Sioux City Journal: Obama touts renewed role
By Bret Hayworth
In events big and small, western Iowans this weekend are getting their first facetime with Barack Obama.
Democrat Obama has created a buzz in the 2008 presidential race, and intrigued Iowans checked him out Saturday at an invitation-only Onawa library event and two hours later at the high school in Denison, after he drove through the little towns of Turin, Soldier, Ute and Charter Oak. Today he'll attend church at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Sioux City, then journey across town for a 3 p.m. event at Morningside College anticipated to draw about 2,000 people.
Delivering a few identical comments at both events, Obama, 45, said it is important that Americans again gain faith in their government to affect positive change.
The U.S. senator from Illinois said that the big accomplishments in U.S. history happened after people were energized to pursue change, naming abolishing slavery, unionization, women gaining the right to vote, civil rights for minorities and ending the Vietnam War. "It has been ordinary folks standing up for extraordinary things," Obama said.
He said "communities like Onawa" have to take a lead in demanding change.
He said "government can't solve every problem," but that the government should have a role in providing a strong safety net for those who experience hardships at various points in their lives. After the botched handling of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, Obama said, it is vital that government competence be exhibited.
He said in his presidency talented people would fill Cabinet positions and he would work to improve education, seek energy independence, roll back Bush administration taxes for the wealthiest Americans and create a universal health care plan run by the government by 2012.
Obama cited a report last week "that showed that income inequality is higher than it has been since 1928," and noted that the bottom 90 percent of U.S. income earners had their relative incomes fall last year. He favors increasing taxes on the wealthiest 10 percent to redirect the money to health care and education. Obama contended many wealthy people don't mind a progressive tax structure when they know their taxes go to help fund needed programs.
"Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society," he said, quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes.
In an intersection of technology and new-style reaching out to voters, Obama's stop in Onawa was streamed live for viewing at his www.barackobama.com Web site. Iowans in all 99 counties and an estimated 5,000 places nationwide gathered in Hope.Action.Change Community Kickoff events to watch the Onawa event unfold. Obama's wife Michelle watched from a Des Moines location and his sister did so in Hawaii.
With two minutes to spare before the precise 3 p.m. kickoff, Obama turned to the crowd and asked, "Anybody got a good joke?" The 75-minute Onawa event was all questions, along with a few town-pride sorts of statements from locals who were heard nationally.
Several people left highly impressed with Obama, including a man who had posed a question. Greg Collett of Onawa, a Democrat, said, "I came here because I have heard a lot of good things about the senator. I thought he spoke quite honestly," and showed concern for "middle class" issues.
Added Collett, "I came here to be inspired and he inspired me. I really felt that he was kind of speaking to the hearts of a lot of Americans."
Three Democratic Party presidential hopefuls have moved to the top tier of announced candidates. Along with Obama are John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, and a Monday Zogby Poll of likely Iowa caucus voters had Edwards with 27 percent, Clinton 25 percent and Obama 23 percent.
Speaking to more than 500 people in the purple-and-gold-filled Denison gymnasium, and as many cell phone photos were snapped, Obama gave a short speech and then answered questions for another 45 minutes. Crawford County Democratic Party chairwoman Marcia Bachman praised the senator for having "the courage and judgment to oppose the war in Iraq from the beginning."
Regarding Iraq, Obama said it was "a war that I believe should never have been authorized (by Congress in 2002), should never have been waged," and "has made us less safe."
"We can't impose a military solution on what has become a sectarian civil war," Obama said.
He described introducing a bill that would "begin a phased redeployment" of U.S. troops out of Iraq by May 1, with all troops removed by March 31, 2008. That benchmark is five months ahead of measures recently passed in the House and Senate with a Sept. 1, 2008, pullout of troops, legislation President Bush has vowed to veto.
As the U.S. pulls out, Obama said, there would need to be a rededication to U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is re-emerging.
Obama said at a time when the U.S. spends $800 million a day in foreign oil purchases, energy independence is a highly needed goal. Obama noted one of the cars he uses at home in Chicago is a flex-fuel vehicle that burns the highest blend of corn-based ethanol, E85. But he was critical of how few places sell E85 ethanol in Illinois, and said the government should help expand those outlets.
Her voice shaking, a Denison woman challenged Obama to discuss his faith at a time she said "people are trying to take God out" of the public sphere, including removal of a 10 Commandments display in Alabama. "If we have free speech, why are we taking God out?" she asked.
Obama responded, "I don't think, generally, Christians are being persecuted in this country." He said there are lots of prayers in the public sphere, including in Congress. "This is a country where faith is vibrant," said Obama, a member of the United Church of Christ.
"But we also have a pluralistic society, we are not just a Christian nation," Obama added, mentioning lots of Americans are Jewish, Muslim, other faiths or nonbelievers. "It is important for churches not to have too much entanglement with government," he said.
The woman lamented that there is no prayer in public schools, and Obama said it is entirely appropriate that schools have moments of silence, in which silent prayers can be offered.