U.S. President

Since he burst into the national consciousness at the 2004 Democratic convention, Barack Obama has seemed a potentially transcendent figure. People saw in him the possibility of an electrifying next chapter in American history: A country whose vast wealth and malignant inequality was achieved on the backs of African-Americans might grow in resplendent unity under the leadership of a man who is, literally, African and Americanwith a father from Kenya and a mother from the Kansas heartland.

Four years ago, that was the dream of a few. Two years ago, when Obama announced his candidacy for president, it was a hope shared mainly by the young. Today, as the election approaches, it is almost reality. Obama has fulfilled his promise as a candidate and shown that he’s ready for the hardest job in the world. We trust that the nation is ready for him.

But as historically significant as his election would be, neither Obama nor his supporters would have a moment to lose basking in transcendence, because the wreckage of the last eight years under George W. Bush is too great, and the problems we and Obama face are gigantic. Our economy is in tatters, our military is exhausted, and our gas-guzzling cultureAmerica’s signature export, along with military hardwareis threatening to exact global warming on the world. So transcendence, incredibly, isn’t enough. We also need transformative policies.

Fortunately, in his smart, careful way, Obama has charted our path forward to success: First, immediately begin to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, with the goal of having all combat forces home in 16 months. Second, launch a crash program to develop renewable energy sources and break our petroleum addiction, whether to foreign brands or domestic ones. Third, ratchet down health care costs and move toward universal insurance coverage with these critical steps: bar insurance companies from discriminating against applicants because of pre-existing conditions; create a “public” insurance alternative equivalent to what members of Congress receive; and subsidize insurance for small-business groups and the working class.

All three, it’s worth noting, will save money.

With the country heading into recession, Obama’s plans for new investments in public infrastructuremeaning everything from highway bridges to college aidand his promise to cut taxes for the 95 percent of working Americans with family earnings of less than $250,000 a year, are critical as well.

The problem with Republican candidate John McCain, in a nutshell, is that he doesn’t appear to “get it” any more than Bush did. If invading Iraq and tax cuts for the rich didn’t work, McCain reckons, then let’s stay in Iraq, threaten Iran and have more tax cuts for the very richest and for multinational corporations. Oh, and some deregulation of health care, McCain says, along the same lines as our deregulation of Wall Street. No really, he actually said that.

McCain’s lousy judgment (remember the Keating Five?) was never more apparent than when he put the remarkably unqualified Sarah Palin on his ticket for vice president. Obama’s good judgment led him to Joe Biden as a running mate, just as it’s steered him from long-shot contender two years ago to the brink of the presidency today.

Is Obama “The One,” as no less a figure than Oprah Winfrey foretold? If he can get this country back on track in four years, he’ll be a heckuva one, we’ll say thatand we think he can.

Libertarian Bob Barr also appears on the ballot. Voters may write in independent Ralph Nader, Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney or the Socialist Party’s Brian Moore.

U.S. Senate

Why, after the Democrats captured both houses of Congress in the 2006 elections, did so little happen of consequence? One answer is, the Democrats controlled the House, but they didn’t really control the Senate, where 60 votes out of 100 are needed to break a filibuster, and the Democrats have but a shaky 51. The result: regular derailing of House-passed bills by Senate Republicans.

North Carolina’s two senators, both Republicans, have been charter members of the obstruct-progress gang. Fortunately, we have the chance to replace one with a determined, high-energy Democrat, state Sen. Kay Hagan of Guilford County, whom we endorse.

Hagan, a powerful budget chief in Raleigh, wasn’t our first choice for this gig. She’s a bit too pro-business for our progressive taste, not very pro-labor, and she can’t talk enough about the military brass in her family and how pro-defense spending she’s going to be. Thus, we endorsed someone else in the Democratic primary.

But that’s water over the dam. Hagan won, and since then her centrist politics, together with massive TV advertising support from national party headquarters, has vaulted her into a competitive race against the supposedly unbeatable Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

Liebertarian Christopher Cole is also running.

Frankly, Dole has been everything she promised to be when, after the late Jesse Helms announced his retirement from the Senate six years ago, she jetted back to her native state from Washington, D.C.where she lives with her husband, Bob Dole, the former Kansas senatorto claim Helms’ mantle of conservative leadership. Dole’s been pro-life, anti-gay, a dependable ally of the rich, no help to the poor, and a “see no evil” benchwarmer on the Senate Banking Committee, where she watched as the Bush administration gave the giant U.S. banks carte blanche to plunge us into subprime disaster.

Indeed, there’s been no more determined supporter of the Bush administration’s policies, nor obstructor of Democratic changes, than Dole. She backed Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and she’s opposed all subsequent Democratic efforts to set a timetable for withdrawal. She voted with Bush, and in opposition to the Democrats, against expanded health care for children; against raising the minimum wage; against funding for renewable energy sources; and against a windfall profits tax on the oil companies even when gas hit $4 a gallon.

Dole supported the huge Bush budget deficits, but now, laughably, her campaign is blasting Hagan for relatively insignificant increases in state indebtedness. What a joke.

The one thing Dole didn’t learn from Helms was to stick to her knitting at home. Helms’ Senate office offered exemplary constituent services. By contrast, until her re-election was threatened, Dole couldn’t seem to be bothered even coming to North Carolina; she spent much more time campaigning in other states as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP’s Senate election arm.

In that vein, too, Dole’s work came to grief: The GOP lost the Senate in ’06, Dole lost her party post, and North Carolinians gained insight about their celebrity senator and how ineffectiveand disconnected from our stateshe really was.

Predictions that the Democrats will win 55 or more Senate seats, and perhaps even a filibuster-proof 60, make it all the more important that Hagan replace Dole. The reason: Hagan’s victory will almost surely be in the “or more” category, adding a supposed “red state” seat to the 55 and helping push the total toward 60.

As part of a solid Democratic majority, Hagan will be a team player in Washington just as she was in the N.C. Senate starting out. She became a leader here in time. Up there, she may again.

U.S. House

District 2

Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge represents Chatham and parts of Wake County, and accordingly, his focus is on rural and agriculture issues, particularly small-scale and organic farmers. He is a member of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of moderate, pro-business Democrats.

He voted for more than $6.6 billion in funding increases for conservation programs, including farmland protection and reduction of agricultural runoff. He also voted for increasing assistance to the nation’s food banks by $1.25 billion.

Etheridge, who joined Congress in 1997, also has taken stands on education, voting for a bill that would make it easier for students and families to apply for financial aid, and that would require colleges and universities to report reasons for their tuition increases. He also supported charging cheaper in-state tuition rates to soldiers and their dependents when the soldier is deployed for more than 30 days.

Dan Mansell, a Republican, is also running. He did not return a questionnaire, but he was spotted at a B.J. Lawson fundraiser driving a large vehicle with signs posted in its windows that read: “Drill baby drill.”

Libertarian Will Adkins did not return a questionnaire.

District 4

This race is a tougher call than it looks: We cautiously endorse incumbent U.S. Rep. David Price for many of his progressive stands on the Iraq war, media reform, gay and lesbian rights, and reproductive rights. He also supports pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

However, according to VoteSmart.org‘s political courage test, the 20-year incumbent supports the use of the death penalty for federal crimes; moreover, helike most of Congressvoted for the USA PATRIOT Act. While he later voted against extending many of that Act’s provisions, we wish that Price would have exhibited leadership and courage in the face of the Bush administration’s fear-based attack on civil liberties. Ditto for HR 1955, a bill that would authorize the study of homegrown terrorism. The bill’s language is so nebulous and open to interpretation that we are disappointed he voted for it.

We also wish he would represent his constituents in opposing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. While we understand he has a fine line to walk between his Homeland Security Subcommittee duties and his constituents, Price should remember it is the voters, not the subcommittee, who elect him. Let’s hope Price takes the opportunity over the next two years to more fully represent his constituents.

Depending on your litmus test issues, Republican challenger William (B.J.) Lawson is a viable choice. While Lawson’s Libertarian free-market stances and opposition to Roe v. Wade preclude us from endorsing his candidacy, he has many progressive views, including opposing the war in Iraq, strong stands on civil liberties protections, and a disdain for extending to corporations the same legal rights as individuals. While the safety net for his health care plan has a few holeshe calls for health savings accounts (not achievable for everyone) in addition to insurance to cover catastrophic eventsLawson is right in that insurance companies and bureaucracies are taking health care out of the hands of doctors and patients.

District 13

We endorse U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, a Democrat from Raleigh, to serve his fourth term.

Since our primary endorsement, Miller has introduced HR 6058, a bill that would crack down on the U.S. Attorney’s office, allowing the House to ask a court to appoint a special prosecutor for a criminal contempt of Congress charge in which the attorney general’s office refuses to present a case to the grand jury. He has also worked to add transparency to the cloak-and-dagger U.S. Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel by requiring it to provide its opinions to Congress.

Miller has also cricitized the federal Centers for Disease Control and its sub-agencies for failing to protect Hurricane Katrina evacuees from excessive formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers. Miller was also the lead sponsor of legislation to crack down on abusive mortgage lending practices and to give bankruptcy courts the leeway to modify mortgages on home loans. Current law allows those modifications only on vacation homes and yachts.

He also had the courage to reverse his position on the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility after many Wake County elected officials and citizens opposed it because it is close to Falls Lake, Raleigh’s primary drinking water source.

Miller voted to expand children’s health care and against allowing the government to conduct domestic wiretapping without a warrant. On the war, Miller voted to limit tours of duty beyond one year and to provide an additional $5 billion in health care for returning troops. He voted for HR 2956, which would have begun withdrawing American troops within four months of its enactment. However, the bill wasn’t as strongly wordedit called for a “limited presence” of armed forcesas some war opponents would have liked.

Hugh Webster is a former state senator whose anti-immigrant rhetoric is not only divisive, but at times scary.