On the day a new poll showed him in a statistical dead heat with rival Senator Hillary Clinton among Democratic caucus voters in Iowa, Illinois Senator Barack Obama brought his message to the young voters at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Monday, where MTV/MySpace's second presidential dialogue took place.
Among the points in that message: He's in it to win it, and one of his first priorities when elected president will be to undo many of the policies of the Bush administration.
"If I didn't think I was the best president for the job, I wouldn't be running," said Obama, wearing his traditional dark suit and white shirt with no tie, continuing the casual dress code begun by Democratic candidate John Edwards in last month's forum. Facing a range of questions on issues large — gay marriage, tensions with Iran, immigration, religion — and a bit more obscure — the exportation of computer waste to foreign countries and Net neutrality — Obama answered the questions in a measured tone, while displaying a bit more of the aggressiveness he's promised to bring to the race. He even gamely answered a student who asked who might play him in a movie adaptation of his life story.
During the dialogue, Obama pointedly mentioned twice that he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, drawing a sharp distinction between himself and Clinton — and he let loose on President Bush, decrying the failure of the No Child Left Behind education-reform program and promising as president to take a hard look at civil-liberties questions.
Answering a question about what kind of Supreme Court justices he might nominate, Obama — who noted that he taught constitutional law for 10 years at the University of Chicago — said, "Your next president will believe in the Constitution, which you can't say about your current president." He said he doesn't believe in allowing the Supreme Court to give a "blank check" to the president to engage in whatever "power grab" he or she wishes, and that one of his first priorities as president would be to review every executive order issued by Bush on issues such as warrantless wiretapping and overturn them if they are found to be unconstitutional.
For Obama, the timing for the forum (held in front of more than 250 students) couldn't have been better, as the results of a University of Iowa poll of likely caucus-goers were released on Monday, placing Obama in a statistical dead heat with leading Democratic presidential candidate Clinton. According to the results, Clinton received 28.9 percent of the vote to Obama's 26.6 percent, a lead wiped out by the 5.5 percent margin of error. The tie pulls Obama up from his third-place showing in a similar poll in August in the crucial state, which traditionally holds the first nominating contest, this cycle on January 3.
Moderated by Gideon Yago and Sway Calloway, with poll results and questions also being sent Obama's way by WashingtonPost.com political reporter Chris Cillizza, Obama did some quick math and figured out that if all the students on the campus of the tiny college (1,200 students) voted in the upcoming caucus, they could make a huge impact.
If Obama did not have as many concrete policy proposals as Edwards presented in his forum, it may have been because, at times, the tenor of the questions was a bit more personal than that of the first MTV/MySpace forum. Beginning with the first query on how Obama's religious beliefs would impact his administration, the candidate set a tone that his presidency would be in marked contrast to that of Bush's.
"My faith informs my values," Obama said. "Part of the reason I believe it's important to help those in need is because of my faith. But I am a strong believer that the founding fathers put separation of church and state in place for a reason. ... Not only to prevent the state from being taken over by one church and forcing people to worship in a particular way, but also to protect the church — or synagogue or mosque or temple — from undue influence by the government. And I think there have been times during this administration when maybe those lines have gotten blurred and made people with different faiths or no faith at all uncomfortable."
The unscripted forum, with questions from the students in the room, MySpace users via Instant Messenger and MTV.com readers through e-mail, also featured live, instant polling from the Flektor tool, which gave Obama immediate feedback on how the online audience was feeling about the senator's answers. The second forum also featured a partnership with 10questions.com, a site in which voters can prioritize which questions they want the candidates to answer by submitting them in video form, which chipped in with the #1 question on its users' mind: what about Net neutrality?
Obama said he was a strong supporter of Net neutrality (which he explained to those in the audience as a system to forbid certain companies from controlling the speed and quality of the Internet experience), mainly because it enhances something that makes the Internet great: equality. "Facebook, MySpace, Google might not have been started if you didn't have a level playing field for who has the best idea," he said.
Obama also reiterated his support for civil unions for same-sex couples, giving props to the younger generation for being more open to change, and saying that as one of the younger candidates in the race, he wants to be a part of that process. "Part of my job as president I think is to deliver a message that everybody is part of the American family," he said. "Not just some people. And obviously as somebody who is African-American — my mother is from Kansas, my father was from Kenya, I grew up in Indonesia, I have a sister who looks Spanish, I've got a brother in law who is Chinese-Canadian — I'm very sensitive to making sure that everybody feels a part of America. And that's one of the things I think I can bring to this presidency. The day I'm inaugurated the country will look at itself differently and I think be more tolerant."
Obama slammed the Bush administration for not properly funding No Child Left Behind, saying he'd rethink the system to include art and music and more creative pursuits that foster student's imaginations, as well as emphasizing early childhood education. When the student who asked the question seemed unimpressed, Obama replied, "What more do you need, Mike?," before assuring him that students for whom English is a second language would not be penalized under his revised system.
In one of the more emotional moments, a student whose illegal-immigrant father had been deported three years ago asked Obama about his thoughts on immigration. First asking the woman to talk about the personal situation a bit more, Obama empathized with her struggle, then reiterated his support for comprehensive immigration reform, saying he would like to provide a pathway for the legalization of the 12 million illegals already here while increasing border security.
Asked via an IM question if he'd be willing to run on a ticket with Clinton and if he'd bring Republicans into his cabinet, Obama answered the second part first, saying, yes, he would absolutely consider having some Republicans in his Cabinet, noting that "Democrats don't have a monopoly on wisdom." As for the Clinton question, Obama said forcefully that it's too early to say who he might pick as his vice president, but stressed that "I am not running for vice president." What if the position was offered, Cillizza wondered? "No," said Obama. "Because, as I said, I'm not running for vice president, I'm running for president of the United States." Coming more than 20 minutes into the forum, the latter received the first sustained applause of the afternoon.
Obama also stressed that he would be willing to talk to such rogue nations as Iran and use diplomacy — not unilateral military action — to try to repair the image of the United States on the world stage. He promised to close the controversial terror detainee jail at Guantánamo Bay, restore the right of habeas corpus to detainees and to bring back all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of his arrival in the Oval Office. He told an ROTC cadet that he thinks it's unfair that members of the military are serving long, multiple tours overseas and not getting the appropriate veteran's benefits and that he would ensure the U.S. remains the strongest military power in the world while being more open to diplomacy.
As the forum drew to a close, with his overall ratings among Flektor voters bumping up a few points to show that nearly 87 percent agreed with his positions, Obama faced perhaps the least expected question of the day from one of the reporters from the school's newspaper: Who would play him and his wife in a movie about his life? When Sway demurred after it was suggested he might have to cut his hair to play the role, Obama said Denzel Washington was out of the picture, so perhaps it would fall to Will Smith, if only because "his ears match mine," Obama joked. As for who would play his wife, Michelle, Obama wisely answered, "Nobody's that good looking. She'd have to play herself."
Pressed by Cillizza about criticism that he's not improving his poll numbers fast enough and that he needs to be more aggressive, Obama said he firmly believes in the politics of hope, though not necessarily the group-hug version. "The politics of hope ... is not based on us all holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya,' " Obama said. "It is based on the idea that instead of people operating on the basis of fear, instead of people operating on the basis of division, I want people to come together and focus on the problems that we face: health care, education, global warming. We are not going to be able to solve those problems if we don't talk about them honestly. And we've got to have a serious debate. Senator Clinton and I have differences. If I didn't think I was the best president for the job, I wouldn't be running.
"As long as I understand that this is not about either me or her, but this is about the American people and whether they're getting the kind of leadership they deserve, I think we'll be just fine. I think democracy is served by a vigorous debate."