Reassessing Barack Obama

by Randy Shaw on May 15, 2007

After arguing last November that Barack Obama should run for President, and feeling very positive about his candidacy in February, it is time for a reassessment. In the past months, Obama has impressed many with his ability to frame progressive positions in non-divisive terms. He has even been compared to a left-wing Ronald Reagan in his ability to communicate strongly partisan values in nonpartisan rhetoric.

But whereas Reagan’s conciliatory language masked his pursuit of a right-wing agenda, Obama seems to want to get along with adversaries even if this means adopting more centrist policies. In other words, evidence is mounting that Obama’s rhetoric is not a campaign strategy designed to broaden his base, but rather a signal that if elected he would govern from the center rather than the left.

The New Yorker recently ran a very lengthy story on Barack Obama. The profile probed deeply in seeking the key to Obama’s character, examining his parents’ backgrounds, comments from his classmates in Hawaii, assessments from those who knew him in law school, and input from people who worked with the candidate at virtually every stage of his professional life.

The piece included many comments from Obama on his approach to politics, particularly his philosophy toward social change. Obama’s basic sense is that one must take people and institutions where they are, and not impose too radical a change too suddenly.

Readers who made it through the extremely esoteric and wandering profile will feel quite good about Obama. He comes off as very thoughtful around public policy, respectful of dissent, and as a good person.

But for progressives already concerned about Obama’s attempt to “mediate” differences with Republicans over Iraq, the New Yorker article confirmed some troubling suspicions about Obama’s commitment to progressive change.

In a nutshell: unlike Bill Clinton, Obama has strong progressive instincts and as President would impose progressive policies if he could. But like former President Clinton, Obama is enamored with incremental change. In the political world he would inherit as President, Obama would be too willing to tout small steps as giant leaps. He does not appear to be temperamentally suited to standing firm against the rabid opponents of progressive change.

The New Yorker article traced Obama’s desire for collaboration over confrontation to his father’s eventual isolation through pursuing the latter approach. Numerous friends and co-workers also spoke favorably of Obama’s commitment to hearing everyone’s views, and his preference for solutions acceptable to his adversaries.

While these personal traits are great in many contexts, national politics is not one of them. The corporate media and their Republican allies will immediately frame Obama’s collaborative approach as weakness, and will put his supporters, particularly progressives, on the defensive.

Americans deserve a new deal, not reforms around the edges that will quickly be reversed when the next Republican gains the White House.

Since Obama’s speech endorsing an expanded military, he has had many opportunities to qualify, or revise, his remarks. He has not done so. While Obama deserves credit for opposing the war in Iraq in 2002, his ongoing comments about Iraq, and the role of the U.S. military in the world, are not encouraging.

Nor are his thoughts on health care. Obama believes that single-payer might be the best solution, but that it is too big a break from the status quo to be enacted in workable form. Instead, Obama wants to enact reforms without throwing the nation’s health care system into chaos.

This sounds a lot like the Clintons’ reasoning in promoting its managed care reform in 1993-4. We were told that any “solution” that rattled the health insurance industry would not fly, so a proposal emerged that nobody was happy with except for Republicans, who used its failure to take the House in the 1994 elections.

George W. Bush has provided Democrats with an historical moment that the Party has not experienced since 1965, and before that, in 1933. Lyndon Johnson used his mandate to launch a War on Poverty, and Franklin Roosevelt created the New Deal.

Are Democrats really satisfied with a President who will use the mandate of 2009 to work on bipartisan policies that do nothing to galvanize the Party’s base? Reagan and George W. Bush sure didn’t care about bipartisanship, and neither spent political capital being “conciliatory” to those that disagreed with them.

Poll numbers mean little at this point, but it is interesting that Obama’s numbers are stagnant or declining in many polls while Clinton’s are stable or even increasing. This could mean that Democrats who want a centrist reformer have their candidate in Clinton, and that Obama’s attempt to speak to all voters, rather than Democratic primary voters, is winning praise from George Will, Thomas Friedman and others but is not boosting his campaign.

When conservative Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater loss in a landslide in 1964, the conservative movement did not begin promoting more moderate candidates. Yet ever since George McGovern’s defeat in 1972, Democratic pundits have insisted that the Party’s candidates be centrists who do not “pander” to the base.

The result? The election of two Democratic Presidents in the past 25 years, both of whom precipitated major gains by Republicans on the policy level and in Congress.

Many progressives increasingly believe that the reason Obama does not “scare” conservatives is that they have nothing to fear from his election. Conservatives know that Iraq is a disaster, they want America’s image restored in the world, and they accept that the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy will be repealed.

What scares conservatives is the election of a candidate like John Edwards, who they fear will not back down on demanding a national living wage, will rally the public to this side rather than make a weak compromise on health care, and who will not aspire to “bipartisan” victories that alienate his Party’s base.

The fact that Edwards “scares” people is precisely why some progressives prefer Obama, whose non-divisive framing of issues is said to facilitate passage of progressive measures. But there is little evidence that Obama will insist on progressive proposals on health care, labor law reform, tax policies, the U.S. military’s role in the world or other progressive issues.

By electing Obama, Democrats could have another President like Bill Clinton, whose great communication skills did not advance a progressive agenda.

If Obama continues his drift toward Clinton-style politics, Edwards could be the leading beneficiary. And thank goodness California Democrats will finally have a voice in picking the Party’s nominee, which will help move all of the leading candidates to adopt more anti-war, pro-environment, and pro-labor stands.

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