My Interview with Barack Obamaby Kyle Michaelis
The following is an exclusive, first-of-its-kind New Nebraska Network interview with U.S. Senator Barack Obama. Obama was in Omaha on Saturday to deliver the keynote address at the Nebraska Democratic Party's 2006 Morrison-Exon Dinner and to offer his unwavering support for Sen. Ben Nelson's re-election campaign.
Later in the day, I hope to write more about the day's events, particularly Obama's uplifting and awesome appearance before a mostly African-American crowd at the Salem Baptist Church in North Omaha. But, for now, I hope readers will be content with the transcript from our private sit-down, arranged by the good people at BarackObama.com and at the Nebraska Democratic Party.
Apparently, in his travels across the country, Obama has gone out of his way to engage local activists in the emerging online, blogging community. In this instance, the New Nebraska Network just happened to benefit from this forward-thinking, tech-savvy approach, joining a series of similar interviews by bloggers in Kansas, Minnesota and elsewhere.
Obama joined me immediately following his joint press conference with Senator Nelson. After graciously allowing me to explain this site and the purpose I imagine for it, we began:
I was just at Salem Baptist, and - those people - they loved you. That place went wild.
(smiling, obviously familiar with such enthusiastic crowd response) That was good.
Well – this is kind of out there – but what’s it like to be "the rock star" of the Democratic Party?
(humbly) I don’t know about all that.
I love speaking to groups. I think there’s great enthusiasm for the Democratic message right now if it’s delivered in clear and unapologetic fashion. I think the people really want a change. I think that the country recognizes we need a change in direction.
The problem I think, in the past, is that we tend to talk in bullet points as opposed to telling the story of where we want to take the country - and what our vision is for this country’s future. When we do that people connect with the Democratic message, and I think we’ll do very well.
You talked about how in many ways you emulate [Nebraska Sen. Ben] Nelson’s bipartisanship, yet - according to Congressional Quarterly - Nelson last year voted with the Republican majority 53% of the time.
Right. I didn’t.
(laughing) Oh, I know that. Trust me! But, what would your message be to Nebraska Democrats and progressive voters in general – you know - when they’re bothered by that kind of “bipartisanship”?
The single most important vote that any Senator takes is the first vote they take in the formation of the Senate. Who's going to be the leader? And Ben Nelson supports the Democratic caucus.
What that means is that bills for universal health care, bills for a serious energy policy, bills for early childhood education...efforts by committee chairmen to actually investigate what went wrong in terms of our Iraq policy and what’s happening with respect to wiretaps - all those things happen if you’re in the majority.
And so, it doesn’t make sense – I think - for people to expect that Ben Nelson is going to toe the line on every single vote. There’s a wide spectrum of views within the Democratic caucus, but when it comes to who is actually running the Senate, what bills are getting on the floor, and which chairmen are in power I think every Democrat has a strong interest in re-electing Ben Nelson.
Absolutely. Aside from just that one vote...are there any other issues that you think are uncompromisable for Democrats?
Yeah, I think civil rights is an area where we shouldn’t compromise. We should stand for equal opportunity for all people. For men and women. For the disabled. I just think that is something that we shouldn’t equivocate upon.
I think that we should not compromise on core civil liberties issues. I am deeply troubled by how this White House has taken more and more power unilaterally to investigate Americans – without any checks and balances. And that’s something that we as a party should speak to.
I think that we should stand for equal opportunity - upward mobility. Any piece of legislation that is designed simply to enrich the powerful...
(rudely interrupting) There are plenty of those!
….there ARE a lot of those bills that come through, instead of providing opportunity for the broad base of Americans. [That] is something we should oppose.
In recent months, you’ve been quite active on a lot of high-profile issues, such as immigration, energy policy, and Congressional ethics reform. Do you think those are issues that Democrats can run on and win here in Nebraska and in the Midwest?
I think in Nebraska and all across the country there are going to be a couple of issues that dominate this campaign. I think people are deeply concerned about energy costs. And this administration has had 5 years to come up with one and has completely failed to come up with an energy policy.
I think people are concerned about health care. In the year and a half since I’ve been in the Senate, we haven’t had a serious debate on the floor of the Senate about health care - which makes absolutely no sense to ordinary people back home.
I think people are concerned about what are we doing to educate our kids. That’s going to be a priority.
And, I think people want to know what’s the plan in Iraq. When do our troops come home? We had 10 American heroes die today – or yesterday - in a Chinook helicopter crash in Afghanistan. We have 2400 brave men and women who have died – over 2400.
And, it appears as if the consequences of all these deaths, as well as spending hundreds of billions of dollars, is a more unstable Middle East. We – the American people – want a strategy.
Finally, your 2004 Keynote Address – which was just a famous moment, so powerful – you talked about the myth of the Red State-Blue State divide. And yet, here in Nebraska, President Bush...
(matter-of-factly) It’s pretty red.
Yeah, it’s pretty red. President Bush is 15% higher. [His approval rating] is still above 50% in Nebraska - one of the few states in the country. What do you think really explains this sort of fundamental difference?
I think people a lot of times just vote out of habit. If they started off as Republicans, if their parents were Republicans, their grandparents were Republicans - that’s sort of how they’re going to vote. And it takes certain moments in history or certain figures in the political scene to get people to reassess that brand, and I think this may be one of those moments.
Thank you so much, Senator.
Great. My pleasure.
Wow. That was an experience I'll never forget. I hope readers get some sense of the same humanity and honesty that I witnessed first-hand.
Introducing his "good friend" to the audience at Salem Baptist, Senator Nelson said of the change and energy Obama has brought to the Senate, "He's offered us a vision." Talking with Obama in-person, I could not only see that vision for myself but hear it and feel it by the conviction in his voice.
As Obama noted at the end of our discussion, this might well prove to be one of those "certain moments in history" when the balance of power and passion of the country shifts in a new direction. And, listening to Obama speak about America's shared dream and common identity, I couldn't help thinking he might be the "certain figure" who will make it all possible.