Obama

Obama's Historical Comparisons

| Wed Aug. 20, 2008 2:42 PM EDT

In a PressThink post, Jay Rosen takes issue with our recently published forum on Barack Obama. We asked two dozen thinkers and writers, "Is Barack Obama exaggerating when he compares his campaign to the great progressive moments in US history?"

Writes Rosen, "Obama really said something like that? His campaign is a 'movement' comparable to, say, the civil rights movement, or to second wave feminism, or to the labor movement after the industrial revolution? If so, I had missed it."

Rosen is really insistent on this point. He also writes, "any statement from the candidate himself that compared Obama '08 to the great movements for freedom and justice in our history would have been quite the controversy, what with the McCain camp already mocking his messiah complex and calling him "The One." Why would Mother Jones, a progressive magazine, accuse Obama of the same thing McCain is attacking him for?"

To answer the question that ends that passage, we may be a progressive magazine, but we're still journalists who believe in refereeing and commenting on the campaign as fairly as we can. Nothing we write is in service of the Obama campaign and its goals. Occasionally, we'll write posts and articles that hurt Obama; the New Republic, the Nation, and the American Prospect all do the same.

But to Rosen's larger point — Obama does indeed put himself in a historical context alongside the great progressive movements of the last century. Here are four examples, one of which Rosen has already seen. They get long. Feel free to skim. Also feel free to visit the links to get a better sense of context.

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From Barack Obama's January 3 speech, delivered after winning the Iowa primary:

Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire; what led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation; what led young women and young men to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom's cause.

From Barack Obama's February 12 speech, delivered after winning the Potomac Primaries:

Nothing worthwhile in this country has ever happened unless somebody, somewhere is willing to hope. Somebody is willing to stand up.

Somebody who is willing to stand up when they are told "No you can't" and instead they say, "Yes we can."

That's how this country was founded. A group of patriots declaring independence against a mighty British empire—nobody gave them a chance—but they said, "Yes we can." That's how slaves and abolitionists resisted that wicked system, and how a new president charted a course to ensure we would not remain half slave and half free.

That's how the greatest generation—my grandfather fighting in Patton's Army, my grandmother staying at home with a baby and still working on a Bomber assembly line—how that greatest generation overcame Hitler and fascism, and also lifted themselves up out of a Great Depression.

That's how pioneers went West when people told them it was dangerous, they said, "Yes we can." That's how immigrants traveled from distant shores when people said their fates would be uncertain, "Yes we can." That's how women won the right to vote, how workers won the right to organize, how young people like you traveled down South to march and sit in and go to jail, and some were beaten and some died for freedom's cause. That's what hope is. That's what hope is.

That's what hope is, Madison.

That moment when we shed our fears and our doubts. When we don't settle for what the cynics tell us we have to accept. Because cynicism is a sorry sort of wisdom. When we instead join arm in arm and decide we are going to remake this country, block by block, precinct by precinct, county by county, state by state. That's what hope is.

There's a moment in the life of every generation, when that spirit has to come through if we are to make our mark on history. And this is our moment. This is our time.

From Obama's May 20 speech, delivered after securing a majority of pledged delegates in the Democratic primary race via the Oregon primary:

Change is coming.

It's the spirit that sent the first patriots to Lexington and Concord and led the defenders of freedom to light the way north on an Underground Railroad.

It's what sent my grandfather's generation to beachheads in Normandy, and women to Seneca Falls, and workers to picket lines and factory fences.

It's what led all those young men and women who saw beatings and billy-clubs on their television screens to leave the safety of their homes and get on buses and march through the streets of Selma and Montgomery, black and white, rich and poor.

Change is coming to America...

From Obama's speech on June 3, delivered after the final primaries in Montana and South Dakota:

And every so often, there are moments which call on that fundamental goodness to make this country great again.

So it was for that band of patriots who declared in a Philadelphia hall the formation of a more perfect union; and for all those who gave on the fields of Gettysburg and Antietam their last full measure of devotion to save that same union.

So it was for the greatest generation that conquered fear itself, and liberated a continent from tyranny and made this country home to untold opportunity and prosperity.

So it was for the workers who stood out on the picket lines; the women who shattered glass ceilings; the children who braved a Selma bridge for freedom's cause.

So it has been for every generation that faced down the greatest challenges and the most improbable odds to leave their children a world that's better, and kinder, and more just.

And so it must be for us. America, this is our moment. This is our time.

Do I personally think that Obama sees his candidacy as on par with the civil rights movement or Revolutionary War soldiers? No. Do I think he is suggesting that electing a half-black man is America's next big step forward? No. But do I think Obama sees his candidacy as sparking hope and a renewed sense of empowerment that could be historical in scope by the time he is elected? Yes. Do I think he believes that if enough Americans trust their government and believe in the process of politics that something amazing could happen? Yes.

And do I think it's worth having a bunch of really smart people sort all of this out? Of course.

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