Special Report

The Obama Myth

Too good to be true is usually just that.

By and 8.12.04

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Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama's speech last month at the Democratic National Convention was not so much a coming out party as a grand orchestration. Since Obama won the primary in March he has received a remarkable amount of national and international attention. From the New York Times' op-ed page to the New Republic's, cover to London's Economist magazine, the "skinny kid" from the south side of Chicago has been showered with praise.

The line on Obama has been as consistent as it has been ubiquitous. He's centrist in both style and substance. He's the next generation of American politician. His mixed race, his qualified praise of markets, and his ability to transcend political labels are evidence of a "third way" (to use Clinton's words). He isn't an African American leader; he's simply an American leader.

Rarely is a mere State Senator, who only four years earlier lost a bid for the U.S. House, been treated as such a national treasure. Wise observers might think this a bit bizarre: a too-good-to-be-true candidate rises from nowhere to heights Icarus himself never reached. Are his wings made of wax? Will they melt in the hot light?

It is no coincidence that most praise of Obama has been based on style and biography; very little attention has been paid to the substance of his beliefs. A mythology is growing around Barack Obama, and as with all myths, the truth is quickly left behind.

The meme of his primary victory has been that he won 53% of the vote in a field of seven candidates, proving that he has appeal beyond the African American community. The truth of Obama's victory, as they say, is more nuanced.

Despite the frenetic energy of his audiences Obama had trouble getting traction in Illinois. During the fall of 2003 Obama was running an unremarkable third place in the Democratic Primary. Even as late as February 17, just weeks before the primary, Obama was a full ten points behind the leader Blair Hull. So what happened? How did Obama take flight? Allegations arose that Hull had abused his wife. What followed was what the Chicago Tribune called "the most inglorious campaign implosion in Illinois political history." When the chaos settled the "skinny kid" from Columbia and Harvard Law was on top. It was no surprise when the Chicago Tribune later reported that the Obama camp had fueled these allegations. Obama's campaign consultant, David Axelrod, was formerly a political editor for the paper.

The inaccuracy of Obama's myth of origin is only matched by the inaccuracy about his stance on the issues. From the beginning Obama has been allied with the wild-eyed wing of the Democratic Party. Early on he was compared to Howard Dean -- a liberal outsider. When the online publication, Black Commentator, published a series of articles criticizing a supposed drift to the center, Obama dutifully penned a letter assuring them that he had not abandoned his progressivism. His repudiation of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council read like someone denying membership in the Communist Party: "…I am not currently, nor have I ever been, a member of the DLC." Obama went so far as to ask the DLC to remove his name from a list of "100 to watch" posted on their website so as not to confuse anyone.

Obama, who has authored universal health care legislation in Illinois, also promised the publication's readership that he would do the same in the U.S. Senate. Even Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton learned that universal health care legislation was a nonstarter. That won't stop Obama, though.

Obama also promised that he would press to re-open NAFTA and demand "at minimum, a significant renegotiation." This is especially interesting because the downstate Illinois farm economy sells about $1.5 billion in products to Canada a year -- not to mention increased trade with Mexico.

Then there is Iraq. Like Dean, he opposed the war calling it a "dumb war" and even opposed the $87 billion reconstruction appropriation. Not until Obama was pegged to give the keynote address did we hear anything about staying the course. Like a good party man, Obama has flopped over to the Kerry camp. Yet, as with Sen. John Kerry, there's no reason to believe that his core principles have altered.

In the area of crime, Obama appears downright pro-criminal. He cast the lone vote against legislation in 2001 that would have eliminated time off for "good behavior" for sexual predators. Obama's backers have tried to explain the vote away by tying it to the principle of uniform sentencing guidelines, but 55 to 1 makes that a tough sell. He has consistently voted against tougher sentences for, among other things, cop killers, and drug dealers.

Because of the media's complete unwillingness to explore Obama's record in the same manner they explored the civil court records of his opponents, the Hyde Park Liberal has gotten a free ride. Democrats tout him as a future President and even Republicans find themselves charmed and envious of the young star. But his wings of wax will not last. In the realm of national politics where merit matters and the press actually vets candidates, we can be confident that a Senator Barack Obama will become the next Paul Wellstone -- a nice, bright guy relegated to the back benches of the liberal fringe. If we're lucky, Illinois voters will wise to this potential fate before they go to the polls in November.

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About the Author

Greg Blankenship is director of the Illinois Policy Institute in Springfield, Illinois.