Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Obama Doesn't Get It

July 9, 2008, 7:00 a.m., 10:15 a.m.

Senator Obama's announcement that he was going to abandon his support for public financing of presidential campaigns -- at least so far as his own campaign was concerned -- (along with the $85 million it would have provided) was the first worrisome hint that we might be in for a number of other seeming changes as well. Surrogates rushed to reassure us that he was holding to his position, just using a different kind of "public financing" -- namely our small contributions -- as a matter of a pragmatic winning (and very expensive) strategy. This was a special case, we were told.

Well, it wasn't. Since then our initial concerns have been played out -- big time. I've been blogging about it since June 22.

Nicholas Johnson, "Change We Can No Longer Believe In," June 22, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "Holding Obama's Feet to the Fireside Chat," June 24, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "The Bundling Business," June 26, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "Will the Real Obama Stand Up -- For Us?" June 27, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "Pragmatic Idealism," June 28, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "Obama's Geometry: Triangulation," June 30, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "Obama's Move to Right Shows Self-Defeating Weakness," July 1, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "Obama's Telephone Switch," July 3, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "'Producing' a President," July 5, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "Request for Response: Your Reaction to 'Move to Center,'" July 7, 2008.
Sadly, either Senator Obama just doesn't get it, or he doesn't care, or he is further fudging regarding his shifts. And to borrow a line from CBS "60 Minutes'" "Ronald Reagan the Movie," "which would be worse?" Here's a report regarding his defensive response in Powder Springs, Georgia, yesterday:

POWDER SPRINGS, Ga. — Senator Barack Obama on Tuesday forcefully addressed concerns that he had moved too quickly to the political center, acknowledging complaints from “my friends on the left” about his statements on Iraq, his approaches to evangelicals and his remarks on other issues that have alarmed some of his supporters.

“Look, let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center,” he told a crowd gathered at a town hall-style meeting in this Atlanta suburb. “The people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me.”
Michael Powell, "Obama Says His Critics Haven't Been Listening," New York Times, July 9, 2008.

Far and away the most active blog -- on Senator Obama's Web site! -- is "Senator Obama - Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity - Get FISA Right." Over 20,000 supporters -- many of whom are now "former supporters" -- are clearly upset; some expressing a sense of betrayal, many saying they will no longer support him financially, some talking of voting for Ralph Nader or Senator John McCain. I've reproduced some of the responses I received when I put a questionnaire into that blog asking for members' opinions in Nicholas Johnson, "Request for Response: Your Reaction to 'Move to Center,'" July 7, 2008 (to which some readers of my blog, this blog, have added similar comments of their own).

The problem Senator Obama has created for himself does not come so much from some one position he's now articulating -- though that is a problem for many former supporters (especially on FISA and telephone immunity). The primary problem is that, having gained voters' (especially first-time voters') enthusiastic support for this "new kind of politician," who offered "hope" and "promises we can believe in," he is now looking more and more like the same old, same old politics as usual -- thereby creating a sense in former supporters of something between betrayal, a sense of having been duped, and a very deep disappointment and disillusionment.

The problem, in short, is not that his former supporters who are now being critical "haven't been listening to me" -- it's that they were listening, and absorbing, precisely the image of Obama that he was trying to project and hoping they would buy. They did buy. And now they're suffering from a severe case of buyers' remorse.

Criticizing one's most enthusiastic supporters with, in effect, to borrow the old song title, "How Could You Believe Me When I Told You That I Loved You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life," is not -- among other things -- the most effective way to win elections.

Meanwhile, yesterday (July 8) the Times' op ed columnist Bob Herbert, who does "get it," summed up much of what I -- among a great many others -- have been saying. Here are some excerpts to give you a flavor of what he wrote:

Back in January . . . there was a wide and growing belief — encouraged to the max by the candidate — that something new in American politics had arrived. . . .

Only an idiot would think or hope that a politician . . . could hold fast to every position . . .. But Barack Obama went out of his way to create the impression that he was a new kind of political leader — more honest, less cynical and less relentlessly calculating than most. . . .

This is why so many of Senator Obama’s strongest supporters are uneasy, upset, dismayed and even angry at the candidate who is now emerging in the bright light of summer. . . .

Tacking toward the center in a general election is as common as kissing babies . . . but Senator Obama is not just tacking gently toward the center. He’s lurching right when it suits him, and he’s zigging with the kind of reckless abandon that’s guaranteed to cause disillusion, if not whiplash. . . .

Separation of church and state? Forget about it.

And there he was . . . agreeing with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas that the death penalty could be imposed for crimes other than murder. . . .

“What’s he doing?” is the most common question heard recently from Obama supporters.

For one thing, he’s taking his base for granted . . .. A taste of the backlash this can produce erupted on the candidate’s own Web site.

Thousands of Obama supporters flooded the site with protests over his decision to support an electronic surveillance bill . . ..

[B]ehind the scenes, there is discontent among African-Americans, as well, over . . . his support of . . . the constitutional right of individuals to bear arms.

There’s even concern that he’s doing the Obama two-step on the issue that has been the cornerstone of his campaign: his opposition to the war in Iraq. . . .

Mr. Obama is betting that . . . the most important thing is winning the White House, that his staunchest supporters . . . will be there when he needs them.

He seems to believe that his shifts and twists and clever panders — as opposed to bold, principled leadership on important matters — will entice large numbers of independent and conservative voters to climb off the fence and run into his yard.

Maybe. But that’s a very dangerous game for a man who first turned voters on by presenting himself as someone who was different, who wouldn’t engage in the terminal emptiness of politics as usual. . . .
Bob Herbert, "Lurching With Abandon," New York Times, July 8, 2008.

To grasp -- or remind ourselves -- of the great heights from which his youthful followers have been dropped without parachutes, read Kathleen Parker's column from February 22. It provides some understanding of why many are moving so fast, and so far, with such bitterness, from his campaign -- based on their perceived discovery that what they thought was going to be a "new politics" has turned out to be -- as their more cynical friends warned them earlier -- the "old politics" after all. Here are some excerpts:

Much has been made of the religious tenor of Barack Obama's presidential campaign. . . .

His rhetoric . . . drips with hints of resurrection, redemption and second comings. "We are the ones we've been waiting for," he said on Super Tuesday night. And his people were glad.

Actually, they were hysterical . . ..

To play weatherman for a moment, he is a perfect storm of the culture of narcissism, the cult of celebrity, and a secular society in which fathers (both the holy and the secular) have been increasingly marginalized from the lives of a generation of young Americans. . . .

Grown-ups . . . have a variety of reasons for supporting Obama, but the youth who pack convention halls and stadiums as if for a rock concert constitute a tipping point of another order.

One of Obama's TV ads, set to rock 'n' roll, has a Woodstock feel to it. Text alternating with crowd scenes reads: "We Can Change The World" and "We Can Save The Planet."

Those are . . . campaign promises . . . no mortal could possibly keep, but never mind. Obi-Wan Obama is about hope -- and hope, he'll tell you, knows no limits. . . .

But underpinning that popularity is something that transcends mere policy or politics. It is hunger, and that hunger is clearly spiritual. Human beings seem to have a yearning for the transcendent -- hence thousands of years of religion -- but we have lately shied away from traditional approaches and old gods.

Thus, in post-Judeo-Christian America, . . . apparently, Barack Obama is the new messiah.
Kathleen Parker, "The Ecstacy of Barack,", February 22, 2008.

I wouldn't want to leave the impression that all of Obama's young supporters are abandoning ship; nor even that all contributing to the "Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity" blog on Obama's Web site are doing so -- although clearly the overwhelming majority of the 20,000-plus contributors are disappointed with his new-found position on FISA/immunity. After all, as the name of the blog suggests, that was why it was created.

An example from this morning, almost selected at random, illustrates some of the more analytical (as distinguished from emotional) comments in that blog. Here are some excerpts:

Compromise - but not your principles.

By Another from Englewood, CO - Jul 9th, 2008 at 8:05 am EDT

It is unreasonable to expect supporters to understand Senator Obama's new position on giving immunity to telecoms. It is simply not what was advertised. . . .

The biggest disappointment about Senator Obama agreeing to immunity is because it stands for everything he has said he is against. People understand that compromise is needed in government and expect the Senator to seek opportunities to find it - but not at the cost of his principles.

The compromise citizens want is that of finding the middle between two extremes. And while almost everyone agrees that granting retroactive immunity is an extreme, no one sees the two extremes that would make immunity the "middle" or "center". And without that contrasting extremes, how can one honestly call it a compromise. . . .

Many Democrats had hoped that Senator Obama represented a CHANGE from weak leaders that readily accept what amount to Republican threats. . . .

Republicans have threatened that they will not pass a bill unless it includes immunity, so now Senator Obama feels he must . . . accept what he can get. Why is he not instead rallying Democrats to defeat any bill that provides immunity to those telecoms that ignored the law? . . .

And underlying it all is the question of why is it important to Senator Obama to make such a stance? This, in itself is extremely disappointing, as it smells of pandering to the very concepts held by those for which Senator Obama has been selected to defeat. It casts a strong doubt on the understanding that many people had of who he is. It makes it appear that he has abandoned his principles for the political maneuverings of the day - which is exactly the type of leadership he presented himself as a CHANGE from.
There is an honest difference of opinion here among politically sophisticated Democrats and Obama supporters.

(1) On the one hand are those who, with Vince Lombardi, say "winning is the only thing." They are willing to do whatever it takes (though most would like to avoid violating any laws) to save us all from what one member of this group described as "those evil Republicans." Even among this group, there are two views:

(a) That the best way for Democrats to win presidential general elections is to move as far to the right as possible that will still pass the laugh test, thereby making it somewhere between more difficult and impossible for conservative Republicans to charge that our candidate is "too liberal" or "out of the mainstream."

(b) That we've tried this approach and found it wanting -- most recently in 2000 and 2004. Moreover, polls show that voters want a "strong" president, and recent research shows that the most effective way to project "strength" is to project a willingness to stick with one's views regardless of how unpopular. (For example, among even those who oppose the war in Iraq, and the "surge," are some who express some admiration for Senator McCain's willingness to stick with his support of the surge -- in spite of its widespread unpopularity, and the fact that they would never consider voting for him.) Therefore, this group would urge that Senator Obama not change positions, especially not in the wholesale manner that he has this past three weeks or so.
(2) On the other hand, there are Obama supporters who believe that it is the responsibility of the voters -- especially those who are Democrats supporting him -- to participate as active citizens as much, and perhaps more, during the campaign as when he is, hopefully, in the White House. They believe themselves to be the realists, aware that the positions taken by a president, indeed any elected official, are in large measure subject to the pressures of their constituents. As has been said, "When the people will lead, their leaders will follow." When those who put "people over profits" remove themselves from the public dialogue (because "winning is the only thing" and conservative platform planks are most likely to win) they have only themselves to blame when the president they succeed in electing is found to be granting immunity to telecom companies and otherwise doing the bidding of the largest corporations and their lobbyists, using the power of the presidency to perpetuate the very "old politics" from which we believed Obama would deliver us.

This is a debate worth having, and on the resolution of which will clearly turn America's next four years -- not only because of the outcome of the election in November, but because of the actions of the government that will follow during that president's administration.

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