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

Barack Obama speaks during an 'Evening in the Park with Barak Obama' on July 3, in Fairfield, Iowa.

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 naïve. 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.

David Moberg, a senior edi­tor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the mag­a­zine since it began pub­lish­ing in 1976. 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 has 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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