Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., spoke to an overflowing Salomon 101 Thursday night about the dangers of political cynicism and the importance of hope in his remarks for the fourth annual Gov. Frank Licht ’38 Lecture Series, which was sponsored by the Taubman Center for Public Policy.
“Cynicism is the lazy way out – you guys are too young to feel that way,” Obama told the energized crowd. “When we get in trouble in democracy, it’s because nobody’s paying attention,” he said.
The senator’s scheduled 9 p.m. speech was delayed after his flight from New Jersey was cancelled and he traveled to Rhode Island by car instead. After attending two fundraisers in the area for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sheldon Whitehouse, Obama surprised the audience in Salomon when he stepped onto the stage at 9:25 p.m. without warning. He was greeted with two standing ovations.
Obama won the 2004 election in Illinois with 70 percent of the vote and currently sits on the Foreign Relations, Veterans’ Affairs and Environment and Public Works committees of the Senate. He is currently the only African-American serving in the U.S. Senate and the third ever elected.
Obama talked about the current state of American politics and his new book, “The Audacity of Hope,” which is set for release next week, before opening the discussion to questions from the audience.
Obama spoke of the inconsistency between the image Americans have of themselves and their democracy and reality. For many citizens, he said, Election Day is a time to “hold our noses and pick the lesser of two evils.”
“It has created a situation where people of every age, but particularly young people, have the sense that politics is about power, it’s not about mission. It seems as if power is always trumping principle, and that we have a lot of leadership that’s long on rhetoric, but short on substance,” Obama said.
In a tone reminiscent of that used in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama reminded audience members that the power lies with them to “re-think America as fundamentally as Abraham Lincoln did when he said ‘a house divided cannot (stand).'”
He suggested public financing of campaigns – for example, free television airtime for candidates – to alleviate the pressure of “grubbing for money” when winning often hinges on having millions of dollars to spend on advertising.
“The most important ingredient is hope,” Obama said, invoking the title of his upcoming book. “Old folks lose hope, they get worn out – life can beat us down a little bit. But at your age, the world is wide open,” he told students.
During the question-and-answer portion of the event, Obama reiterated the need for more open lines of government communication about national issues such as health care, education and energy policy in addition to international diplomacy issues, such as disarmament talks with North Korea.
“We’re all bottled up by the incapacity to have a conversation,” Obama said in reference to the lack of any major recent national health care reform, emphasizing the need to improve the medical record-keeping system.
With regard to North Korea, Obama stressed the necessity of changing incentives so the country’s leaders make better decisions.
“(President George W. Bush’s) administration has this curious notion that somehow talking to someone is a reward,” Obama said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
With a disclaimer that he was being “only slightly tongue-in-cheek,” he compared international relations and national politics to high school, because both are driven by base impulses such as respect and being “dissed.”
“Tone matters in politics,” Obama concluded. “It doesn’t solve our problems. It doesn’t eliminate conflicts. But when you start recognizing other people’s interests and seeing the world through their eyes, and you can exercise empathy at a high level, it turns out that you can actually get more done, and meet your interests,” he said.
Some students waited for over five hours and still did not secure seats in Salomon for Obama’s lecture, which was simulcast in Sayles Hall.
Students began lining up en masse shortly after 4 p.m. Within two hours the line had grown to hundreds of people and stretched across the Main Green and along Brown Street.
Thursday night’s audience included several Rhode Island legislators and Mayor David Cicilline ’83, in addition to the University’s new men’s basketball head coach, Craig Robinson. Robinson has a unique connection to Obama: his sister is married to the senator.
Robinson told The Herald he met Obama in the late 1980s, when the future congressman was “just some guy (my sister) was dating at the time.”
“I don’t have to like him because he’s married to my sister… The genuine feeling you get when you’re listening to him speak is the way he is all the time,” Robinson said. “What you’re seeing is the true Barack Obama.”
Robinson said students can expect to see the Obamas on campus for at least one basketball game in the future, which the senator also alluded to in his speech.
“The day after the election we can celebrate two victories,” Obama said, referring to the basketball team’s first game Nov. 8 and the Senate race between Whitehouse and incumbent Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee ’75.
In keeping with University policy, which forbids political campaigning on campus, Obama quickly corrected himself with a smile. “We’re not supposed to be partisan in this lecture series,” he said.