E.J. Dionne's column in the Washington Post asked this question about
Barack Obama: "Is he Adlai Stevenson or John F. Kennedy?" In the New Republic online, John Judis
wondered if Obama might be "the next" George McGovern, the 1972
Democratic presidential nominee who lost in a landslide. Both are interesting
questions. But there's a more relevant and important one: Is Obama who he says
This matters because Americans choose an individual, not a party, to fill
the presidency. If voters elected the next president by party preference, the
White House successor to George W. Bush would almost certainly be a Democrat.
But we don't. And in 2008, as political scientist James Ceaser has noted,
"the choice of the person will loom large"--indeed, larger than
Senator Obama, the most exciting presidential candidate in decades and the
likely Democratic nominee, is the main reason. He's running a strikingly personal
campaign that places far less emphasis on ideology or a partisan agenda than on
the man himself, Obama the person. He's running as a new kind of national
leader who rejects "the same old politics" and intends to change the
works and the country is governed.
This self-description is idealistic, lofty, and extravagant. He further
characterizes himself as someone who unites political foes, rejects
partisanship, will end polarization, and is neither a liberal nor an elitist.
If what he says is true, he comes close to being what most Americans say they
seek in a president. But is he telling the truth?
Let's look at Obama's claims for himself without either flyspecking them for
flaws or setting the bar too high. No one should expect a politician to be
brutally candid in talking about himself. That's asking too much. Exaggeration
is acceptable. Dishonesty isn't.
Is it fair for Obama to call himself a uniter who brings people together?
That depends on whether you're talking about his presidential campaign or his
three-plus years in the Senate. An impressive coalition of liberal (John Kerry,
Chris Dodd) and moderate Democrats (Sam Nunn, Oklahoma governor Brad Henry) has come
together to support Obama's candidacy. He's also proved attractive to independents
and to a surprising number of Republicans.
But as a senator--and this surely is a more important test--Obama has been
anything but a uniter. Instead, he's a reliable Democratic vote. He infuriates
Republican senators when he campaigns as a Democrat willing and eager to
compromise with them. It's practically never happened.
The most notable instance of bipartisanship since Obama entered the Senate
was the Gang of 14, seven Republicans and seven Democrats who reached agreement
on judicial nominations. Obama lauded the group but didn't join it. Why not?
Because the senators allowed several conservative nominees to be confirmed.
Obama was a minor player in the bipartisan Senate bill on immigration that
failed last year. But he violated the spirit of the compromise. After authors
agreed to put an item in the bill at Obama's request, he proceeded to vote for
poison pill amendments favored by liberal groups, amendments that, if passed,
would have killed the bipartisan deal.
Despite polarization, the Senate is an opportunity-rich
environment for bipartisan compromise. But Obama has never been a leader in
crossing the aisle. His most famous stab at compromise was a lobbying reform
bill he cosponsored with John McCain. But Obama eventually backed out,
prompting an angry response from McCain.
Ideology? The National Journal rated Obama's voting record the most
liberal in the Senate, but he says he's not a liberal. "Oh, he's liberal,
he's liberal," he said last month, making fun of his critics. "Let me
tell you something. There's nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in
politics. That is common sense. There's nothing liberal about wanting to make
sure [our soldiers] are treated properly when they come home. There's nothing
liberal about wanting to make sure everybody has health care." He didn't
mention his voting record.
Obama uses the phrase "okey-doke" to characterize the
old-fashioned politics he opposes. One of his responses to the liberal charge
is: "Don't let them run that 'okey-doke' on you."
But it's Obama's insistence he's not a liberal that's closer to being an
okey-doke. On every major issue, foreign or domestic, he votes the liberal
line. And he has yet to defy the wishes of a single major liberal pressure
group. He's supposedly waiting for the fall election to do so. Moderates and
conservatives await that moment.
Obama is equally emphatic in denying he's an elitist. To be fair,
"elitism" is a somewhat amorphous charge, based particularly on his
comment at a San Francisco
fundraiser last month that small town Pennsylvanians are "bitter"
about their circumstances and "cling" to issues like guns and
religion as a result. Obama has said he was misunderstood, but he hasn't
repudiated his statement.
He took Hillary Clinton to task for saying, "I'm elitist, out of touch,
condescending. Let me be absolutely clear. It would be pretty hard for me to be
condescending towards people of faith since I'm a person of faith and have done
more than most other campaigns in reaching out specifically to people of faith.
... The same is true with respect to gun owners. ... They have supported me
precisely because I have listened to them and I know them well."
Obama told a gathering of veterans in Washington,
Pennsylvania, he's "amused
at this notion of elitist." He noted he was "raised by a single
mom," was "on food stamps for a while," and "went to school
on scholarship. ... So when somebody makes that argument, particularly given
that I've spent my entire life working with workers, low-income communities, to
try to make people's lives a little better, then that's when you know we're in
political silly season."
He has a point. Growing up and then as a young lawyer, he wasn't an elitist.
But the issue now, for what it's worth, is whether Obama belongs to the
educated, sophisticated upper class of urban America, and reflects the attitudes
of this class. At least in stolen moments, he does.
So is Obama who he says he is? Of course not. He's a liberal, a bit to the
left, and, like most graduates of Harvard Law, a member of America's
meritocratic (but nonetheless elite) upper class. He's seized on a big
idea--bringing Americans together in a rebirth of national unity--to frame his
campaign. Does this make him a phony? I don't think so. But it does make him
something else he insists he's not, a conventional politician with a clever