Obama’s in the Eye of the Beholder

Can the junior senator from Illinois be both a stalwart progressive and a post-ideological unifier?

David Moberg

President Obama is set to sign the executive order raising contractors’ wages today. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Every August for 46 years, until she retired two years ago, Duffy Lyon carved the butter cow sculpture that has occupied a place of honor at the Iowa State Fair. But newly inspired, this summer she crafted 17 pounds of butter into the campaign logo of Democratic presidential aspirant Barack Obama, proudly displaying her creation at an Obama forum on rural issues here.

He’s the kind of person who will represent us the best, better than Hillary,” she says. He’s for people who haven’t got things.” Prominent dairy farmer Joe Lyon, like his wife an active 78-year-old independent who Bush turned into an ardent Democrat, adds, We’ve got to have a change in Washington. I think it’s been a calamity – war, giveaways to the well-connected. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it in history. And we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg. I don’t know how long it will take to straighten out.”

Many Democrats – and a surprising swath of Republicans and independents – think that first-term senator Barack Obama represents the best hope (his constant theme) to turn the country in a new direction. Whether attracted by his inspirational speeches, his fresh face, or his early opposition to the war in Iraq, people respond to Obama’s personal story and what they think he represents for America, as much as to the policies he advocates.

But there are two Obamas running for president – or at least two political personas that voters see. One is the politically progressive Obama, leading in the national polls over rivals such as former Sen. John Edwards to be the left alternative to front-runner Hillary Clinton’s centrist, establishment politics. The other is the post-partisan Obama, who will bring people together and transcend the morass of Washington politics that he is running against. 

Both reflect Obama’s political history, but the big question – for both his campaign and his potential presidency – is: How compatible are these two personas? To what extent does striving for post-partisanship conflict with – or complement – progressive political goals?

One Obama, two Obama

Progressives often see Obama’s career as evidence that he is a champion of grassroots democracy, and issues like ethics reform and national health insurance. People have choices to make in life, and choices give you some insight into what they believe and what their values are,” says Henry Bayer, director of AFSCME District Council 31 in Illinois. Here’s a guy who had his pick of what he could do, the world was open to him, and he became a community organizer, then went to law school, did civil rights and voter registration work,” before becoming a reliably liberal state senator. 

That personal history counts with voters. After an Iowa Federation of Labor candidate forum in Waterloo, Amalgamated Transit Workers Union local political director Lon Kammeyer – a bold Live Union, Die Union” tattoo on his massive forearm – praised Obama for his candor about his experiences growing up and for his willingness more recently to campaign against Wal-Mart. I like Barack,” he says. To me, he’s just worked his way up, working with people who didn’t have anything.”

But many admirers – especially young people, people turned off to politics, and less partisan voters spanning the ideological spectrum – do not view Obama as a progressive or even a champion of the downtrodden. They see him as a plain-speaking, uncorrupted, new force for change who wants to solve common problems and unite the country. 

Pat Nelson – a politically independent, middle-aged, elementary school teacher – volunteered to help at an Obama rally held in August on the Cass County Fairgrounds in the small town of Atlantic, Iowa. Not a close follower of politics in past elections, she says she’s paying more attention this time. Whenever I listen to Obama, I get the feeling he’s not a Republican, not a Democrat, but asking what can we do as a group to solve problems, and that intrigues me,” she says. We need to get over what Democrats and Republicans are for and think of what’s important for the country.”

Jim Lynam, 65, and his daughter, Emily, 20, both liked Obama’s stand on the war in Iraq and the environment, but it is his charisma and novelty that excite them. To me, he represents fresh air, change,” Jim says. I would support Hillary if she’s nominated, but I wouldn’t be happy because she brings old ideas. You know what she’s going to say. She’s not inventive. It’s politics as usual. She speaks to please the audience. But he’s not as corrupted by the system as people who’ve been swimming in it for years.”

Even highly partisan, liberal Democrats, like 77-year-old retired union house painter Herbert Abraham and his 53-year-old wife, Nancy, a home care worker, admire Obama’s post-partisanship for a practical reason. Of all the candidates, I can’t think of one that can get crossover votes besides Obama,” Herbert said at the Atlantic rally. He can win, and we want the Democrats to win.” 

Indeed, in an intriguing University of Iowa Poll in early August, Obama received more support from Republican voters – 6.7 percent – than all of the other Republican contenders except for Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. And Obama argues that he can expand the politically viable territory for Democrats more than other candidates by both inspiring Southern blacks to vote and attracting more rural, religious voters.

All together now

In his stump speeches, like the one he gave at the Atlantic fairgrounds, Obama pits the generosity of spirit and decency of the American people” against the corruption of politics, adroitly making himself the vehicle of his listeners’ most noble impulses. Large crowds turn out for his campaign, he says, not because of what he’s doing but because Americans all across the country are desperate for change. They want something new. They want to take this country in a new direction. Part of it is a response to the last six years and the sense that the challenges and difficulties you face here in Atlantic and people are facing all across the country have not been dealt with. We’ve got a lot of petty politics and a lot of negative advertising but when it comes to the challenges of this country, Washington hasn’t done the job.”

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In an engaging and authoritative manner, he ticks off Bush’s policy failures – healthcare, education, energy, global warming, economic inequality, official contempt for the law, corruption, and a war that never should have been authorized.” But he often warns that simply changing parties in power is not enough to change the politics in Washington. 

Our government has to reflect our deepest values, and our deepest values involve not just thinking about ourselves but thinking about other people,” he says. If there are poor people in Cass County, it impoverishes us all. That idea that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, that we’re looking after our seniors, our children, our disabled, the vulnerable – that notion has to be reflected not just in our religious institutions, not just in church. It has to express itself through our government. We’re all in this together. We rise and fall together. We’re not just on our own.”

With almost identical language during the same week in Iowa, Edwards and Clinton talked about shared prosperity” and the need to recognize we’re in this together” instead of thinking that you’re on your own” – political framing terms promoted by the progressive think tank, the Economic Policy Institute.

Bold is better

Yet much as the candidates have converged in rhetoric and some policies, they have staked out differences. Clinton, who hews to an establishment foreign policy view to make herself appear tough, tries to paint Obama’s modest but laudable candor and openness on foreign policy as naive. Obama counters that judgment is more important than experience. Nobody has a longer resume than Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld,” he says, and that hasn’t worked out so well.”

Both Obama and Clinton have talked about bringing all interested parties to the table to create universal health insurance. But Obama, who like Edwards distinguishes himself from Clinton by refusing contributions from political action committees and Washington lobbyists, also says, I don’t mind insurance and drug companies having a seat at the table. I just don’t want them buying all the chairs.” 

And Edwards, in a pointed critique of Obama, Clinton and corporate Democrats,” argues that it’s necessary to take the power away” from entrenched powers,” not invite them to make a deal on health care, energy or other major problems. At a UAW hall in Ottumwa, Iowa, Edwards said, The idea that you can cooperate and negotiate with these people and give them a seat at the table is a fantasy.” Instead, he said he’d announce his health care plans from the White House lawn, then warn Americans how corporations would attack his proposals. We can’t be cute about this,” he said. We’ve got to take these people head on.” 

That criticism strikes at the fault line between the progressive Obama, willing as he often suggests to mobilize popular pressure to bring change, and the post-partisan Obama, intent on bringing everyone together to resolve issues without political conflict.

After years of enduring Bush and the Republican right, most Democrats are not in any bipartisan unity mindset,” says one veteran Iowa political strategist, who is advising another campaign. They need some red meat.” 

Progressive Democrats in particular want a presidential candidate who will take advantage of the recent leftward shift in public opinion. Obama appeals to the party’s left: He edged out Edwards in a straw poll of participants in a June conference organized by Campaign for America’s Future (CAF), a D.C.-based group that mobilizes progressives within Democratic politics, and he and Edwards were virtually tied in an early summer survey of supporters of Democracy for America, a national group that grew out of Howard Dean’s campaign four years ago.

But Robert Borosage, co-director of CAF, says Obama has run a very cautious campaign and chosen to make himself the voice of responsible centrism.” With his timidity on issues such as health care, energy and trade, Borosage says, he’s almost Hillaryesque in his caution on positions he’s taken. You have to take a lot on faith that he’s carrying a progressive banner, but he hasn’t been around long enough to know where he’ll come down. He’s stirred a lot of excitement among young people and people not much engaged in politics, but other progressives have increasing questions about where he is: Is he the new triangulator or one of us?”

William McNary, president of USAction, a national network of statewide progressive citizen groups, personally – but not organizationally – supports Obama as a genuine progressive” who will expand the boundaries of American democracy,” and heal the rupture with the rest of the world Bush caused with the war in Iraq. But even McNary, who has long known and worked with Obama, says, If I had to offer any criticism, he’s a bit cautious for my taste. People have to see someone who is putting forth bold proposals, not weak, timid programs. Bolder can be better.”

In Iowa, where Edwards remains the frontrunner, some polls show Obama gaining strength. State Senator Joe Bolkcom, a lead organizer for the Working Families Win mobilization project of Americans for Democratic Action, sees Obama as inspiring young people much like Howard Dean did four years ago. One of his main messages is the corruption of special interest money in politics and how that distorts what the country needs now,” Bolkcom says. That’s a message that’s strong here, and that was one of Gov. Dean’s messages.” 

And John Norris, the field organizer for Sen. John Kerry’s upset victory in the 2004 Iowa caucus, contends that older, more experienced Democrats are now joining young Obama supporters, and that Obama has more of an opportunity to grow his support than the more established candidates. Is he progressive?” Norris says. In my mind, yes. Ideology is important to me. I don’t know there’s a great deal of distinction among top candidates, though I think Obama is more progressive than Hillary, who’s moved to the right.” But Norris also supports Obama because he has the capacity, insight and approach to re-establish our ties with the world community” and the enormous capacity to excite a new generation about public service.”

He fundamentally understands that we have to change the way we do politics in Washington,” says Norris. I think everyone else is cynical that we can make a fundamental change. I think you have to start with that fundamental belief or you can’t get anything done. He’s lived that as a community organizer, working for change from the democratic roots. If you’re going to change Washington, it has to start in the countryside.”

Can Obama resolve the tension between his post-partisan and progressive personas, and the differing camps of voters they attract? Unless he does, he may not have the opportunity to win the presidency, much less fundamentally change American politics.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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