramping down the war in Afghanistan was not initially viable when faced with Army chiefs who first insisted on ramping it up. Completely overhauling health care – with a single payer option such as many called for, let alone a National Health Service such as in Britain – was more than the country could manage at the time; simply pushing for what has come to be known (with his own blessing) as Obamacare has already served as a lighting rod for the opposition, with legal challenges carried all the way to the Supreme Court.
And it is here that we realize why Obama has been less effective than some of us might have hoped. Elected on a groundswell of positivity, Obama initially reached across the partisan aisle and vowed to work with Republicans in the 111th United States Congress – and those Republicans, almost to the last man and woman, refused to do so. As dictated by their own right-wing, they declared themselves instead willing to do everything that it took to limit Obama to a one-term Presidency – and that included allowing the country to sink deeper and deeper in to its recession, even into a Great Depression if need be. Never mind that people were genuinely hurting financially: as long as a Republican could reclaim the office of President in 2012, it didn’t matter. Unwilling to recognize this filibustering for what it was, the 2008 Democrat majority across both houses squandered its opportunity, and when the House of Representatives went back over to the Republicans in the Tea Party revolution of 2010, and the United States Senate was restricted to a two-vote majority, all momentum was lost. If we have a place to locate our blame, it would be with that short-lived, pussy-footing Democratic majority, not our beleaguered President, on whom it then became imperative to hold out for another two years of recession, to trust that his economic initiatives would prove correct in the long run and that his supporters – people like me, and especially people like me in places like Ohio – would re-emerge to give him that second term. Unfortunately, in his first debate against Mitt Romney, it appeared as if Obama himself didn’t want that second term, and an election that, thanks to the evident weaknesses of his challenger, should have been over before the early voting even started, suddenly began to look very tight indeed.
Perhaps that’s what Obama needed. Perhaps that’s what we Democrats, or jaded Obama supporters, or eternal optimists, or political pragmatists, or whatever you want to call the people who vote the party line even when it is with less than total enthusiasm, needed as well. We might just have needed Obama to again become the outsider, to have to express his personality and justify his policies, to have to declare his victories and explain his defeats, because in the nervous few weeks leading up to November 6, we’ve seen the support base finally re-energized. We’ve been able to check Obama’s track record and, guess what? It is impressive indeed. To quote his endorsement by the editors of the Woodstock/Saugerties/Kingston/New Paltz Times:
President Obama kept us from a depression, no doubt about it … Obama’s $787 billion stimulus spurred economic growth, created nearly 4 million new private sector jobs. The health care reform will create insurance coverage for more than 30 million, and require people to take care of themselves, rather than us having to pay for their emergency room visits. … Obama has us [finally, I might add] drawing down in Afghanistan, searching for an end to a war that began in incredible anguish, but without clear goals. Getting out of there is a diplomatic miracle. He also, as promised, ended the war in Iraq for the United States in as clear a way as possible. And Bin Laden is gone and dead.
Other items: A successful auto industry bailout; repeal, as promised, of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell;’ reform of Wall Street, a battle that was engaged with Dodd-Frank regulations, expanding Pell Grants for college students and creating an educational Race to the Top …the list is quite long, and includes boosting automobile fuel efficiency standards, tightened sanctions on Iran, and protecting two liberal seats on the U.S. Supreme Court.
You can read a considerably more erudite summary of Obama’s achievements in the New Yorker.
From my position on the School Board, I’m personally frustrated with the realities of Race to the Top. From my location in the Catskills, where we have endured two Tropical Storms and one Cyclone in only 14 months, losing homes and businesses and lives in the process, I am incredibly frustrated that Obama has backed away from confronting climate change, and that he too often touts ‘natural gas’ which in our region is a by-word for the horrors of ‘fracking.’ But I’ll be voting for him this Tuesday for all the reasons that make sense. His economic policies absolutely have saved us from a second Great Depression. He did have the audacity to tackle health care. He did end the war in Iraq, he did repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ he did save the auto industry, he did initiate much-needed regulations on Wall Street, and he did rid the world of Bin Laden without glorifying in it. Most of all, he’s a good person. No, he’s not Superman. But outside of the entertainment industry, we don’t have Super Heroes. Only mere mortals, most of whom live out their lives in anonymity. Very few people ever rise to their potential. Remarkable though his life story alread reads, I don’t believe Obama has realized his full potential as yet. But if re-elected on November 6, I believe he can do so in his second term.
What, then, of those 18 yard signs at our local intersection? We go to the polls on November 6 in our area to elect not just the President, but Senator, Congressman, State Senator, State Assemblyman, State Supreme Court Judge, and to decide on County-wide Charter Changes. Our area has additionally been redistricted and split in the last two years, meaning, as a quick example, that our Onteora School District will no longer be represented by one State Senator, but by two. (Regarding our District, my three-year term was up this spring; I was re-elected alongside another incumbent in a real battle this time, with two challengers opposing our re-configuration of the elementary schools. I now know what it’s like to wage a proper campaign, raising funds, rallying supporters, honing a message, and taking part in debates.) The yard signs appear to have doubled as a result of the new Districting, leading to increased confusion about our candidates; in fact many of us are still struggling to understand our curiously shaped new District lines, some of which look suspiciously like cigars or Loch Ness monsters.
And while I don’t mind admitting that I could handle any confusion by simply voting the Democratic Party line on Tuesday (as indeed I will), I have done my homework, metaphor intended. It is with particular joy and enthusiasm that I will vote for Cecelia Tkaczyk as State Senator for the newly reconfigured 46th District. It’s not just that Cecilia is a proven housing policy expert and advocate; it’s not just that she’s worked as a legislative analyst for the New York State majority Conference. It’s not just that she lives on a farm but once worked as labor organizer with the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers. It’s not just that she has come out against fracking, though I certainly couldn’t support anyone who was for it.
No, it’s that Cecilia Tkaczyk has served five years on her local School Board, the Duanesburg Central School District, two of them as President. (She is currently the Vice-President.) That means she’s already served a political term or two on the front lines, unpaid and sometimes, I presume, unappreciated. Anyone who can go through the toughest five financial years American public schools – and especially New York public schools – have ever faced, and remain sufficiently optimistic and energized as to aspire to higher governance has my vote. Besides, with Governor Cuomo attacking New York public education at every opportunity and taking serious steps to reconfigure it on what many of us presume to be a platform for a Presidential run in 2016 or later, we need not just proponents of public education in local office, but experienced proponents of public education. It is the President of the United States who sets the national tone, and who presents the face of America to the rest of the world. But it’s the people in local positions of (often limited) power who make the day-to-day differences in our lives. It’s for that reason that I hope local voters, especially the Democrats, do not allow what they may perceive as the irrelevance of their vote for President to deter them from the polls next Tuesday. Our local candidates, especially in gerry-mandered new districts like the 46th Senate, need every vote they can get. And ultimately, because winning the popular vote is, after all, a good way to back up an Electoral College victory, so does Barack Obama. See you at the polls on Tuesday.