Daschle: A return to the politics of consensus

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Earlier this year, I endorsed Barack Obama in the race for the Democratic nomination for the 2008 presidential election. Coming nearly 20 months before the election, it is the earliest I have ever endorsed a candidate for president. That was unusual - but then again, Obama is an exceptionally strong candidate.

In my 26 years in Congress, I watched as our political system degraded year after year. Our government became more polarized, more partisan and less responsive while the American people became more disillusioned and skeptical. Sadly, the cost of this erosion from politics of consensus and civility to divisive leadership falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable in our society.

I decided to support Obama because he brings fresh thinking and a new kind of politics to Washington. Everywhere he goes, from California to New Hampshire, from cities to the countryside, he unites thousands of people with different backgrounds and diverse ideas. He's been able to focus on the common values that unite us instead of the politics that divide us.

Within weeks of arriving in the Senate, he pushed through the first law to increase America's readiness to confront pandemic flu. Then he went to work with our mutual friend, Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., to secure loose nuclear and conventional weapons in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. And in the 110th Congress, Obama worked with both Republican and Democratic senators in passing reforms that will begin to cure Washington's culture of corruption.

To these and other challenges, Obama has focused on finding consensus so we can actually tackle the challenges our country faces. We face many challenges that require this kind of consensus, from climate change to dependence on foreign oil, from a broken health care system to struggling schools. The American Indian communities in my state of South Dakota face the most severe of these challenges and are forced to address the real-life costs of policies born out of divisive government and partisan positioning.

Schools funded by the BIA have notoriously inadequate facilities and, consequently, some of the lowest levels of student achievement in the country. American Indians also suffer from shocking health disparities, a lower life expectancy than other Americans and a disproportionate number of serious medical problems. Yet, Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration continue to ignore the needs of Native communities and oppose the most basic increases in funding for Indian health care, education, housing and public safety.

It is clear to me, after my interaction with Obama, that his fresh ideas and new politics will help stir the conscience of the federal government so that it works for all Americans, including American Indians and Alaska Natives. It is also clear to me that he understands the importance of expanding self-determination and empowering tribes to address the problems they face, rather than pursuing a convenient, one-size-fits-all policy so common in this administration.

As Obama stated recently in Selma, Ala., in commemoration of the civil rights march of 1965, government alone can't solve all of our problems, but government can and should respond where the need exists. I am especially familiar with the serious needs existing in Indian country and the challenges facing the nine tribes in my home state. But these challenges exist across this country wherever people have been excluded from the political process; Indian country knows this all too well.

These problems cannot be solved by a government concerned with scoring political points at the expense of building consensus and sound policy. The politics of ignoring large portions of the country hurts not only the excluded masses, but the nation itself. In this era of divisive ideology, Obama's demonstrated ability to find a common ground and achieve bipartisan success is a quality we need at the very top of our government.

Everyone running in this race is a friend. In many respects, Democrats have an abundance of qualified candidates who are friends of Indian country. But only Obama has been able to tap into that mixture of frustration with the ''same old politics'' and the common hope for the future that lies in all of us - and that is why I am proud to have endorsed him. He will do Indian country proud.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., now serves as a special policy adviser at Alston and Bird LLP and is a distinguished senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. In February, he endorsed Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., for president.