Monday, November 3, 2008

A first-time voter picks Barack Obama

This is the first US presidential election where I get to vote. In fact, I have never voted before, having grown up in India, Taiwan & Hong Kong and coming to the US to study at Stanford at the age of 18. It took me 14 years to become a citizen through a succession of status changes: student (F-1), employee (H-1B), and resident (Green Card). Green Card status gives one the right to perpetually live in the country with none of the responsibilities. For me this was not an option - America is my home and I wanted to declare my commitment to it. Precisely 4 years and 9 months after the mandatory Green Card waiting period, I applied for my citizenship and received it on April 14th, 2005, a day before my 32nd birthday. With April 15th being tax day, my birthday has now become a celebration of red, white and blue.

Given this journey to citizenship, I approached my decision-making process with a deep sense of gratitude, pride and responsibility. I want to share this thought process and my final decision, as it might be useful to others who must make up their own minds.

I do not belong to any party and will not join one - except if I choose to someday run for office myself! Why? First, I don't see any party accurately reflecting my diverse views on the broad range of topics that parties must preside over. Second, party allegiance causes a bias in objective decision-making. Third, parties change over time, often becoming opposites of what they stood for in a previous era. Fourth, each moment in time requires different energy and leadership, something the Greeks called kairos. As a voter, it is for me to evaluate the times I find myself in, then assess the candidates and match them with the moment.

The genius of America (described in the book of the same name) and its Constitution, is that it is a device which allows us to move forward only when the players listen to and accommodate each other. This was a direct result of the failure of America 1.0, under the Articles of Confederation, which gave disproportionate powers to the states and a mere ten years in, resulted in near collapse of the grand experiment. In the America 2.xx that we live by, every entity - individuals, states, party, politicians, special interests, etc. - is allowed and encouraged to assert their selfish agendas. They will succeed for a time, but will eventually find their way blocked if they attempt to run roughshod over others. Both the assertion of extreme positions and the accommodations are intrinsic to the process.

The surprising conclusion is that the candidates' position on specific issues is not as important as their approach. We must, therefore, test more for their savvy in the "guardian syndrome" that Jane Jacobs outlined in her book, "Systems of Survival."

Sometimes we need candidates that stand apart (Reagan), and at others, we need them to bring us together. This is a time for the latter.

I believe we are currently in the latter situation, having asserted a particular set of positions for a sustained period. In order to move forward in this moment, we must now come to the middle. This is why I was initially enthused when John McCain and Barack Obama became the nominees of their respective parties.

I had had initial doubts about Barack's capabilities, being as youthful as he is, but these were allayed through the course of the nomination process, when he out-played the Clintons at the tactical game of securing the nomination by rolling up his sleeves and getting it done on the ground. Likewise, John McCain seemed a strong candidate with a consistent track record of working across party and other lines. I imagined I was going to have a tough decision on my hands.

The turning point came when McCain chose Sarah Palin. I was incredulous at first, especially given McCain's earlier promise that he would choose someone who was ready to assume the presidency on day one. And then we learned that he had met her only once before. Not only had he passed up many obviously qualified candidates (of either gender), but he had not vetted Palin in any substantial way. The dark side of being a self-proclaimed Maverick was starting to emerge. After the Palin choice, a whole series of self-created contradictions and flip-flops started mounting: using personal attacks when he had vowed never to, pseudo-suspending his campaign, reversing positions on Bush and the economy. When the damming Rolling Stone article came out, it all became clear: McCain's rendering of his biography belied a deep and unresolved personal struggle, similar to George Bush: a lifetime of shortcuts leading to disaster, solved by external forces such as family position or technicalities. And McCain has never reconciled the dark side of his core tendencies.

Meanwhile, Barack was a picture in contrast, whose star kept rising. With each successive debate, he became more poised and unflappable, demonstrating wisdom and temperance beyond his years. Despite being attacked maliciously, he never took it personally. How could this be? As I reflected on his biography, it became clear - he has had a lifetime of being in the middle and having to reconcile those differences within himself and between others. Starting with race and religion (his parents), culture (living in Indonesia, Hawaii) and age (being raised by his grandparents). Being a "third-culture" kid myself, I experienced the same machinations.

Examining the key issues of the day, we again see a sharp contrast. The candidates each wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal, published on the eve of the election. Obama's essay on the Wall Street Journal and compare it with McCain's. Notice the amount of space devoted to the issues. McCain spends five paragraphs outlining security and international issues, while Obama begins and ends with the economy and devotes just one paragraph to international concerns. Certainly with recent events, the economy is at the center of our concerns and it is McCain who is out of touch with this fact. The more subtle issue is that of tone and metaphor. McCain's abiding metaphor is a war-based one - he exhorts his supporters to "fight and never give up" and titles his essay "What We're Fighting For." Meanwhile, Obama has made his about "Change" and the fact that we can accomplish it together.

What is the moment we are in as a country? At home, our profligate spending and abdication of personal responsibility has caused a precarious economic crisis. Yes, bankers who knew better sold house notes that they shouldn't have, but individuals were equally complicit in it, fully aware that we were spending beyond our means. And housing is just the start. Credit card debt is the next elephant in the room that must be dealt with. Abroad we have squandered the well-deserved sympathy we had after 9/11 by overstepping our bounds in a misadventure in Iraq. We have alienated friends and foe alike. A Sep 25 Charlie Rose interview with Sergei Lavrov illuminates this point quite clearly. America has turned into a the big bully on the playground and all this does is cause others to dig in their heels and oppose us. What do we need to meet these challenging issues? In both cases, we must come together - these problems require a posture of inclusion, dialogue and innovation - a position supported by David Petreaus.

From the party viewpoint, it is in our interest to have two strong and vibrant parties that can host the debate about the issues of the day. It seems, though, that we get instead, oscillations, where each party rises, grow arrogant, and falls. While the Democrats lost their way during this decade (as evidenced particularly by an uncompelling 2004 candidate in John Kerry), it seems the Republicans find themselves in a similar position. Specifically, having courted the religious right to win the 2000/04 elections, the party now suffers from the interference of religion. In particular, spiritual beliefs are articles of faith, not reason. This way of thinking has infiltrated the Republican Party and must be rooted out. This can only happen through the inevitable self-examination that comes with having to sit in the corner.

Major newspapers, including the NY Times, Washington Post, New Yorker, the Conservative Chicago Tribune, LA Times and international Economist and Financial Times have endorsed Obama. It is also noteworthy that a number of vocal Conservatives like Colin Powell, Kathleen Parker, Chris Buckley, and CC Goldwater, have done so as well. On the other hand, no prominent Democrats or inter/national newspapers have endorsed McCain.

Finally, we cannot ignore the larger historical context. Race relations, particularly black/white have been with us since before the founding of the nation. Despite a civil war and the civil rights movement, in recent times race has been used to divide people, often because it serves certain politicians' platforms. Forty years ago from just outside the corridors of government, MLK appealed, "Let us participate!" The final resolution will only come when an African American takes the highest job in the land. Obama is not only black, but white as well. What better way to resolve the issue with someone who literally has both sides in his blood!

Viewed from multiple points of view, it has become clear to me that Barack Obama is indeed the person to lead in this moment in history!