Off Message

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APRIL 9, 2007

Off Message

There comes a point in the life of every fan when he must confront the mounting evidence that he and the rest of the world part company on the object of his fan-dom--and the rest of the world may have a point. I have in mind here such historic milestones as year four of the disastrous Bobby Bonilla experiment in New York, the year I fell out of love with the Mets. On paper, the Mets of early '90s vintage looked like world-beaters. Somewhere in the middle of their third consecutive losing season, however, it became clear that this team was never going to put it together. I hung on long after that--'til the day Bonilla was traded two years later.

Barack Obama is, thankfully, a long way from the Bonilla-era Mets. He is, for one thing, just entering his prime, not at the tail end of it like the Mets's aging stars. And, so far as I know, he has never been tempted to throw a firecracker into a crowd of people. (That would be Mets outfielder Vince Coleman.) And, yet, were it not for the $25 million he raised in the first quarter of this year--an enormous qualifier, to be sure--this might be the point at which the less steadfast among us begin to ask themselves a painful, if necessary, question: What's the flaw in this man's game?

 

Over the last month, Obama has earned only tepid receptions at a Democratic health care forum in Las Vegas and at two high-profile union events in Washington, D.C. The gap between his rock-star reputation and his low-key stump presence has prompted The New York Times's Adam Nagourney to proclaim that Obama-the-presidential-candidate "might startle those who knew him only from the [2004 Democratic National Convention keynote] speech that made him famous." Journalists covering Obama now routinely pepper their accounts with quotes from disappointed audience-members, like, "He left me kind of flat" (a California AFL-CIO delegate) and "a little too solemn and sober" (fire fighter's union president Harold Schaitberger).

Stylistic failings aside, the standard explanation for why Obama isn't exciting audiences is that he's too stingy with details. This creates the impression that he lacks the policy chops to be president. The problem is particularly evident alongside the preternatural wonkiness of a Hillary Clinton and the practiced incantations of a John Edwards. Clinton, as my colleague Bradford Plumer reported last month, can effortlessly touch such labor erogenous zones as "prevailing-wage laws" and deliberate worker misclassifications. Edwards has a knack for spinning riveting yarns that highlight the need for long-overdue reforms like universal health care or card-check legislation. By contrast, Obama talks "more often than not in broad, general strokes," according to Nagourney.

Of course, as Obama has pointed out in his own defense, his campaign is a mere two months old. In an ideal world, a candidate would have a binder full of intricate policy proposals before entering a race--collated, color-tabbed, and ready to go. But then, in an ideal world, the Democratic front-runner wouldn't have unfavorable ratings in excess of 40 percent. We knew Obama was going to be green just like we knew Hillary was going to be a tough sell among large chunks of voters. The bargain was that Obama's raw intellect and innate political skills would get him up to speed before long. This may not turn out to be the case, but it's much too early to conclude as much.

If there's a serious concern at this point, it's not that the fixable things aren't being fixed. It's that Obama is becoming a prisoner to broader strategic decisions that, once made, are harder to adjust. At the top of the list is the campaign's emphasis on process reform--the promise to create a less corrosive, less corrupt, more meaningful brand of politics. As it happens, it's not a message that's obviously suited to the political zeitgeist.

What's unique about this moment is the extent to which Democrats are united by their outrage at George W. Bush and the Republican Party. They think the president's rare combination of bull-headedness, cynicism, and staggering incompetence has done historic damage. The problem with Obama's reformist message is that it prevents him from singling out Bush and the GOP in a way that's very satisfying. In his speech to the fire fighters, for example, Obama only assigned blame elliptically. "It's a noble calling, what you do. ... But sometimes Washington forgets," he said. "Instead of making your job easier ... they try to cut funding so you couldn't buy masks and the suits that you needed." Later, he concluded: "What keeps Washington from doing all that it needs to do to better protect our fire fighters ... [is] the smallness of our politics."

But it's not Washington that has tried to cut funding for first-responders and won't give them the equipment they need. It's Bush's GOP. It's not the smallness of our politics that's holding these things up. It's the smallness of their politics. Pretty much every Democrat in Congress, given the chance to fix these indignities, would do it in an instant.

Obama is understandably reluctant to admit this. If any Democrat will do, it's not clear why he should be that Democrat. He has, after all, been involved in national politics for fewer than three years. So he ends up fighting a two-front war: simultaneously making the case against Bush and against Democratic insiders like Clinton. But, by lumping Democrats in with Bush, Obama creates an odd dissonance, seeming to deny the one feature of contemporary politics his audiences know to be true: that Bush, far more than Democrats, bears responsibility for their grievances.

 

Ultimately, I don't think Obama gives himself enough credit. What I found so compelling about his message in 2004 was that it offered one of the more common-sense critiques of Bush-style conservatism (and defenses of liberalism) I'd ever heard. It began with the premise that the American people had exceedingly modest expectations from government: They just wanted to know that they'd get paid a living wage if they worked hard, that they wouldn't go bankrupt if they got sick, that their kids could get a decent education, and that they'd be able to retire with dignity. "That's it. That's not a lot," Obama would conclude. "And when you tell [Americans] that we could be delivering those things with just a slight change in priorities, if we stop just cutting taxes for the wealthy ... then people respond. They want to hear the truth. And they'll even hear it from somebody whose name they don't recognize."

Obama doesn't need to sell voters on a new brand of politics. And he doesn't need to take veiled shots at the rest of the Democratic Party. (The contrast with them should be obvious enough from his biography.) He just needs to articulate the critique that he, more than anyone else, is capable of articulating, at least if one can judge from 2004. The rest will take care of itself.

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