The Necessity of Hope

On Tuesday, Wisconsin handed Barack Obama his ninth consecutive victory in the race for the Democratic nomination. In state after state, Obama’s speeches have drawn together thousands of people from all backgrounds to stand up and shout “Yes we can.” But, as Obama-mania fades in the coming months, the focus will turn to where each candidate stands on the issues. Political pundits have repeatedly argued that although Obama is inspirational, he doesn’t address the “meat-and-potatoes problems.” David Brooks of the New York Times calls Obama’s message of hope “vaporous.” So what are his policies? This question is being echoed more loudly with Obama’s increasing success in the primaries. While I agree that Obama should provide a more concrete outline of the policies he wants to enact and how, it is my opinion that his message of hope represents a world-view that will have a real impact on questions of policy.

Bush’s unilateral world-view has cost us the respect and cooperation of allied nations and trapped us in an unjustified war. After 9/11, there was a small window of time when we had the sympathies of the world — but instead of forging stronger relationships with new allies (especially in the Middle East), we antagonized even our friends. Having gotten us into the war in Iraq, Bush’s insistence that its neighbors constitute an “Axis of Evil” led Congress to enact policies that isolated these nations. As a result those nations did little to help in Iraq, and some even undermined its stability.

Elsewhere, this administration’s policies on homeland security have been guided by the world-view that America is fighting a war between good and evil and that terrorists are everywhere, waiting to strike. Bush and his advisors have engineered a campaign of fear which has slowly eroded both the spirit and civil rights of the American people.

This spirit is what Obama is trying to revive. Some might scoff at American optimism, calling it unrealistic and naïve. But they should envy it: this attitude has allowed the U.S. in its short history to surpass every other nation in economic strength and global influence. It is what gave the authors of our constitution the audacity to say that all men are created equal. But the dream of treating every human being with dignity is now in danger — the Bush administration has used fear to convince the American people that certain groups should not be treated equally in the name of national security. The American spirit to stand up for what is right has been stripped and replaced with a reckless panic.

Obama’s world-view could lead to policies that reverse the damage done by the Bush administration. In order to increase stability in the Middle East and protect our own national security, our leaders need to work persistently with Iran, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to encourage Israeli and Palestinian leaders to ratify and enforce the two-state solution. We need leadership that upholds the constitution by insisting that even enemy combatants are entitled to a fair trial. We need to work together with rising economic powers like India and China to ratify trade agreements that ensure jobs for our workers here at home while encouraging trade with countries that have struggling economies.

There have been two main objections to Obama’s candidacy. The first is that at age 47, he is too young and needs more experience in Washington. The second criticism is that he would not fare well against McCain or Romney because he has neither military nor executive experience. These are reasonable objections, but Obama has the one asset that can trump either shortcoming: a unique ability to unite America and to help us reclaim our rightful place as first among equals in the international sphere. His ability to do so is based on a hopeful world-view of “us working together with them” rather than the divisive “us versus them” of the Bush administration.

Despite what the pundits say, Obama’s message of hope could be the world-view that truly turns America in the right direction. As a guiding principle, it will influence his selection of advisors, who will in turn be critical to implementing real policies for change. Obama’s message is a reminder of the way America should be: a country of hope and optimism, a country that does not retreat into nationalism at the expense of the ideals that our forefathers fought so hard to realize. Throughout American history, when national turmoil threatened to divide the country, leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy had the audacity to believe in the dream of America and to challenge the nation. The message of hope reminds us that the dream can still be realized if we as a country are not burdened with fear but uplifted by hope.

Rahmat Muhammad is a graduate student in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.