The morning after

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There is ecstasy in the streets of America and around the world. A new vibrant, thoughtful leader has emerged during a time of paralyzing confusion and despair. As the nation confronts an incredible array of economic, social, and strategic challenges, Barack Obama has stepped forward and offered hope that we can rise above the myriad forces pulling us down, but more, that we can even rise above the worst of ourselves—America’s original sin of racism and the lingering structural toxins of prejudice and discrimination.

I’m amazed at how moved I am reviewing the outpouring of joy that Obama’s election has provoked among America’s various communities—and communities around the world—but especially among the nation’s African American communities. Obama has concluded the same powerful service that John Kennedy performed for a previous generation of Americans seeking assurance of their status within this great nation and a signal of hope and deliverance for the future of their community. I know that Obama will begin appearing in small wall portraits in modest homes across America just as Jack and Bobby Kennedy still linger on the sepia-ed walls of countless Irish Catholic homes throughout this nation. What may be a little different this time, however, is how many walls Obama will grace in homes outside “his” community.

Surely my oldest boy, allowed to stay up way past his bedtime to follow the election results as they trickled in (and collapsing in a thumb-sucking, snoozing pile just before Obama’s victory was called), will always remember November 4, 2008. At least I hope he will. May Obama always be for him synonymous with the defeat of cynicism and the birthing of something completely new in America's political and social life.

So why this morning of exultation do I find myself withdrawing from the happy din around me, why so somber, so hesitant? Why can’t I step back and simply savor this incredible triumph?

It is those many challenges that trouble my thoughts. We are at a “Now what?” moment in the life of this great nation. The obstacles before us are historic, the pressure on this new administration which offers so much hope for change to deliver on such promises will be enormous while their enemies remain legion.

On health:
Obama has targeted the deplorable state of our health care system for change, but his strategy for healing it relies on some of the same free-market mechanisms which are already driving U.S. health care into the ground. Obama has boldly declared decent health care more than a social good, but a human right. Surely we can be more imaginative, more bold in addressing this chronic structural dysfunction? Surely finding a way to take the profit maximalists out of the delivery of health services in America should be part of the discussion toward building a rational system, perhaps one more modeled on a civic utility than a market opportunity? Perhaps before locking into a new approach, it is time to step back and open this matter up to a real, transparent, and equitable debate on the matter rather than continuing to hash out a fix among the system’s competing and self-serving health sector interests.

The budget:
All bets should be off as we confront our crippling debt and budget deficits and balance them against the social needs of our people and the looming Social Security/Medicare timebomb. A critical view of our sinful level of defense spending must be part of that reassessment. The Pentagon budget cannot be treated as sacrosanct while basic services and the future of our children are put on the budget block. Why? Ask Willie Sutton: “Because that’s where the money is.”

On Iraq:
Obama has promised to wind down America’s too-costly intervention in Iraq. No one who has ever read my column could accuse me of being a war monger, but now I find myself worrying over the unpleasant side effects of a power vacuum in this region we arrogantly chose to destabilize. How can Obama conduct a strategic withdrawal that protects American service members and overall security without further imperiling the unfortunate people of Iraq?

On abortion:
Many prolife Catholics have put their careers and reputations on the line to argue for a vote for Obama. Have we merely been used as political pawns in a victory strategy or will Obama deliver on the promise to move America away from this cruel institution? How can Obama begin to work past the rhetoric and begin to build a social structure that allows our young people facing an unplanned pregnancy to choose life instead of death? How can we help him do that?

On the threat of global terrorism:
Obama seems to understand that our complete security concerns cannot be resolved through the application of brute military force. Can he convince the public and Congress that soft power solutions to blunt the threat of Islamic maximalists are not only as effective, they are essential to long-term success against this amorphous, evolving threat? Such measures must be accompanied by a just two-state solution in Israel/Palestine and a rational energy policy that extracts U.S. living standards from the global extortion of the oil trade.

On energy independence:
As the price of oil continues its decline (ironically enough accelerated by the economic collapse its rise helped effect), the sense of urgency to respond to America’s looming energy crisis will diminish even as new voices and lobbying campaigns will cynically exploit the theme of energy self-reliance to promote retrograde and dangerous solutions like a resurgent nuclear energy industry or the dubious promise, one promoted by Obama, of “clean” coal. Will Obama be able to stay his focus on energy solutions that, even if more costly in the short run, will prove less dangerous and more sustainable over the long haul?

On the economy:
The Catholic church has long advocated an economic structure built  in service to humanity—all humanity—not the other way around. We have recently experienced the latest reminder of the wisdom of that injunction. How will Obama craft a just economic order out of the latest dust pile generated by America’s unnamed religion, that faith in liberalism’s free market wonderworks. There will be powerful forces seeking to place themselves within his administration to help recreate an order that protects the special interests and comfort of the few against the crying needs of the many. Can we begin to build something new in this generation's changing of the guard? A new, sustainable economic order that offers opportunity and advancement to all Americans while stewarding the gifts of creation and lifting up our brothers and sisters too long ignored or cruelly exploited in the developing world?

To those kind readers who have labored thus far through this minor rant, my apologies for raining on this particular hometown parade, but I think it’s important to keep the difficulties before us in clear relief. Obama appears to be a man who can see clearly, think critically, and move effectively. Let’s help him be the great president he promises to be and together rebuild the great nation we have been and can be again.

It’s nice to believe in change, but in this life, you have to work hard for it, too. We just have to apply some of the same yes-we-can-do spirit that brought this unlikely candidate from the streets of Chicago all the way to the White House.