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April 08, 2007

What We Worry About When We Worry About Obama

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Twice in the last week, when people were hoping Barack Obama would stake out an aggressive position on important issues, he instead gave a third-person analysis of the situation that didn't seem to acknowledge his role as a potential agent of change.  First, there was the Iraq War supplemental, on which Obama speculated that Bush would get the bill he wanted if he vetoed the Democratic plan.  (You can see the horror from Kos and Matt Stoller, and if you can stomach it, the cackling from RedState.) 

Then at his town hall meeting to discuss health care in Portsmouth, NH, he declined to commit himself to anything beyond the banal, and offered the observation that "I think [health reform] can be done, but we've got to build a movement in this country behind that during this election cycle so that there's a mandate for that to take place, for the next president."  As Ezra notes, the time to build that mandate is now, and to date, Obama hasn't expended any effort to build it. 

Some comments from the locals:

Clif Horrigan wanted answers. The Portsmouth resident came to hear Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for her children, all of whom have faced unemployment, all of whom have been without health insurance.

She wants a single-payer, "prenatal to death" health care system, and she said that she was a tough customer before Obama even strode in the room at Seacoast Media Group on Tuesday .

"I haven't heard what he stands for. I need details," she said.

Two hours later, after Obama had listened to dozens of people relay a litany of problems and issues with their health insurance, Horrigan declared herself unconvinced.

"He gave no specifics; I have no firm idea where he's going," she said. "I'm disappointed. I did not hear what I wanted."

Horrigan was among a small group of people who spoke with the Herald both before and after Obama's appearance from among the 200-plus who attended Tuesday's town meeting-style event on health care.

Friends Natalie White of Portsmouth and Rose Ruffin of Dover were also "frustrated" with the event afterward.

"I wanted to hear more specifics," said Ruffin. "I don't think he answered the questions."

White said she understood he was there to listen, but is concerned he is not going to have enough time to put together a cohesive plan in time for the primary season. "He doesn't have a plan," she said.

It's not that he's incapable of putting together good policy ideas.  As Hilzoy has reminded us, Obama has a pretty impressive resume for a two-year Senator.  He's done a surprising amount of good bipartisan work on important issues like nonproliferation, avian flu, and lobbying reform.  So if what people mean by saying he lacks substance is that he can't promote smart policy ideas, they're wrong.

But what all his Senate policy successes have in common is that they don't express any clear ideological stance.  And that gets us to the core of why I'm not supporting Obama.  Is he willing to descend from the ether of cautious bipartisanship and highflown rhetoric, and push with all his might for the progressive reforms America needs?  So far, he's steered suspiciously wide of making any substantial progressive commitments.  I'm happy to have a guy like him in the Senate, where he can work with Republicans to get some low-key but important bills passed.  But 2008 is likely to deliver us a solid Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, and we need the kind of president who will make the most of our opportunities.  (In 2012, we'll be facing a Senate schedule with 24 Democrats and 9 Republicans up for election.  We need to get our work done before then.)

I remember when I was reading an article on top Obama consultant David Axelrod, and I saw this bit of rhetoric:

Obama's central theme was the promise of the future, of himself: "Let's be the generation," he said over and over again, that meets the big challenges of the day - poverty, energy independence, the environment. "What's stopped us from meeting these challenges," he said, "is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics."

And I thought, "what a piece of garbage".  What's stopped us from meeting these challenges isn't anything Broderesque like the smallness of politics or the failure of leadership.  It's the Republican Party.  Give Democrats the Presidency and filibuster-proof majorities, and you'll see action on all these major challenges.

But maybe, in a strange way, Obama is saying something right.  At the ebb of the Republicans' power, what would Obama do?  I know perfectly well what Edwards would do -- he'd pass an amazing health care plan, take major steps to reduce our dependence on oil, and make an unprecedented effort to fight global poverty.  He's made major policy commitments on all these issues.  But what is it that has stopped Obama from actually presenting any plans to meet these challenges?  A failure of leadership?  The smallness of his politics?

April 8, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

"I'm John Edwards & I approve this message."

Posted by: DRR | Apr 8, 2007 2:48:51 PM

Give Democrats the Presidency and filibuster-proof majorities

Don't forget the pony.

Posted by: dry_fish | Apr 8, 2007 3:00:21 PM

DRR, that's not exactly a persuasive critique of Neil's critique.

"didn't seem to acknowledge his role as a potential agent of change."

Well said. His basic stance is, the votes aren't there. Well, you're running for president, you've got a bigger megaphone right now than anyone else in the world, use it, sweet cheeks.

It's actually sort of astonishing, the vacuity and caution of Obama's campaign so far, given that a strong first few months could have effectively buried Edwards, who's been surging because of his bold progressive agenda and stances. A real contrast has emerged. Why has Obama been so timid?

a. to guard against weakness in a potential general election
b. because that's his essential nature
c. because of Axelrod and other consultants
d. because, as a black man, he figures he'll been a polarizing figure as it is
e. because he mistakenly thinks Hillary is a bigger threat than Edwards
f. because he's actually something like a New Democrat
g. all of the above

Posted by: davidmizner | Apr 8, 2007 3:03:57 PM

Given his background as a community organiser in Chicago I think you can pretty much assume that he's MUCH more committed to redistributing resources within American politics than the average Democratic politician. Don't confuse no plan NOW with no plan.

Posted by: otto | Apr 8, 2007 3:17:22 PM

But what is it that has stopped Obama from actually presenting any plans to meet these challenges? A failure of leadership? The smallness of his politics?

Perhaps...and given what he's doing at the moment, I think there's a lot of evidence to support this view...it's because he actually wants to be President. I have no interest in a new Adlai Stevenson. And if Obama gets the nomination--still a long shot, it seems to me-- you can always vote for Nader.

People put too much stock in Presidential candidate policy positions. See, e.g., "humble foreign policy."

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Apr 8, 2007 3:23:00 PM

"But what is it that has stopped Obama from actually presenting any plans to meet these challenges? A failure of leadership? The smallness of his politics?"

I'm not sure "the smallness of his politics" is the best way to put it. The problem is his desire to be "beyond politics". And if you're beyond politics, you don't want to fight some longstanding political battles that progressive forces are currently in good position to actually win.

As Ron Brownstein put it in his very smart column of a couple of weeks ago:

Rick Gale, the president of the firefighters' Wisconsin affiliate, was shaking his head after Obama's reform-heavy message to the union convention. "In my view, that's really not a message for our guys," Gale said. "They're really not afraid of politics."

Obama is trying to run a classic Axelrod campaign putting him outside of politics. But this isn't the moment for that particular campaign.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 8, 2007 3:26:23 PM

I'M 100% for Obama. He's truthful, he doesn't make all of the usual, banal babbling of the politicians that we the people of the USA are SICK & TIRED of hearing. Most of the rest of the field of canidates on both sides just tell us what they think we want to hear. They don't realize as Bob Dylan once sang"Times they are a changing." I have always been a Democrat and I VOTE in every election, both local, state and national. Sometimes, I have voted and worked on Republican canidates when I feel they are the best.
I'm sick of the Clintons, both of them.

Posted by: Jean Fleming | Apr 8, 2007 3:33:02 PM

I wish that I lived in a country that would elect Edwards. Truly, I do. But, in fact, I live a country that elected Bush, AFTER a four-year trial.

Republican power may be ebbing, but the reality is a plutocracy is in place, that is a lot better organized than Kos or Matt Stoller, and that can program Matt Lauer or Wolf Blitzer or Fox News -- in short, guys in possession of big megaphones every day -- to say just about any thing they want. And, those bastards have a lot more to say about the supposed character implications of Edwards' relationship with wife's cancer than they ever will have about Edwards' proposals about poverty.

Obama is building his own candidacy, in the shadow of the mountain, which is our electorate and its willingness to be propagandized and stampeded by a Media under the control of a plutocracy. He does what he has to do, to survive, and it does make it hard to believe in him. But, anyone, who doesn't find it hard to believe in the American People at this point, needs an optical prescription.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Apr 8, 2007 3:33:09 PM

You don't think we're a country that would elect Edwards, Bruce? The latest polling from Rasmussen has him up 47-38 on McCain.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Apr 8, 2007 3:46:47 PM

I think the Democrats are weak, and will remain so until something truly devastating happens. And no, I don't mean a war that is on a foreign shore. I mean a collapse of the healthcare system or something equally devastating. Then and only then will they go beyond rhectoric to meaning what they say. My friends quote seems applicable here: people aren't what they say, they are what they do. The Democrats talk the right game, but don't do it. The GOP doesn't even talk the right game. That's the choice we have. So really- it kind of sucks all around.

Posted by: akaison | Apr 8, 2007 3:55:35 PM

The latest chaterati consensus seems to be that McCain's candidacy is dying, if not dead, in the water. Even if this is just point in time evaluation, it suggests that beating McCain is, at the moment, not so impressive.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Apr 8, 2007 3:57:15 PM

PS- this prior comment was less about Obama, and more about how timid they all seem to me. Where in life does anyone get to wait for perfect conditions before doing what it takes to win? Yet, when I read the analysis often that's the first requirement offered by Democrats. We must wait until the stars align perfectly for X or Y. Good luck with that one because that's not going to happen, and waiting for it is a sign of weakness.

Posted by: akaison | Apr 8, 2007 3:58:09 PM

Well, Rasmussen's April polling had Hillary leading McCain only 47-46. Edwards is leading by 9 where Hillary leads by 1.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Apr 8, 2007 4:00:06 PM

Petey makes a good point, Obama's running a very 1990s campaign when the moment smells more like 1964, or 1940.

Posted by: davidmizner | Apr 8, 2007 4:14:07 PM

one other ps

here's the breakdown:

Edwards- Does he mean it? If he does, then he could the one.

Obama - Can he be brave? If he can and act according to his audacity, then he could be the one.

Clinton - Is she anything but a legacy, and can she get past Hillarycare enough to know it's 2007, not 1994? If she can then she could be the one.

Each has a piece. None has the total package. Hence, the three person race. All I can say is at least we got better choices than the GOP. There's a competition among the panderer, the liar and the dictator.

Posted by: akaison | Apr 8, 2007 4:16:08 PM

Petey makes a good point, Obama's running a very 1990s campaign when the moment smells more like 1964, or 1940.

I'm not old enough to remember either years, but, from the descriptions of those periods that I've read, it doesn't feel like either one to me.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Apr 8, 2007 4:16:26 PM

I'm highly skeptical of the utility of stating a detailed health care policy in the Spring of 2007 when it's next to impossible to know what the political landscape is going to look like in the Spring of 2009. Keeping people at the (potential) bargaining table seems a reasonable tactic at this point, to aid in the creation of a future plan, and of course general election voters don't vote on the basis of the policy position papers of the presidential candidates.

I guess what I'd be curious to know is what it is precisely that you (realistically - let's predict the Congress in '09 will have about a 25 seat Dem majority and that there'll be 51 Dems in the Senate) fear a President Obama would cave in on? His voting record in both the Illinois and US Senates have been great from a progressive perspective. Are there specific policy priorities you think he'll abandon? Or is it that you just find any Democrat who won't lock him or herself into an extremely specific plan at this point in the campaign inherently untrustworthy?

Posted by: Armand | Apr 8, 2007 4:18:26 PM

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Apr 8, 2007 12:23:00 PM

Perhaps...and given what he's doing at the moment, I think there's a lot of evidence to support this view ... it's because he actually wants to be President. I have no interest in a new Adlai Stevenson. And if Obama gets the nomination -- still a long shot, it seems to me -- you can always vote for Nader.

The "aim low" approach was tried in both 2000 and 2004, and both times, even though it would seem that "aim low" would hit the Republican nominee smack between the eyes, the bullet hit the dirt in front of the target and ricocheted away.

I am not going to be voting for Obama in the primaries, precisely because I think he'll be going for tiny steps in, broadly, the right direction. OTOH, as I prefer tiny steps in the right direction to big steps in the wrong direction, if he was the nominee, I would almost certainly vote for him in the general.

But Edwards will have an easier time carrying Ohio, and the Republicans have never once taken the White House without us.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Apr 8, 2007 4:25:06 PM

You all may want to back off and see what the hell he DOES propoise in terms of a solution. My recollection is that he is working on health care and will not come out half-cocked as did Hillary and her partner during the Bill admin, when they may have screwed it up for all time, as the insurance industry has become a de facto part of the equation.
The fact that hubris on the part of Magaziner and Hillary may have doomed intelligent health care without the presence of insurance pimps, is what has made it impossible for me to send money to her. I have only given to Obama. The fact that some women support her because she posesses the same anatomy really makes me think less of those women.

We must nominate a PERSON who inspires Americans to vote (I would vote for Hillary were she on the final ballot, but I would not bust my hump on the way) and who point a way away from those who do not know how to say they were wrong, as in Hillary and "I didn't know that was sex" Bill.

Posted by: Richard McDonough | Apr 8, 2007 4:25:08 PM

There's so many good things here that I'm left with little else more than my visceral, emotional reactions to Obama which are much less than ethusiastic.

Obama smells like Clinton to me (Bill that is). Well, all that was bad about Bill. The compulsive traingulator. The all centrist democrat. The compromiser (we can argue about his choices another time). Or, and this is a comparison that really should piss some people, Obama reminds me of bush. He doesn't stand for much. He's popular. He's "appealing to the masses". He speaks in platitudes. He loves to bring god into the discussion.

Hey, both Clinton and bush served two terms so if Obama is emulating either of them then at least he's developed a successful model.

I still don't see a lock candidate on the dem side yet (speaking from my own perspective).

Posted by: ice weasel | Apr 8, 2007 4:25:18 PM

Armand, I don't need the commitments to be specific or detailed at this point. I just need commitments of some kind. And I want the candidate to see himself or herself as an active member of the progressive movement, not just as a third-person observer. So far, I don't see Obama doing that. And it's not too early by any means -- Edwards is coming out with a new big left-wing policy initiative every week.

51 Democrats in the Senate is a very pessimistic prediction. We've got 51 now, and 2008 has us defending 12 D seats while attacking 21 R seats. Expect something more like 55. I don't see any reason to think we'll lose seats in the House, either.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Apr 8, 2007 4:25:22 PM

Hillary actively moves the Overton Window to the Right.

Obama passivelly allows the GOP spin machine to keep moving the Overton Window to the Right.

Edwards told in explicit and excrutiating detail how he is going to stop the rightward and start the leftward movement of the Overton Window.

Your choice.

Posted by: coturnix | Apr 8, 2007 4:25:28 PM

By the way, I don't carfe what Bill did with his apparati, but I do care that he suddenly became Jesuitical in his responses when the question of whether he had sex or no with "that woman" arose.

Posted by: Richard McDonough | Apr 8, 2007 4:27:39 PM

And that gets us to the core of why I'm not supporting Obama.

You mean besides the fact that you're supporting Edwards do or die, and have been since before Obama even decided to run.

And I thought, "what a piece of garbage". What's stopped us from meeting these challenges isn't anything Broderesque like the smallness of politics or the failure of leadership. It's the Republican Party. Give Democrats the Presidency and filibuster-proof majorities, and you'll see action on all these major challenges.

Maybe. Democrats aren't going to want to be solely responsible for the largest tax increases in recent times, which is what will be needed. There are actually some things that are easier to do from the center, or at least in a bipartisan way, than from one side alone. And we may not have a big margin.

But what is it that has stopped Obama from actually presenting any plans to meet these challenges? A failure of leadership? The smallness of his politics?

Early days, Neil.

Edwards is coming out with a new big left-wing policy initiative every week.

He's been very good at keeping this a secret, then.

The Overton Window is way overrated.

Posted by: Sanpete | Apr 8, 2007 4:30:52 PM

To do a mash up on Petey's comment and Neil post, I think what's grating about Obama/Axelrod is that they seem to think any actual proposals bring them down into "small" politics. Their comments tend to imply that vague high mindedness is what has been missing from the politcal scene, which is odd because we have that by the bushel.

Then again maybe they're just huge Simpsons fans, Aexlrod: "What's stopped us from meeting these challenges," he said, "is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics."

The Simpsons: "Mr. Springfield, how can I hope to achieve such greatness?" A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.

Posted by: AJ | Apr 8, 2007 4:32:16 PM

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