Perhaps more than any other leader, Abraham Lincoln understood America’s exceptional place in human history. The United States is not a nation united by blood or a particular religion, but a “new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln believed that America’s founding ideals, rooted in the Enlightenment, are worth dying for, and that because of these ideals, America represents the “last best hope of earth.”
The ideals Lincoln identified have stirred the soul of human beings regardless of identity, whether black or white, Latino or Asian, gay or straight, male or female, Christian or Jew, Hindu or Muslim. Some have risked their lives and fortunes to come to America and be part of our great experiment. Others have admired the nation’s ideals from afar, and sought to advance them in some form in their own land.
A few extraordinary Americans have given voice to American ideals in a way that commands respect and admiration both at home and around the world. One of the reasons I am proud to be a Democrat is that our leaders, from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton, have done that.
Barack Obama is such a leader.
The tragedy of the last eight years has been the current administration’s failure to inspire belief in American ideals. After the brutal attacks on 9/11, the world looked to America for leadership. We had and still have the moral high ground compared to terrorists and to many of the dictatorial regimes in the Middle East. We are, after all, on the side of religious pluralism, gender equality, racial equality, freedom of the press, liberal education, tolerance regardless of sexual orientation, and the rule of law. Yet, remarkably, we have failed in convincing ordinary citizens in other parts of the world to embrace the American cause.
Whether this failure is due to President Bush’s poor choice of rhetoric early on (e.g. “bring it on”), or strategic mistakes, is debatable. What is beyond debate is that President Bush has not successfully used one of the greatest weapons in our arsenal: the soft power of our moral leadership.
The Republicans would have us believe, yet again, that this election is about who will be stronger on defense. But that is a false distinction, and they know it. Both John McCain and Barack Obama believe in the strong use of the military and will go on the offense to hunt down and defeat terrorists.
Here are the real questions:
Who will strengthen America by adding the power of our ideals to our military power?
Who can inspire moderate Muslims to join the American cause, and to push for reforms in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and other regimes with oppressive leadership?
Who can convince young Chinese citizens that they should bet on democracy as the hope for their future?
Who can persuade developing nations to adopt principles of fair trade and the free market so that they can improve the lot of the poorest residents of this world?
Who will be the best advocate for the principles in which we Americans believe? Is that not what representation means, at the deepest level?
The ultimate test is not whether a person may share some common trait with us (e.g. they play the same sports, like the same music, drink the same beer, or have a similar family background), but whether he or she can be a strong spokesperson for what we believe, at our core, it means to be an American.
Barack Obama is the right voice for America today. His story is proof that America is a nation conceived on the universal ideals of liberty and equality. That the son of an African with a Muslim middle name can become President in an overwhelmingly white, Christian nation is a story only possible in America. His life work as a community organizer, civil rights lawyer, and legislator has been dedicated to creating a more participatory and inclusive democracy.
Obama’s experiences allow him to speak movingly about the hope and promise of America. He can speak to the struggling Chinese dissident, or the Muslim reformer, about how and why American ideals have a place for them, too. Through Obama, reform-minded citizens in oppressive regimes may once again see America as the hope of the world, not its enemy. Obama put it best when he said, “[W]e gather to affirm the greatness of our nation—not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy. Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago.”
The Democratic Party’s selection of Barack Obama does not stem, as critics suggest, from a Kumbaya vision of the 21st century. We will always need the heroism of leaders like John McCain and our brave men and women in uniform to defend our country from America’s enemies. But, right now, with our military stretched, and our veterans exhausted, there is an urgent need for a leader who will fight not just on the military battlefield, but also on the battlefield of ideas.
We are fortunate today to have such a leader—a thinker, a public servant, and a chronicler of the American experience, who is prepared to engage in that battle by invoking our nation’s highest ideals. He will lead us to victory with force, when necessary, but aided always with an appeal to reasoned argument that has been, since our very Declaration of Independence, the distinctive American way. A President Obama will remind us, and the world, why America is the “last best hope of earth.” •
Ro Khanna (pictured here with Speaker Nancy Pelosi) serves as Chair of the Indian American Council at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for Speaker Pelosi. In this capacity, he has helped shape the innovation agenda for the Democratic party. Ro was on the National Lawyers Steering Committee for the Hillary Clinton Presidential Campaign, and also served as a liaison to the Indian American community for the John Kerry campaign in 2004. In 2006, the San Francisco Democratic party and Speaker Pelosi presented him with the Trailblazer Award for his work in mobilizing the Indian American community nationally. The San Francisco Chronicle has described him as a “rising national star” in the Democratic party. Ro currently practices law at O’Melveny & Myers, serves on the Board of Planned Parenthood in Northern California, and has been active in the Alameda County and San Mateo County Democratic party. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, Ro was one of a few volunteers to walk precincts with Barack Obama during his first campaign for State Senate.