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December 18, 2006

Which Obama Is Which?

John Heilemann has an Obama assessment in this week's New York that rather exactly tracks the arguments I made in The LA Times last month. Indeed, that's as you'd expect, because the argument is fairly obvious and the only wonder is that more people aren't making it. I want, however, to particularly emphasize one element:

God knows the last thing I’d argue is that Obama ought to pad his CV by loitering for years in the Senate, an institution that prepares one for little besides the exercise of pomposity. But, substantively speaking, Obama hasn’t even made the most of his brief time there. The legislation he has offered has been uniformly mundane, marginal, and provincial—securing additional funding for veterans, to cite but one example.

Obama’s response to such criticism is to point out that he’s been constrained by his status and circumstances: a freshman senator in the minority party. “I’ve got a lot of clout,” he jokes. “I went from 99th to 98th in seniority this year.”

A clever line, sure, but patently bogus—for, given the extent of Obama’s celebrity, he’s hardly an ordinary backbencher. Yet how many times has he used his megaphone to advance a bold initiative or champion a controversial cause? Zero. Instead, Obama has tempered his once-fiery stances on such issues as Iraq and health care; his proposals on alternative energy and global warming are weak beer compared with those of, say, Al Gore. He seems a man laboring to stay something of a cipher—a strategy no less calculated than Hillary’s conspicuous lunges to the center or McCain’s lurches to the right.

I call this the Two Obamas Dodge. Talk to his staffers about Obama's superstardom, his presidential prospects, or talent, and they'll gush with praise and enthusiasm. Ask them why he hasn't used that silver tongue to consecrate some treasured, important progressive policy initiatives and they'll explain that he's only, like, 10-years-old, and can't be expected to step on any Senate toes. By which logic we can expect he'll cede the primary to Dodd, Biden, Kerry, and Clinton, and in that order. Wouldn't want to step on any toes, after all.

Obama can be the dutiful backbencher preparing for life as a legislator. Or he can be the rocketing talent seeking support for a presidential campaign. But he can't be both. No candidate seeking the presidency can avoid specificity on grounds that he wouldn't want to usurp his place in the Senate. It's absurd. And Obama will, slowly, shed the generalities and create a platform specific to him. What that will look like, however, is anyone's guess. Is he willing to lose the affection of David Brooks and George Will? To go from stratospheric approval ratings to merely sub-orbital? Or will he be trapped by his own popularity, his own hope of being a unifying force, and create a platform of bland incrementalism gussied up in his soaring eloquence?

December 18, 2006 in Election 2008 | Permalink


I doubt this is all that complicated in Obama's mind. He's been a good freshman senator, doing what is practical in that position. Not stepping on toes makes sense for that. Now he's thinking about running for President, so ... it still makes sense for him not to start talking up big controversial proposals. We might like it better if he did, but our neighbors who also vote might like it less. Soaring rhetoric, and an ability to show he understands the issues are what will serve him well at this stage. And that may serve us best in the long term too.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 18, 2006 5:27:11 PM

his proposals on alternative energy and global warming are weak beer compared with those of, say, Al Gore

Of course, Gore is neither in office nor running for office, and Obama is both. Obama's health care proposals are noticeably to the left of the non-Edwards members of the field not named "Kucinich", now that Feingold's out of the mix. And I'm pretty sure that all the Senators thinking about running for President, including Kerry, voted against the most recent attempt to rase CAFE standards.

Edwards, it should be noted, doesn't offer a specific proposal. He just says "no wiggle words" and leaves it at that. Mark Schmitt is a big fan of this, rather than hazing by "plan". There are eighteen bajillion ideas out there for extending health coverage; why should a primary candidate be wedded to just one? Say that you're for universal health care as a principle, say you're not going to budge, and say there are lots of good ideas kicking around Washington that policians are too afraid to touch, and that you'll work to form a coalition that can get something done. Flesh it out with a couple of specific ideas (like electronic medical records or some form of liability insulation), and then call it a day.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Dec 18, 2006 5:38:15 PM

Where are Obama's leftie health care ideas?

Posted by: Ezra | Dec 18, 2006 5:39:44 PM

Look, whether we progressive nerds like it or not, the (substantively empty) "soaring rhetoric" is what people love about Obama. It's what will get him elected.

During his campaign, conservative fuckwits will spend a great deal of time and energy attempting to show that the soaring rhetoric is merely cover for a substantively liberal record and agenda.

In that they are correct. Say what you will about his strategy, but every bit of evidence from Obama's past and his words indicates a basically liberal political outlook.

So do we progressive nerds really want to help the conservative fuckwits? Do we really want to mau mau Obama until he says, "ok, I admit it, I'm a liberal and I want single-payer healthcare!"

That would give us a momentary tingle in our pants, but what else would it accomplish?

Right now the American public wants uplift. Obama's giving it to them. It may work to get him elected. Why on earth would we try to sabotage that strategy by forcing him into the trenches of specific policy proposals that can get twisted and manipulated to death by the right-wing Twist & Manipulation Industry?

Posted by: Realish | Dec 18, 2006 5:50:48 PM

Yes yes, that’s it. We can not have a candidate who is fresh; whose strengths are wit, intellect, charisma, and inspiration. We must not run some one who will light up college campuses like RFK, or motivate the minimal wage earners like WJC.

No, no we must have an experienced hand at government – Vilsak? How about a veteran of the brittle machinations of political triangulation – Hillary? Better yet, let’s pull out a retread, some one who could not seal the deal the last time – Kerry, Gore?

Give me a break!

Posted by: Keith G | Dec 18, 2006 6:00:30 PM

Gore did seal the deal last time. It was stolen, remember?

Posted by: Doubting Thomas | Dec 18, 2006 6:45:55 PM

Where are Obama's leftie health care ideas?

right here.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Dec 18, 2006 6:55:24 PM

I think Obama's supporters are through the "two Obama" argument will eventually turn people off. He can't, simply put, keep this up for 2 years. As a Republican friend said to me when I mentioned this to her, if he thinks he is going to get this pass us, he's mistaken. She is surprisingly honest me- she also says things like McCain's biggest problem among others is that he's too old to run. To the Obama supporters, you think apparently you are so much brighter than the average voter (a la the Sanpete response), etc- but you aren't fooling them. What you are doing, should he get the nomination, is setting him up for yet another wishy washy, unclear what he stands for discussion writ a different way. You maybe able to weather this, but let me ask you this- how will you do it and maintain the whole "can't we all just get along" speeches that he has been giving?

Posted by: akaison | Dec 18, 2006 7:14:44 PM

"Look, whether we progressive nerds like it or not, the (substantively empty) "soaring rhetoric" is what people love about Obama. It's what will get him elected."

exactly. This is like the pundit's fallacy^2. Why you want Obama to participate in creating a more easily demagogable record in the senate is beyond me.

Posted by: dan | Dec 18, 2006 7:15:54 PM

Let be clear- I don't have a problem with charisma- I have a problem that people here seem to think they are smarter than the average voter. Which is what is required with the whole he doesn't have to do anything more than what he's been doing argument. do you really think, as your posts suggest, that voters are that stupid?

Posted by: akaison | Dec 18, 2006 7:17:17 PM

stupid=doesn't read policy papers?

Posted by: dan | Dec 18, 2006 7:32:07 PM

Doubting T - Had Al been able to simply win his home state all the butterfly ballots and hanging chads in the world would not have mattered.

He was not the one sworn in and in my book that means he lost.

Two side notes, but related: I just heard Donna Brazile on NPR talking about what Obama needs to do. I hope he is wise enough to keep her the hell away from his campaign.

And, Hillary was on the Today Show. She really looked "done up". My first thought was a lil' nip/tuck. I feel she seriously senses the competition and she getting ready to start the fight.

Posted by: Keith G | Dec 18, 2006 7:38:26 PM

To the Obama supporters, you think apparently you are so much brighter than the average voter (a la the Sanpete response), etc- but you aren't fooling them.

Akaison, you have a tendency to read odd things into what I say. I'm not an Obama supporter, and I implied nothing about being smarter than or fooling the average voter. The fact, however you want to explain it, is that by tying yourself to specific controversial proposals you do more to limit who will support you than you do by mostly sticking to broad principles that most people agree with. This applies both to voters at all levels of intelligence and information.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 18, 2006 7:40:52 PM

Helping GM pay health care costs (via subsidy, it sounds like) is a leftie idea? How does this solve the problem of millions without health insurance? Nicholas, go sit in the corner for a half-hour. And face the wall.

The more I read of Ezra (and others) on Obama, the more obvious it is that Obama will get us four more years of post-impeachment Bill Clinton. Essentially nothing, that is, with endless small baby step measures that achieve some karma but not solve problems. [BTW, I liked what Bill Clinton said (and how he said it) a LOT - just not what he did (or tried to do) - even allowing for a hostile Congress in that period. So I won't be fooled again.

So, please, less of the 'his heart's in the right place' stuff, please. We have 30 years of GOP rightward legislative/executive movement to overcome, and tacking slightly to the middle or 3 degrees to the left will not get the country back on course for the average American. If that is what America really wants, Vilsack would do fine and he's America's other white meat. (Pork, Iowa, anyone?)

Obama doesn't have to be Kucinich to reassure the progressives that we are going to redeem the promise of liberal, sane, socially-caring, fact-based, middle/working class-oriented government.

Some Dem. people seem to be thinking that Harold Ford or Evan Bayh centrism is the best way to get Dem. Presidential victory in 08. Hillary seems to think this too, but she's not from GOP Mars and there is no GOP Venus.

We've had two candidates try that approach in 00 and 04, and guess what? It didn't work then, and it won't work in 08, even with a chrome-tongued Obama talking 'don't rock the boat (or vote)' policies.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Dec 18, 2006 7:41:00 PM

do you really think, as your posts suggest, that voters are that stupid?

Well Jeeze Aka, your ultra intelligent voters did elect Bush, twice.

Posted by: Keith G | Dec 18, 2006 7:41:37 PM

Ezra: One point: Given the hype Obama came into the Senate with, people must have been just waiting for the opportunity to knock him off his high horse. (I suspect, given that a lot of politicians have the ego needs of adolescents, that it would have been a lot like entering junior high as the child of, oh, TomKat or Brangelina: everyone would assume that you were completely full of yourself, and your every move would be watched for confirmation of your total conceit and arrogance.)

If he cared about getting anything done at all, he couldn't go there. He just couldn't. I actually think that the fact that he seems to have disarmed most people in the Senate despite this initial handicap is pretty impressive.

Besides which, I thought the health care for hybrids initiative was pretty bold and interesting. I do, of course, wish he'd spoken up earlier on the Military Commissions Bill (though the speech he eventually gave in the Senate was quite good.)

Posted by: hilzoy | Dec 18, 2006 7:55:25 PM

And, to JimPortlandOR: I thought the health care/hybrids proposal was a lot more interesting as energy policy than as health care -- lining up the interests of the automakers and the UAW with energy efficiency is a wonderful idea, especially (to me) the UAW part.

Posted by: hilzoy | Dec 18, 2006 7:57:40 PM

no, stupid= voters can't figure out the guy has 2 years of experience as a Senator- thats it, and all he needs to do is sweet talk. stupid= figuring over the course of two years that people aren't going to start going "wait a minute, what does he mean by all of that when he is being cryptic at best, triangulating at worse (worse because it leads to comments like the GOP talking point of Kerry: he's too wishy washy, etc) . stupid = thinking voters voted for Bush (rather than against Kerry). stupid= voters believing anyone who takes a progressive stand on health care in 2006 rather than 1994 must be a radical leftist. If these are the things you believe, you are too smart for your own good.

Posted by: akaison | Dec 18, 2006 8:18:26 PM

hilz, you and other supporters play that game well. Oh, you are just trying to knock a great man down. No, we are trying to figure out is he tough enough for the role of campaigning and presidential leadership against people like my friend who has no qualms about secretly hoping last week that things did't go quite so well in Sen Johnson surgery. When I called her on it, she said she didn't really mean it, but she had friends who she said did. Its anecdotal, but its meant to suggest what was the basic gist over at Mydd when you posted there- is this guy ready for the job are winning against what will be a highly partisan GOP come 2008?

Posted by: akaison | Dec 18, 2006 8:22:18 PM

hilzoy: I almost made your point on the health care/hybrids thing , but since Nicholas was offering the proposal as health care evidence, I responded in that direction.

I am not saying that getting corps out of the health care payer position isn't a good idea. Wyden's plan moves in that direction. And sometimes bribes have to be paid (wonks prefer the word incentives) to get where you'd like to be. Corporations (auto industry and others) won't back health care reform without being paid off somehow.

But Obama's plan is really not about health care reform, he was just making his bribe less obviously a bribe by calling it smart health care policy.

As to hybrid policy, I'd have more stick and less carrot: a big tax on gas guzzlers would suit me fine (over 5 years, progressively declining), on both producers and buyers. Make it hurt to buy Humvees to terrorise other motorists on the streets and pump Saudi petrochems into our air. {The headlights on these big SUV's/trucks are right in line with my rear window in my little Saturn, and if they hit me I'd have a monster engine resting no-so-comfortably in my lap.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Dec 18, 2006 8:26:50 PM

Obama doesn't need to take the controversial stands just yet - if it works, it works. However, no matter how well it works for him in the primary, it won't work in the general. He needs to be standing for a particular issue (much as Edwards stands for economic populism and Gore for the environment), or else he'll be defined by his more general elements by the GOP - namely, the OHB name and other othering. I can guarantee that that's what the GOP will have him standing for if he doesn't pick something to stand behind.

More often than not, the American public is alright with tacking left today. The real measure of my support for Obama, however, is dependent on this: will he lead to create consensus, or simply follow consensus? I still have hope in the guy, and generally I think there's been some expectation of something like this on his part, but I'm certainly not willing to pass any judgment whatsoever yet.

Posted by: Jon O. | Dec 18, 2006 9:18:35 PM

akaison: "hilz, you and other supporters play that game well. Oh, you are just trying to knock a great man down ..."

Well, that isn't really what I said at all. Plus, I'm not really a supporter; it's more that when I started reading the "just a pretty face, no substance" criticism, I thought: huh?, and then I wrote that post about him, and here I am. I actually haven't decided between Clark, Edwards, Obama, and Gore, and at this stage don't feel any urgency about deciding.

However, I just figured out today what bothers me about the "oh, he has no substance" line of criticism of Obama, namely: that it is so very close to the "well, Clark has a nice resume and all, but what has he actually done? and isn't he a crypto-Republican?' line from 2004. Strange to say, that's what got me started with blogs: I saw Clark on CSPAN, was impressed, did some research about his positions, was more impressed, and gave money; and only then realized that one of the storylines about him was: he has no positions; no one knows what he thinks. Having myself figured out most of his positions in a few hours with Google, I found this mystifying, and so I started hanging out on kos doing nothing other than providing links anytime someone said that.

In both cases, the claim that there's no real substance, just a triangulating cipher who looks impressive is not true, if you go do the research. There are things I disagree with him on, but the idea that he's some sort of hollow suit just isn't true. And I think it's the parallel with the attack on Clark that bugs me.

Also, can anyone explain to me why so many people think that Obama voted for the Bankruptcy Bill? The Myth That Will Not Die.

Posted by: hilzoy | Dec 18, 2006 10:01:40 PM

"Also, can anyone explain to me why so many people think that Obama voted for the Bankruptcy Bill? The Myth That Will Not Die."

I am never gonna escape that comment. Katherine & hilzoy, I am sorry. I was wrong.

As far as Obama is concerned, I am looking at the '32 stealth campaign as a template until further notice. Stick to vague until you get the pulpit, then go for the substance. If y'all think we need a '64 or '68 movement campaign, then justify it. But as President can create a movement while in office, as our current jerk did after 9/11 for a little while.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 18, 2006 10:30:32 PM

And you honestly think Edwards has a bigger resume or more experience??
I am not knocking Edwards but, his total political experience is 6 years in the senate. period.
and, even the dems in his state were not too happy with his performance when he was Senator.
Obama has years of community activism, 7 years in the state senate and now the US Senate. He also did a great job in the state and is doing a great job for us now.
Obama has done alot of legislation (alot of which the repulicans would not introduce unless co-sponsored with a republican) where as Edwards did not produce much. Obama did alot of work in getting bills to help the Vets and in Terrorism. He was involved in getting the medical care of kids under 18 covered for all kids here in Illinois.
I think you need to do some research before you out of hand dismiss Obama.

Posted by: vwcat | Dec 18, 2006 10:36:10 PM

So do we progressive nerds really want to help the conservative fuckwits? Do we really want to mau mau Obama until he says, "ok, I admit it, I'm a liberal and I want single-payer healthcare!"

Why, do you want another Clinton, someone who can win elections but is too afraid to do anything that polls under 70%?

Single-payer health care is fairly popular. It polls at 62%, and that's before unveiling the final plan, which should not only reduce costs far more than Wyden's plan does, but also reform Medicare and Medicaid along VA lines, making them cost less while covering more people.

Posted by: Alon Levy | Dec 18, 2006 10:49:46 PM

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