Why I’m Voting for Barack Obama

Obama08_On Tuesday, Americans in 24 states will vote in what has become the first quasi-national presidential primary. I will be voting for Barack Obama. The decision to support the Illinois senator for president has come about only after a long and somewhat difficult process of elimination.

To begin with the Republican field, it is clear that none of the Republicans have even a plausible claim to being LGBT-supportive and none deserve serious consideration by members of the LGBT community. Any of the Democrats would be significantly better on our issues than John McCain or Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee, not to mention an improvement over the homophobic and disastrous presidency of George W. Bush; but it would be an unacceptably low standard indeed for a candidate simply to be an improvement over the worst president in the history of the United States.

As for the Democrats, the most LGBT-supportive candidate in the field was Dennis Kucinich, who supported same-sex marriage and full transgender inclusion in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act (LLEEA) (the federal hate crimes bill); but he dropped out after New Hampshire, having won not a single delegate. John Edwards, who spoke passionately about poverty and class issues, dropped out after a dismal third-place finish in South Carolina, the state of his birth. And the others — Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Mike Gravel — barely registered on the radar screen. That has left Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama to battle it out for the nomination.

To her credit, Hillary Clinton has a command of the details of policy that matches or surpasses that of any of the candidates, Democratic or Republican. She is clearly a skilled politician and — as she herself never tires of reminding us — has executive experience in her husband’s White House as well as legislative experience in the Senate.

But the argument that one should automatically vote for the more experienced candidate is one that would have favored Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in 1960, George H.W. Bush over Bill Clinton in 1992 and Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale in 1984, not to mention George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004. As Obama himself has noted, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld brought decades of experience into the Bush administration in 2000, and the latter became the first secretary of defense ever to have come into office with previous experience in that same position; we can see the unfortunate results of the application of that experience in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, the one incontrovertible instance of executive experience that Hillary Clinton can claim was leading the administration’s health care reform initiative, with disastrous results. As even the most cursory review of the history of the Bush presidency will show, experience is worthless without the good judgment to utilize that experience productively and effectively. And on the central issue facing the country in 2003, Barack Obama had the good judgment to see that the invasion of Iraq could have potentially catastrophic consequences, while Hillary Clinton demonstrated the quality of her judgment in supporting the Bush administration’s ill-advised rush to war.

And so experience alone simply is not a persuasive argument when one examines the historical record. Neither is “having the experience to bring about change,” given the absence of a clear commitment on Hillary Clinton’s part to progressive and transformational change.

There is yet another compelling argument against Hillary’s experience mantra, as I see it, and that is the pattern of dynastic condominium that her election as president would cement. Even the most enthusiastic supporter of another Clinton presidency should consider the deleterious effect on American democracy of the regular alternance of Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton. Were Hillary to be elected to two consecutive terms, the United States would have been under 28 years of unbroken rule by the Bush/Clinton dynasties — more than an entire generation — and that kind of dynastic politics is one that any progressive must reject as elitist and profoundly undemocratic.

Even putting that issue aside, the record of the Clinton administration was a distinctly mixed one. While there were a few successes (such as the federal budget surplus) — none of which can be attributed to the First Lady’s direction — Bill Clinton’s was a mediocre presidency at best, eight largely wasted years of indirection and lowest-common-denominator politics. And as is evident with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its implementation, Clinton administration economic policies were based on a misguided neo-liberal free trade dogma and oriented to serving the needs of the big corporate interests that have funded the Clintons for over three decades, from Perdue to Wal-Mart (on whose board of directors Hillary sat and from whom she has taken campaign contributions). Indeed, it was the explicit aim of the Clintons to use the Democratic Leadership Council to shift the party to the center, at the expense of the progressive values that are, in my view, its only raison d’etre. But for me, the most disturbing episode in the Clinton presidency was the administration’s willful refusal to intervene to prevent what they knew was a genocide in Rwanda, at the cost of nearly a million lives.

Even on LGBT issues, the Clinton administration’s record was distinctly mixed. While Bill Clinton did appoint a number of openly gay and lesbian people to high-level positions, he also disgracefully signed both Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law, and Hillary defended both of those statutes until she began her own run for president. Even more troubling to me has been Hillary’s refusal (except in candidate questionnaires completed by campaign staff) to make a clear commitment to the principle of including transgendered and gender-variant people in ENDA, currently pending in Congress.

When Hillary first was asked about the issue during her first run for Senate in 2000, my organization sought a meeting with her to discuss the issue with her directly; her office failed even to make available a low-level member of her Senate staff to meet with us after her election. And it took a year and-a-half for a coalition of New York City-based LGBT Democratic clubs to get a meeting with the senator, which she agreed to only in October 2006, on the eve of her Senate re-election; and these were LGBT Democratic clubs which endorsed her for Senate in 2000 and 2006 and have endorsed her for president in 2008. The senator’s lack of openness to the LGBT community and responsiveness to our concerns is as troubling to me as is Hillary’s equivocation on LGBT issues.

Even with all of that said, I found myself reluctant to take the logical next step and endorse Barack Obama because of his mishandling of the Donnie McClurkin affair. And it is also true that Obama, like Clinton, falls short of supporting full equality in marriage rights for same-sex couples, sometimes conflating marriage with civil unions; but Obama does support virtually every other objective of the organized LGBT community, and — unlike Clinton — he has shown himself willing to speak about homophobia in non-LGBT contexts.

As for the gender issues that have been so much discussed in this campaign, it would certainly be historic to elect a woman president of the United States. But I lived in the United Kingdom and in France when women became prime minister, and neither Margaret Thatcher nor Edith Cresson brought about any significant improvement in the lives of women, let alone systemic transformation; neither, for that matter, have any of the other women elected head of government, whether Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, or Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Indeed, women who attain the highest position of leadership in a non-feminist political system (which is to say, all of them) almost invariably do so by engaging in a masculinist discourse of power, as Hillary Clinton is doing. I would love to see a woman elected president of the United States, but she would have to be both a progressive and a feminist, neither of which Hillary Clinton is.

While there have been women elected to the highest office in the land in both Western and non-Western democracies, no majority-white democracy has ever elected a person of color to lead it. The trail of disaster in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere left behind by the Bush administration requires that the next president present a new face to the world, and Barack Obama would do that, both literally and figuratively. The son of a Kenyan man and a white woman from Kansas, who lived in Indonesia (the largest majority-Muslim country in the world), Obama has actual life experience in the ‘global south’ that Hillary Clinton lacks and that could be invaluable in helping him ‘turn the page’ on one of the most disastrous chapters in U.S. foreign policy.

I should make clear that I am not endorsing Barack Obama simply because we are both people of color, anymore than I would accept the faux-feminist argument that I should vote for Hillary Clinton simply because we both identify as women (in my case, of course, an openly transgendered woman who was assigned to the male sex at birth); that kind of crude identity politics does not serve women, people of color, or the LGBT community. But my decision was most definitely informed by my perspective as an openly transgendered woman of color who is passionately committed to social justice, of which racial justice is a key component.

And in that regard, the defining moment in this campaign for me was the aggressive campaign of racially divisive attacks that the Clintons launched against Barack Obama between the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary. While I have some reservations about Obama, the dirty and racially polarizing campaign waged by Bill Clinton as Hillary’s surrogate — and their refusal to be honest about the tactics that she clearly sanctioned — were what moved me off the fence and firmly into the growing ranks of Barack Obama’s supporters, both LGBT and non-LGBT.

No candidate is perfect, and the next president will certainly face enormous challenges, exacerbated by the Bush administration’s failed policies. But Barack Obama’s politics of hope and unity are a welcome and refreshing contrast with the corrupt corporate politics of the Clinton years and the racially divisive politics of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. We must abjure the poverty of politics without program that Clintonism represents and instead advance a truly progressive agenda that aims at social and political transformation.

Barack Obama has the potential to remake domestic policy in keeping with his progressive vision and to transform U.S. foreign policy and the place of the United States in the world, and that is why I am endorsing his candidacy for president.

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