Paradoxically, Andrew Sullivan’s profile of Barack Obama in the December issue of The Atlantic manages to be simultaneously hagiographic and not all that flattering. Sure, on one hand, according to Sullivan, the self-appointed Mayor of Purple America, currently moonlighting as a senator and presidential candidate, is the lone man on the horizon prepared to save us from a “nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most.” On the other, not only is the “logic behind the candidacy of Barack Obama…not, in the end, about Barack Obama,” but, further, “it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly — and uncomfortably — at you.”
It’s a strange mix. In the end, Sullivan’s case for “Why Obama Matters” — not likely a question a presidential candidate is happy to still hear bandied about seven weeks before the Iowa caucuses — seems to revolve around his age, his race and his inability to generate any excitement for his policy proposals. Hence, the following passage:
Earlier this fall, I attended an Obama speech in Washington on Tax policy that underwhelmed on delivery; his address was wooden, stilted, even tedious. It was only after I left the hotel that it occurred to me that I’d just been bored on tax policy by a national black leader. That I should have been struck by this was born in my own racial stereotypes, of course. But it won me over.
Some have yet to be won over. Many of this number, unfortunately for Obama, are Democratic primary voters. Others of us who have not taken Sullivan’s “several large steps back into the long past” are uncomfortable, anyway. Uncomfortable with a man who feels he can lecture us on the “politics” and “audacity” of hope, as if he’d trademarked the term. Uncomfortable that a left-wing hyper-partisan can simply say he is above it all and the establishment media repeats the claim as if it were gospel, a trick it would have been fun to watch, say, Pat Buchanan try in 1992. Primarily, though, I am uncomfortable because so many serious people buy into this shtick.
“He is among the first Democrats in a generation not to be afraid or ashamed of what they actually believe,” Sullivan writes, the esteemed journalist’s skepticism bound and gagged in the corner. Unsurprisingly, Obama agrees with this assessment. During a recent New York Times interview, Obama, after taking several veiled and not-so-veiled whacks at Hillary for being less than forthright with voters, said, “I don’t want to get in the habit of stretching the truth during a political campaign because then, I think, you get in the habit of stretching the truth when you’re running the country.”
Nevertheless, the truth has been stretched and Obama is coasting along on a reputation as a post-partisan truth-teller without much tangible proof, basking in the positive media glow even as he violates the standards he must hold Hillary accountable to for the sake of own political career.
LET’S LEAVE ASIDE ANY CRITICISM of Senator Obama’s plan, as laid out during an appearance this past Sunday on Meet the Press, for reaching out to the evangelical community (“We’ve got to be able to get beyond our comfort zones and just talk to people we don’t like”), the charm of, I’m reaching out to you, despite the fact that I don’t like you. Can I get an, ‘Amen!’? remaining unclear. To be especially magnanimous, let’s even allow Obama’s haughty retort when Russert pointed out the discrepancy between his anti-lobbyist rhetoric and the big dollars he’s accepted from lobbyists (“Well, Tim, look, I have said repeatedly that money is the original sin in politics and I am not sinless”) to slide.
Instead, let’s turn to the issue Obama has staked his claim to president-worthy judgment on: His opposition to the Iraq War. Russert pointed out that in July 2004 Obama had said of the vote to authorize the Iraq war, “What would I have done? I don’t know,” and, further, “There’s not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage.”
“Now, Tim, that first quote was made in an interview with a guy named Tim Russert on Meet the Press during the convention when we had a nominee for the presidency and a vice president, both of whom had voted for the war,” Obama bristled. “And so it, it probably was the wrong time for me to be making a strong case against our party’s nominees’ decisions when it came to Iraq.”
To openly admit on national television to not simply hiding but out-and-out sacrificing one’s convictions on behalf of John Kerry and John Edwards is no small thing. Perhaps Obama believed the end of electing John Kerry would justify the means of adopting the mantle of George W. Bush’s Iraq War policy for a few days in July 2004. (This seemed to be his tack on gay rights issues during a Howard University debate back in August as well.) Among Democrats such as excuse might be plausible, perhaps even defensible, if they could even be bothered to ask the question. Alas, the senator’s oscillation did not end with the defeat of John Kerry.
As Marc Ambinder reports in, “Teacher and Apprentice,” a feature detailing the rift between Hillary and Obama in the same issue of The Atlantic as Sullivan’s cover story, Obama’s reticence to embrace his own “no dumb wars” policy from 2003 continued on, literally, for years.
“We wanted to be mindful of our place,” Robert Gibbs, [Obama’s] spokesman, told me. Even on the issue of Iraq, which dominated 2005, Obama, an opponent of the invasion from the beginning, passed up the chance to speak out. “He could have been the moral voice, the moral authority on Iraq,” one of Obama’s closest advisors told me. “But he was just a freshman senator. It would have been presumptuous of him to take the lead.”
So, to recap: Obama’s speech opposing the Iraq War when he was a state senator in Illinois is to be taken as an act of moral courage and extraordinary foresight, yet to expect him to have followed through on his convictions during his early years in the U.S. Senate, when he actually had the power to affect the national debate and the direction of the war itself, would be “presumptuous.” Obama calls the war in Iraq a “tragic” mistake at every possible opportunity. Is showing deference to an ongoing tragedy audaciously hopeful or cynically pragmatic? It doesn’t take a Clinton opposition research operative to recognize Obama’s (presumably not presumptuous) re-adoption of outspoken anti-war rhetoric roughly corresponded to the rise of public dissatisfaction with the war.
Worse was a tedious, meandering discussion as to what would and would not be on the table when President Obama saves Social Security. It’s a typical Obama campaign moment: First, he accuses Hillary Clinton, in the abstract, of being obtuse (“You don’t present tough choices directly to the American people for fear that your answers might not be popular, you might make yourself a target for Republicans in the general election”) — I’m assuming when he says “you” here, it is not referring to either myself, Tim Russert or, well, you — proceeds to tout himself as a straight-talking savior (“It’s not sufficient for us to just finesse the issue because we’re worried that, well, we might be attacked for the various options we present”), and then, finally, finesses the issue presumably because he’s worried he’ll be attacked for the various options he presents. What is Obama’s plan? It’s to “convene a meeting” during which “we” — who? — will “discuss all of the options that are available.”
Obama hasn’t presented the “tough choices” yet. He hasn’t even presented any concrete bold options, although he assures us he has “strong opinions.” He just promises one day he will present tough choices and options. And this is different from what Hillary is saying how?
IT’S A PROBLEM THAT stretches beyond the issues. When Russert asked Obama about his wife’s recent statement that, “If Barack doesn’t win Iowa, it’s just a dream,” Obama laughed, and then, while acknowledging he does have to do well, he cautions against taking any early primary state proclamation too seriously: “Keep in mind when Michelle goes to New Hampshire or South Carolina, I think she says — you know, she probably says the same thing there.”
Certainly a candidate’s path to the nomination is much easier if they are able to win all states, but this does have a telling-the-people-whatever-they-want-to-hear flavor to it. Maybe we’re all equally important. Or maybe some people need to think they’re more important for a little while to allow Obama the opportunity to save the country. Maybe when a war is unpopular, we’ll be against it. Maybe when it’s popular, we wouldn’t want to be presumptuous. What other presumptions is Obama hiding from us now?
IN THE FINAL LINES OF THE prologue to The Audacity of Hope, Obama writes of an encounter on Capitol Hill with a friendly reporter who mentions she read Obama’s first book and then muses, “I wonder if you can be that interesting in the next one you write.”
“By which she meant, I wonder if you can be honest now that you are a U.S. Senator,” Obama explains, adding, “I wonder, too, sometimes.”
Finally, a question the Obama campaign has actually given us a straight, coherent answer to.
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