The election is about empowerment — and Obama is the ticket

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It took only two words for Barack Obama to bring a packed Mellon Arena to its feet last Monday: “One week.”

This was the period of time left in the race for the 2008 presidential election. It also represents the end of Obama’s 18-month campaign, during which he has evolved into an impressive candidate for president.

Obama began his presidential run in February 2007 as a candidate for change, which quickly became his worldwide catch phrase. At the time, the term summarized Obama as a guy with good morals and ideologies, hoping to shake up a government that seemed to lack both.

At the same time, it’s no surprise that Obama was quickly labeled as naive and idealist. After all, he is 15 years younger than George W. Bush, and has only served one term as a United States senator. Opponents said he lacked foreign policy experience, and hadn’t served enough time in the Senate to understand pressing domestic issues like health care and taxes.

But in the last 18 months, Obama has done a magnificent job embracing his weaknesses and turning them into strengths. He has enlisted Senator Joe Biden, an impassioned veteran of Washington politics, to be his vice president. Biden, who is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and has been chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, brings tremendous wisdom and insight to Obama’s lack of experience with international affairs.

Obama hasn’t just tacked on help to compensate for his political shortcomings. In the summer, he traveled to the Middle East and talked with generals, troops, and politicians. This trip was a turning point for Obama. It was here that he both recognized and acknowledged that he wasn’t the perfect candidate. So what did he do to make up for this? He went out — curious about the world and sincere about making a difference in it — and tried to make himself better.

It was during this time in the Middle East that Obama evolved from a seemingly vague idealist to an insightful and straightforward one. At one point, a reporter asked the young senator what information he was gathering while in the Middle East. He responded candidly — acknowledging the mistake of starting the war, and then identifying a need to finish the job and focus military attention elsewhere. What other politician would have the honesty to admit something like this? Celebrities like Jay-Z and Jon Stewart may be able to take similar shots at Bush and the war, but neither of them are running for president.

What is equally amazing is that Obama himself voted against this war five years ago. He is, then, able to easily dismiss the war and play a game of I told you so. Instead, though, he’s the one flying to Iraq to figure out what he can do now that America is deeply entangled in this situation. Sure, there’s idealism there — but it’s an idealism laced with gusto and focus.

Last Monday, Obama asked Pittsburghers a pressing question: “How many of you make under $250,000 a year?” Almost all members of the crowd raised their hands. Obama picked a good spot to talk about his economic policy, which would cut taxes for all citizens making under $250,000 a year. He also wants to pay teachers more, as well as redevelop and pour additional money into the No Child Left Behind Act.

These domestic policies play into a theme that has lately become central to the Obama campaign: empowering the voter. Obama — along with his wife Michelle, who spoke at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall two weeks ago — worked hard to de-emphasize his own role in the future of American politics. Instead, he presented himself as a leader that could help facilitate the hard work that Americans exemplify. Michelle, too, said that the race had somewhat to do with Barack, but more so to do with the nation achieving its fullest potential “together” with the help of government.

Whether it’s the people or the president that actually make the biggest differences, the message is working: Pittsburghers — and Americans all over the nation, for that matter — chant and cheer in approval as Obama continuously praises the resilience and effort of the working class.

The 2008 presidential campaign has been long and grueling, and is finally winding down. In the tail end of it, Republican candidate John McCain has been ruthless and cutthroat in his assaults on Obama. Obama, continuing his campaign of decency and morality, has spent far less time attacking McCain and far more time promoting his own goals. In the final debate, McCain was at his most aggressive — perhaps awkwardly so — as he drifted off into rants and lost focus on questions. Obama, on the other hand, stayed poised and focused. He unfolded his thorough, rigorous policies that ranged from the need to decrease dependence on foreign oil to the importance of energy conservation techniques. This guy has done his homework.

Toward the end of his rally at Mellon Arena, Obama, looking weathered from a long 18 months of campaigning, expressed continued frustration with the “failed policies” and “poor decision-making” that have plagued the Bush administration, as well as with the possibility of a problematic McCain presidency. With the optimism and defiance of a great leader, he declared, “Pittsburgh, I’m here today to tell you, ‘Not this time.’ ”