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The Fifth Black Senator in U.S. History Makes F.D.R. His Icon

By Ben A. Franklin |  June 1, 2005   (page 1/3)

n July 27, 2004, when he made one of the most memorable speeches in the history of our political parties, at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Barack Obama began to click with American voters as they watched him on TV. In Illinois, helped by his reputation as a state senator and a African-American statesman, he ran for the U.S. Senate in November and won with 70 percent of the turnout. He was known for his belief that "what people are most hungry for in politics now is authenticity." He's got it.

At age 43, he has won a lot of praise from people who know him. Time magazine has found Obama enthusiasts who compare him to Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bill Clinton—and credit him with enough political clout to become a Democratic candidate for president in 2012 or 2016.

He has intellectual power. He is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and of Harvard Law School, where he was named the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. It is a record of scholarship that, matched with his popularity, led Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the House minority leader, to call him, at the time he won his senatorial seat, "an inspiration to the country before he is even sworn in" and to add: "Imagine what he has in store for us."

This from a child of an African father who married a white American woman from Kansas, and who grew up in Hawaii after his father broke away from the family and returned to his homeland in Kenya. In considering his life, Obama concludes that "in no other country on earth is my story even possible."

Meanwhile, Senator Obama has become a vox clamantis in deserto—a voice crying out in the wilderness. He is not yet frequently seen or heard on the Senate floor, but his occasional speeches elsewhere say a lot. A recent one that struck us as a self-illuminating sketch of his promising future was given recently at a Washington National Press Club luncheon. It got little national media attention, so we've decided to present some of it here to spotlight the talents of this unusually promising man.

A STIRRING SPEECH—Obama's focus was on the Bush Social Security meddling. "We've heard about privatization and benefit cuts, about massive new debt and huge new risks, and we've even been scared into thinking the system will go broke when our kids retire, even though we know there'll be enough money then to pay the vast majority of benefits."

He spoke then about the Franklin Roosevelt era. "Some thought that our country didn't have a responsibility to do anything about these problems, that people would be better off left to their own devices and the whims of the market. Others believed that American capitalism had failed and that it was time to try something else altogether.

"But President Roosevelt believed deeply in the American idea. He understood that the freedom to pursue our own individual dreams is made possible by the promise that, if fate causes us to stumble or fall, our larger American family will be there to lift us up. That if we're willing to share even a small amount of life's risks and rewards with each other, then we'll all have the chance to make the most of our God-given potential.

"And because Franklin Roosevelt had the courage to act on this idea, individual Americans were able to get back on their feet and build a shared prosperity that is still the envy of the world.

"The New Deal gave the laid-off worker a guarantee that he could count on unemployment insurance to put food on his family's table while he looked for a new job. It gave the young man who suffered a debilitating accident assurance that he could count on disability benefits to get him through the tough times. A widow might still raise her children without the indignity of charity. And Franklin Roosevelt's greatest legacy promised the couple who put in a lifetime of sacrifice and hard work that they could retire in comfort and dignity because of Social Security.

TIMES HAVE CHANGED—"Today, we're told by those who want to privatize that promise how much things are different and times have changed since Roosevelt's day. I couldn't agree more. A child born in this new century is likely to start his life with both parents—or a single parent—working a full-time job. They'll try their hardest to juggle work and family, but they'll end up needing child care to keep him safe, cared for, and educated early.

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