Open letter to Barack Obama

I'm enclosing my third donation to your campaign because I believe strongly in your candidacy. But please, before you cash my check, consider my concerns:

I'm a University of Chicago graduate student, and I was your constituent when you were a state senator and when you became a U.S. senator. I know your strengths as a genuine progressive with a vision rooted in social justice movements and a trenchant critique of our political system. But I've lived in Southern California for the last few years, and as you saw on Feb. 5, a lot of people in California and around the country are unable to see in you what your current constituents do. Please stand up and distinguish yourself!

I hear smart, progressive, well-educated, politically engaged people out here saying - over and over - that you and Sen. Hillary Clinton are essentially the same. Even while giving you an enthusiastic endorsement, the Los Angeles Times recently stated that the two Democratic front-runners are "a hairsbreadth apart" on policy. I believe you are close on major policy issues but far apart on fundamental principles: executive power, financial transparency and ethics, philosophy of foreign diplomacy, commitment to reforming racist aspects of the criminal justice system, commitment to the 1st Amendment and a perspective that comes from community organizing rather than from corporate power and insider politics. My friends tell me, "You must know that from living in Chicago, because I'm not hearing that in the debates or in the campaign speeches."

Second, these smart progressive people are getting really cynical about the rhetoric of "hope" and "uniting people" when it's not backed up by substance. And there I have to sympathize with them. Hope is an empty diversion without substantive, original arguments on issues. When will you discuss rebuilding New Orleans? Can you offer creative thinking on the Iraq war as it currently exists, instead of just reminding people you opposed it years ago? Why don't you demonstrate a respectful, nuanced view of the Middle East instead of referring to the "the terrorists," as you did in a recent debate? How do you envision the United States' role in Africa's many dire problems and conflicts? How do you plan to fix our decrepit infrastructure and invigorate the economy in just and environmentally responsible ways? Will you argue for the value of a well-regulated, domestically produced food supply, favoring produce over commodity crops, for our safety and environmental health? What are your positions on international trade agreements? Do you have creative ideas for generating more affordable housing in our cities? And how will you handle the responsibilities of the presidency when you can't unite and persuade, as will inevitably happen sometimes?

When I express my support for your candidacy, people ask me these questions, and I can't answer them on your behalf. When I can't answer, I wonder if I too should be more skeptical of your visionary-but-vague rhetoric.

It's too late for me to sway any more California voters than I already did (and I swayed plenty to vote for you). But it's not too late for you to stand up and do it yourself in the primaries still to come. Please - we need you, yes, but we also need to know why to need you.

With continued commitment to you and your candidacy for president,

Sarah M. Miller

Sarah Miller is a University of Chicago graduate student who currently lives in Silver Lake.

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