In the wake of his announcement that he would seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency, Sen. Barack Obama looked like a candidate who could transform U.S. politics.
At rallies in Oakland, Calif., and Austin, Texas, Obama drew tens of thousands who treated him like a rock star. And when his early 2007 fundraising totals showed him outraising Democratic frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton and drawing on tens of thousands of donors, it appeared that Obama had the potential to upend the presidential race. Polls even suggested he was challenging Clinton for the top spot.
Yet months after those heady days, the Democratic nomination race has settled into a familiar and seemingly static pattern. Clinton has established a steady lead in the polls of Democratic voters. Obama remains 15 to 20 points behind. Clinton has broadened her appeal in the Democratic electorate while Obama’s support appears most concentrated in the younger, more middle-class segment of the Democratic electorate.
At this (admittedly early) stage of the Democratic primary race, it’s looking like Obama will be classed with Howard Dean and Bill Bradley as runners-up to the Democratic establishment candidate.
What happened? No doubt one of the reasons is that Clinton’s A-team of campaign advisers has managed to draw Obama into dust-ups that have raised questions among Democratic voters about whether Obama is ready to be president.
Even though Obama’s statement pledging dialog with leaders of Iran and Venezuela was entirely sensible, the Clinton team, with the help of a pliant media, turned it into an illustration of Obama’s “naiveté”–hitting on the underlying theme that Obama is too inexperienced to be trusted with the presidency.
All of this was predictable from Clinton, but Obama’s response compounded his problems. Only a few days after the flap with Clinton, Obama boldly proclaimed that he wouldn’t hesitate to invade Pakistan if he had “actionable intelligence” that would lead to the capture of al-Qaeda leaders.
This was another gift to Clinton. On the one hand, it gave her team the opening to chastise him for recklessness. On the other hand, it dismayed the audience–antiwar voters–that Obama has tried to cultivate.
Lest we get too wound up in the machinations of the campaigns, we should ask why Obama–the self-proclaimed candidate of “change”–felt compelled to reaffirm his credentials on fighting the “war on terror” in the rhetoric of a neoconservative.
Those watching closely will also note that Obama’s views about the war in Iraq–his opposition to which being his single-best argument for trusting him over Clinton, who voted to authorize it–have also become fuzzier as he campaigns to be “commander in chief.”
Case in point: Obama’s questioning of Gen. David Petreaus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee dog-and-pony show in early September.
Instead of using his time to make a sharp case for ending the Iraq disaster, Obama, wrote the Chicago Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet, “used about six minutes of his time to lecture Petraeus and Crocker that the surge is of modest success given the cost and the Iraq central government is ineffectual–points he has been making in speeches and debates. As Obama was wrapping up, he said, ‘That, of course, now leaves me very little time to ask questions, and that’s unfortunate.’”
Then, in a heavily promoted speech this month announcing a new direction in Iraq, he pledged to have all combat brigades out of Iraq by the end of 2008. But this was hardly a bold stroke, since he had earlier proposed legislation that would have had combat brigades out of Iraq by March 31, 2008.
As the Nation magazine’s David Corn summarized: “This week, there was little in Obama’s speech that would not–or could not–appear in a Clinton speech (though Obama’s advisers might argue otherwise). Until Obama delivers a speech that Clinton cannot deliver–on Iraq or any other major topic–he will have a tough time portraying himself as a necessary alternative to the leader of the pack.”
This isn’t merely the fault of advisers who are urging a more cautious course versus a candidate who wants to be a maverick–because Obama is no maverick.
Obama’s moves on the war are very much in line with his stated views on foreign policy, as developed in the July/August, 2007 Foreign Affairs. The Foreign Affairs article places him squarely in the center of the Clintonite liberal interventionist Democratic foreign policy developed in the 1990s.
In other words, despite his attempt to position himself as a new voice, he remains what he always was–a pretty conventional, even cautious, politician.
That’s obvious when you consider who Obama’s advisers and financial supporters are.
They are high-priced political consultants connected to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and major corporations like Goldman Sachs, Exelon (the leading operator of nuclear power plants), J.P. Morgan Chase, Henry Crown and Co., among others. His campaign finance chair is Penny Pritzker, a member of the billionaire family that owns the Hyatt Hotel chain, whom Forbes magazine named number 89 on the “most powerful women in America” list in 2005.
According to Sweet, “While Obama talks about transforming politics and touts the donations of ‘ordinary’ people to his campaign, a network of more than 100 elite Democratic ‘bundlers’ is raising millions of dollars for his White House bid. The Obama campaign prefers the emphasis be on the army of small donors who are giving–and raising–money for Obama. In truth, though, there are two parallel narratives–and the other is that Obama is also heavily reliant on wealthy and well-connected Democrats.”
It’s Obama’s close connection to these mainstream, pro-business forces that explains his support for the Bush administration’s “reform” of civil lawsuits (which even Clinton opposed) and his weak, “pro-market” health care reform plan.
Many Obama supporters wonder why he hasn’t asserted bolder leadership on any number of issues. While it’s easy to blame cautious advisers for playing it safe, it’s more often the case that candidates can’t be something that they’re not.
If Obama hasn’t capitalized on the real feeling among voters for a truly new direction and for “authenticity,” it’s because he really isn’t a visionary or a leader–or at the least, he’s not willing to challenge the mainstream conventions of U.S. politics.
If he won’t challenge these conventions, he won’t give the majority of Democratic primary voters a reason to vote for him over of the tried-and-true Clinton. And that may be the ultimate explanation for why Obama’s star seems to be floating back to earth.