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June 28, 2006

Time For a Talk With Barack

Sigh. What's Obama doing? I'll say that I've seen disappointingly little liberal leadership from the guy, though I've seen plenty of soaring rhetoric and powerful charisma. Obama's got the sort of human starting gun potential and raw political ability that would allow him to take a truly large cause -- universal health care, say -- and spend three years making it a palatable political reality, sort of what John Edwards is doing with poverty, but with more media attention, potential, and power.

I've a friend who interviewed Barack for an article and came back a true believer. Wait it out, said his wife. Read the transcript in a week, see how you feel then. He did so, and noticed that the substance on the page bore little resemblance to the impressions he had. This in Clinton territory, where Barack's raw ability makes him something of a political rorsach, and renders it all the more important to apply close scrutiny to the actual content of his speeches.

Update: By the way, I think David Sirota's Nation profile of Obama is about the best thing yet written on the guy. I highly, highly recommend it.

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Comments

What's Barack doing? "Accepting and recognizing the importance of faith blah blah..." is obvious code-language for rolling over on the social issues, selling out women and gays.

I didn't even like that convention speech. I think Edwards is more serious and real than he appears; Obama is nothing but bullshit.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 28, 2006 4:29:33 PM

Funny. I interviewed Barack for Grist and had the exact same experience. I came away thinking that I'd take a bullet for the guy. But reading it ... he didn't say much of anything.

He seems to be pursuing a Hillary-esque, grab-the-middle strategy. It has more chances of success than Hillary's (they don't already hate him), but it will be mere political success. As you say, he could have a real impact on progressive issues.

The first thing he should do is introduce Waxman's Safe Climate Act on the floor of the Senate -- and bird-dog the energy issue from now 'til 2008.

And then run as Gore's VP candidate.

Posted by: David Roberts | Jun 28, 2006 4:34:41 PM

Off topic, but I really liked your West Wing piece. It always nagged at me how disconnected from reality the show was, and how it taught liberals precisely the wrong lessons about politics.

Posted by: Matt Stoller | Jun 28, 2006 4:45:41 PM

As a fairly "religious" person, I would like to see a lot less "respect faith and religious people" talk and more action that is actually respectful of religion and those who have strong religious beliefs.

In other words, politicians should shut up about the whole thing, unless they are standing in their own church, or coven, or synagogue or mosque, and offering a testimony of some sort about their personal beliefs.

If a person's faith in a particular god - or lack of same - is important to them, even to the point of inspiring them in some way to enter politics, great. But I don't see what it has to do with anything.

I understand that a person's religious affiliation, or again, the lack of one, can be seen as somehow informative of that person's character or likelihood to make certain decisions. But so is the way in which that person's parents viewed proper discipline, his/her economic level and ethnicity, and a whole host of other characteristics.

If we're going to parse absolutely every aspect of their lives - and we are - then I can see religion coming into that. But we need to recognize that all people, politicians and constituents alike, come to their affiliations and decisions because of a myriad of factors, relgion being only one.

I'd like to see Obama or Dean give a speech on the importance of respecting the wishes of 34-year-old left-handed fathers living in the midwest who really need to get serious about his kids' college funds. 'Cause I gotta tell you, as important as my faith is to me, the fact that my kids will probably want to go to college is pretty important as well, and I suspect that Obama can have more impact on that issue than anything to do with my faith.

Posted by: Stephen | Jun 28, 2006 4:53:23 PM

Before anyone blasts the speech, they have to read it. Because most people who are blasting it make it pretty obvious they havent't read it.

http://obama.senate.gov/speech/060628-call_to_renewal_keynote_address/index.html

Some quotes

While I've already laid out some of the work that progressives need to do on this, I that the conservative leaders of the Religious Right will need to acknowledge a few things as well.

For one, they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. That during our founding, it was not the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of this separation; it was the persecuted religious minorities, Baptists like John Leland, who were most concerned that any state-sponsored religion might hinder their ability to practice their faith...

This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

This may be difficult for those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of the possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It insists on the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime; to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

I don't see how anyone can read his speech and is saying we just roll over on social issues. He's pro-choice for crying out loud.

Posted by: Jeff | Jun 28, 2006 5:38:17 PM

Both Hillary and Obama are tacking their ships on the same course: heading so close to the wind (the so-called 'middle' of politics) that they make actual losses toward the intended port, instead of making headway. They forget that the current is against them. Conservatives can't and won't believe them - and will use all their usual slime, lies, and corruption to win - and liberals see them as just pissing into the wind, ineffectual at actually competing.

The Dems may have to suffer again in 08 a Presidential loss (to McCain, likely, if he can get the nomination by his own appeasing of the TheoCon base) to possibly figure out that the opponents can't be appeased, and the Dem. base is already disgusted by me-tooism and abject submission. Political blindness, deafness and omega-dog behavior are good for fulfilling death wishes - even if the wishes are subliminal.

(changing metaphors for the third time)

The non-DC Dems don't need any 'empty carbs' and crave political protein, but it appears that the red-meat section of the Dem. market is now marked 'closed for the season'.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jun 28, 2006 5:46:36 PM

...is obvious code-language for rolling over on the social issues, selling out women and gays.
---bob mcmanus

seems to be pursuing a Hillary-esque, grab-the-middle strategy.
---David Roberts

Both Hillary and Obama are tacking their ships on the same course: heading so close to the wind (the so-called 'middle' of politics) that they make actual losses toward the intended port, instead of making headway.
---JimPortlandOR

I think the trees are getting in the way of those who post here from seeing the forest. It's not Obama that is off course. He is practicing what the Democratic plaform promotes. What he isn't doing is supporting the radical left-wingnut radical issues...and that seems to be your beef with him.

Posted by: Fred Jones. | Jun 28, 2006 6:17:37 PM

Even more reason to suspect Obama: Fred Jones is promoting him. Maybe M. Malkin and S. Hanity will be next. Or A. Colter. Fred likes that kind of company.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jun 28, 2006 7:06:39 PM

Fred,

Your stupidity knows no bounds. Here are some facts. Black Christians vote 80 to 90 percent Democratic. Here's another fact- my friend who is evangelical- is nevertheless liberal. By your way of thinking, these people (as Fawell said of Jackson and Sharpton, two Christians) aren't really Christian at all. And, that is the core problem I have with Obama's speech. It gives fodder to the shell game that the right is playing. I don't often agree with Andrew Sullivan, but I absolutely agree this game isn't about Christians, it is about Christianists. That latter name he coined to mean, I think, this variant of Republican idealogy masquerading as Christianity.

There is a reason that several hundred years of Christian thought developed to separate out church from state. It was two protect one from the other. As suggested by St Augustine the spheres of faith and state when they intertwine can bring up some pretty huge problems. But Christianists such as yourself deny those problems. There is not much difference between your way of thinking and those of Islamic fundamentalist who want to create a theocratic state. Under their view Islam is about state power just as your view Christianity is about believing in a conservative idealogy. What, for example, does Christianity have to do with either a tax cut or tax hike. In both cases, absolutely nothing. But, according to your way of thinking- it somehow does.

I thank you for being here though because you illustrate the real danger of how Obama and other Dems are playing into single voter Christians' hands. They aren't interested in being in a big tent that despite our difference on one issue we are never theless guided by a greater principle of our society. They are, as you are, instead motivated to deny others their right all in an effort to get into heaven. Here's the kicker, your getting into heaven, according to God, is not dependent on me, it's dependent on your own heart and soul.

I don't personally have a problem with Obama except to the extent he is allowing, unthinkingly, this sort of warped version of christianity to flourish. I have to wonder does he understand that by somehow giving into arguments that Dems are not people of faith (which is a lie given 90 percent of the population believes in God) that he is hurting people like my friend who are Evangelical and liberal because he is redining what people of faith in this case means. This is the danger that we face in this using earthly constructs to define what are suppose to be issues of each individuals soul.

Posted by: akaison | Jun 28, 2006 8:18:20 PM

I don't see how you can read that speech and think tbat Obama is saying Democrats aren't people of faith. In fact he's arguing the exact opposite. That Democrats ARE people of faith, but they're reluctance to speak about it, and about how their faith affects their views on policy, have caused many to hold an erroneous view that they aren't.

Posted by: Jeff | Jun 28, 2006 8:21:20 PM

sort of what John Edwards is doing with poverty, but with more media attention, potential, and power.

What, exactly, has John Edwards accomplished with...uh...poverty?

Posted by: a | Jun 28, 2006 8:28:07 PM

Here's the core of it: "secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square." Oh, I'm sorry I "asked."

How delusional do you have to be to believe that the central problem that we face today is those arrogant secularists coercing the God-believers to hide their religiosity?

Is this an off-shoot of that awful War Against Christmas that I've been reading so much about?

Enough with these guys. Let the GOP sweep this November and end this phony "two party system" once and for all.

Good night, and God Bless America.

Posted by: J DAlessandro | Jun 28, 2006 10:06:00 PM

First of all, I don't see how you can read that speech and say that Obama is saying that's the "central problem"

Second of all, the problem he's stating is that the Democratic party have a mistaken perception by a huge percentage of the country that they are hostile to religion or indifferent to it, and it's importance. And he's advocating ways to remedy that. Ways that can show to the country that progressive values are consistent, and can even emerge, out of Christian beliefs.

But the more that some in the Democratic party blast a speech like Obama's, the more it will perpetuate the mistaken perception.

Posted by: Jeff | Jun 28, 2006 10:15:49 PM

Jeff

Obama said the following phrases as reported over at mydd.com:

Sen. Barack Obama chastised fellow Democrats on Wednesday for failing to "acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people," and said the party must compete for the support of evangelicals and other churchgoing Americans.

"Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square." and he added, "I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people and join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy."

Here's the problem with this- it's not merely saying that faith is a part of people's lives- its saying that will, of course, be there even in the public sphere. It's saying faith must be a part of the public sphere.

That's all fine and good so long as one doesn't think about what this means. But, once one does- then a lot of questions come up. First, on my mind is who's faith? The faith as exemplified by my Evangelical liberal friend or the faith as defined by wingnuts like Fred? For that matter, what exactly does this mean to bring faith into the public sphere? We are governed by laws which aren't suppose to pick sides in these sorts of conversations. even with in Christianity there are vast divisions about the meaning of particular texts. My family for example is rooted in the charismatic traditions rather the traditions one might find in Chatholicism.

If we bring faith into the public sphere as he suggests then we open ourselves up to having to answer which one is right. It's like that episdoe of South Park where everyone goes to hell- the Presbyterians- the baptists, etc. When one of them askes- who is the right religion- the answer was Mormon. It's a joke but illustrative of the problem with the discussion. It assumes that the faith of those who re in the hallways that Obama met would be the same of all other Christians.

Even forgetting this, it certainly doesn't deal with those who aren't even Christian- where do Jews fit into this picture? What about Muslims? Pagans? What about atheists? What exactly does he mean?

And, more deeply, the problem of his language implies that Democrats have a problem with people of faith being a part of the public sphere. It's a shellgame because it's not a problem with people of faith being a part of the public sphere that's at issue. It's how they are a part of it which is the concern.

People obviously can't be divided from all the parts fo themselves. We are each a lot of different things when we enter the public life. Some of them obvious, and some not so obvious. What's his point about wanting the Christian aspect to be so prominent? More importantly what exactly does the balance under our system lie? We do have a Constitution with two very specific clauses on how faith enters the discussion. We can neither set up a state church or deny people freedom of expression of their relgion. The concern is about the tension between those two provisions that his overly simplified discussion misses.

Put another way, by allowing faith as a basis of discussing secular laws into the mix- at what point to we shift the burden from secular law to theocratic law. This isn't some crazy fantasy- our country was started by zealots who got away from each other by spreading out across the US. We see the impact of religious laws in countries of the Middle East. How far down this pathway does he want us to go?

ALso, does he understand that no on is denying people of faith their right to believe- what they are questioning is a) the limits of their faith in the public sphere and b) the shell game that is the Republicans use of faith to create a loyal flock of voters who equate voting for Bush with voting for God. To me the later is blaphemy but I hear it all the time in some of the Christian rights rhectoric. He is reinforcing this meme that its okay to not have these concerns about keeping divide between the two.

When the civil rights era occured- and people like MLK spoke they used faith as a basis, but not the end of the discussion over what the law is. There faith gave them a moral compass, but it didn't define what they thought the public laws should be. In his I have a Dream Speech he was imploring people of all backgrounds to come together regardless of faith or race etc. but his arguments about equality under the law went beyond his faith - he was rooted in traditions such as the nonviolence of Ghandi to name one sources. He had supporters such as Bernad Ruskin an out gay man when it wasn't considered koshser to be so.

All this talk about secularism presupposes that secularist don't respect people's faith or that we don't think faith can be a vital part of a persons identity and moral compass for action. but, that's a lie, and Obama repeats that lie. Most secularist- except some loud wingnuts- perfectly understand that its not easy to separte out faith and belief from someones call to action. The problem is not about respect for people's faith. It's about how far are we willing to take this? We have rules in place for a reason- to protect us from the extremes of which faith when it is left to be determined by the majority will take us.

Posted by: akaison | Jun 28, 2006 10:26:00 PM

Your concerns about faith in the public sphere are relevant and understandable, but your statement also makes me think you didn't actually read the speech, since he addresses those concerns.

http://obama.senate.gov/speech/060628-call_to_renewal_keynote_address/index.html

While I've already laid out some of the work that progressives need to do on this, I that the conservative leaders of the Religious Right will need to acknowledge a few things as well.

For one, they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. That during our founding, it was not the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of this separation; it was the persecuted religious minorities, Baptists like John Leland, who were most concerned that any state-sponsored religion might hinder their ability to practice their faith

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

And even if we did have only Christians within our borders, who's Christianity would we teach in the schools? James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Levitacus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage so radical that it's doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application?


This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

This may be difficult for those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of the possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It insists on the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime; to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing....

I think your impression of Obama's speech is based on the reporting of it, not the speech itself

Posted by: Jeff | Jun 28, 2006 10:37:00 PM

Jeff brings up a very important point. Even those of us who are reasonably well informed take a lot of our impressions from the media. In the end, it seems that Obama made a speech that directly attacked the ideas that liberalism and faith are antithetical and that faith alone is a good basis for public policy. I'm seriously confused about what the actual problems with his speech wer. Acknowledging that the Democratic Party is perceived as non- to anti-religious (not true, but nonetheless a perception), doesn't seem so problematic. Using that as a reminder of why the seperation of church and state is important is an invaluable service. Now some of Obama's votes I have problems with, but his framing doesn't seem unreasonable.

Posted by: Magenta | Jun 28, 2006 11:01:40 PM

Got no opinion of Obama one way or the other, but I think that the Dems would do a helluva lot better getting their theory and practice together, than hoping for some charismatic personality to rescue them from the fire. (For instance, while Kerry wasn't what anybody would call charismatic, his military experience was essentially supposed to paper over the party's refusal to come up with a coherent foreign policy.) Too many liberals have been creaming their jeans over Obama after hearing him give a pleasing speech or two. That's a lot to hang on any freshman politician.

Posted by: sglover | Jun 29, 2006 12:37:04 AM

This seems like a real tin-ear move in my opinion - just not the sort of thing he should be bringing up right now. Then again, I'm of the opinion that Democrats are best off not trying to chip away at the evangelical crowd. As Republican groups go, they're the True Believers - they are categorically least shakeable in their partisanship. Aside from making even more noise about the issues of abortion and homosexuality than Republicans (and honestly, given the infrastructure that already exists, that's still a small chance), there's no way Dems will win over the hardcore evangelicals. I think the best bet is not to try and win over that group, but rather to break off other parts of the (currently) conservative coalition - the low-hanging fruit are probably the civil libertarians. After all, this coalition was designed to constitute just barely more than half the populace - any missing part nullifies the efficacy of the rest. Of all the times, this is not one to address religion.

Posted by: Jon O. | Jun 29, 2006 12:59:35 AM

With all due respect what Obama seems to be doing is setting himself up for a presidential run in 2012 (or please god 2016) if not in 2008. I understand some of the frustration, but its probably smart politically. He's not taking a Hilary route and taking positions that make him unpopular with the left, yet managing to not do anything that is going to make centrists see him as particularly liberal. I imagine he is going to get behind some pretty non-controversial and non-ideological causes.

If the guy really is that charismatic this is the way to go. Don't compile a potentially problematic record, be something for everybody and let your charm do the work. Sort of sounds a little like Bill Clinton.

I understand the substansive argument. We ought to actually expect senators to do something besides prep for presidential runs, but it seems kind of silly to pretend that Obama is doing something crazy or substansively moving to the right. What he's doing looks like smart politics for someone who wants to be president someday.

Posted by: Gabe | Jun 29, 2006 1:01:58 AM

He isn't trying to win votes from the religuous right Jon, he's trying to convince moderate voters that Democrats aren't anti-religion and that its the moral majority crowd who are the real radicals. The target audience is the somewhat religuous but not particularly conservative voter. Its a play for the middle not the right.

It probably won't work. Ezra had a post earlier about ingrained perceptions of the parties and this seems to fit into that idea. Jimmy Carter was probably a more religuous man than any president in the last 30 years (including G.W. Bush) Reagan just about never went to church and throughout his life never showed much interest in organized religion of any kind, Clinton was really a pretty religuous guy but somehow this isn't the popular perception of any of these guys.

Posted by: Gabe | Jun 29, 2006 1:14:15 AM

FTR, first reaction is that I read the speech, thought it was basically very good, and spoke to me.

I did not think that Obama intended to cynically boost his own personal popularity & reputation with evangelicals by dumping on a stigmatized, scapegoated minority (i.e, "secularists" and "liberals" and "Some Democrats"), but I understand the charge. Time will tell if the charge is fair or not.

Posted by: roublen | Jun 29, 2006 2:07:20 AM

I thought Obama's speech had a couple of weak points, but the reaction from Atrios, Chris Bowers, and others around here is way, way, way off base. Obama just simply did not say all the things he's being accused of saying: "Sell out on choice and individual liberty, liberals hate religion, pander to the most conservative voters in the country, etc., etc., ad nauseum."

I've been reading some of these blogs long enough to remember the way people used to complain about the media's distortion of comments or speeches that Howard Dean made, with reporters quoting a few sentences to make a point markedly different than the one Dean was actually making. I would have hoped that maybe - maybe - people would be a little less credulous about taking news reports of prominent Democrats' speeches at face value and running with them.

What, exactly, has John Edwards accomplished with...uh...poverty?

Well, he talked about it incessantly in this last presidential run, and as a VP candidate, and proposed a lot of specific policies regarding it. Since the election, he's started up a Poverty Law Center at UNC, began a pilot program for free college tuition in a NC county, has been leading reconstruction trips to New Orleans, campaigned for minimum wage increase measures on various state ballots, has expanded on his previous policy ideas regarding poverty (most notably in finally endorsing the idea of universal health care), and finally, is trying to talk about all this in language that could sell among voters in red areas.

But, on the other hand, he 1) isn't perfect, and 2) his comments and efforts by themselves haven't made poverty disappear. So he's obviously just a paid DLC hack.

Posted by: Chris | Jun 29, 2006 3:23:16 AM

This guy is magic. I suspect whatever tact he is taking with respect to this faith issue is going to be wildly popular as he understands politics far better than anyone here. I work with a guy who is a hardcore, and I mean hardcore, conservative. Still supports Bush and thinks Obama is the bomb. Wont vote for him, but really likes him. We're here in Chicago, so we get to see more of him than many others do.

Of course, reading what Obama said weeks later, its not going to seem that strong. Hes a politician. Thats what they do. Not every statement can be this earth shaking rally cry. In addition, he seems to believe that a core principle of governance is moderation. This is going to be reflected in his answers.

In regards to his senate behavior, imagine if he had taken another approach and didn't do what he had done. Its likely that the 'implosion' stories would have already started. Being in the senate is a difficult task, and hes survived the first years with his reputation largely intact.

Edwards- Obama '08! Can you imagine these two guys?

He's staking out the middle-left here and when he talks about it, that middle-left seems like 80% of the population.

Posted by: mickslam | Jun 29, 2006 8:18:45 AM

The Democrat's public declaration of faith has never been the issue as Senator Obama believes. He thinks you should give lip service and then keep your same agenda.
The issue has always been the agenda. Democrats praying in public and then voting for the secular social agenda will not help them.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Jun 29, 2006 8:22:52 AM

I mean, honestly. So-called progressive bloggers clearly have less interest in ‘progress’ than they do in winning. I defy anyone to quote a single passage from Obama’s speech that betrayed any single progressive value.

If you hang out on sites like DKos, you’ll find folks rife with righteous indignation over the ability to out-centrist one another and reach out to the opposition. I think this is, in principle, a healthy stance to take. The process of such an outreach does not have to involve a betrayal of one’s values (nor should it) but rather a sincere attempt to acknowledge the worth of others’ opinions and to frame the issues in such a way that we can work towards conversion or consensus.

Exactly how did Obama differ from this platform?

Why is the left simply repeating the meme that all discussions of religion definitively belong to Republicans?

If you want to be a partisan, bully for you. If you want to reach out and unite people, even better. But if you abandon the very people who are trying to make inroads and unite the country, the only lesson you are teaching politicians is to ignore your values because they will never be able to please you. Bloggers are making strident inroads in political clout, but if we want to maintain relevance then we can’t behave like a bunch of petulant children who stomp our feet and moan whenever we are actually getting exactly what we asked for.

Posted by: urthwalker | Jun 29, 2006 8:33:57 AM

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