Saturday, November 8, 2008

Is Obama The Head Of A Movement? A Political Party? A Nation?

Obama: Radical Moderate, Christopher Caldwell, Financial Times, November 7 2008.

“Obama is absolutely brilliant,” the televangelist, Pat Robertson told CNN the day after Tuesday’s election. “He can be one of the great presidents of the United States if he doesn’t get pulled too far off of centre.” Mr Robertson is the living symbol of the alliance between fire-and-brimstone religiosity and the Republican party over the past three decades. When, with no detectable irony, he describes Barack Obama as a potential giant of American statesmanship, it is evident that John McCain’s bid to paint Mr Obama as a dangerous radical failed.

Mr Obama appealed to an unusual breadth of the US electorate in novel ways. Has the public changed its views? Or has Mr Obama simply brought a superb new political product to market? It is the latter. According to exit polls done by Edison Media Research, voter self-identification is virtually unchanged since the last election. Fewer than a quarter (22 per cent) describe themselves as liberal. More than a third (34 per cent) are conservative. The rest (44 per cent) are moderates.

More from this columnist - Dec-03The first order of business for Mr Obama is to figure out why he did so much better among this centre-right electorate than his predecessors did. He won among Catholics, who had begun giving Republican candidates majorities in the early 1990s. His 11-point victory in Pennsylvania was built around wooing moderate Republicans in metropolitan Philadelphia. He won several states in the south because white people liked him better than John Kerry or Al Gore.

But we should not exaggerate. Mr Obama’s appeal is not universal. Only 10 per cent of Democrats voted for Mr McCain and only 9 per cent of Republicans voted for Mr Obama. Mr Obama won this election in the centre and without centrist voters his great mandate will collapse like a house of cards. His position is structurally similar to the one Ronald Reagan faced in 1980. Reagan’s political challenge was to separate sympathisers outside his party (such as trade unionists, who were to be protected and wooed) from irreconcilables (such as public-service unionists, who were to be confronted and, if necessary, destroyed). Reagan built his presidency on Reagan Democrats, not on rural anti-abortion activists. His invocations of Franklin Roosevelt as a model were almost constant.

Mr Obama’s tribute to Abraham Lincoln at his victory speech in Chicago should be understood as a similar invitation: “Let’s remember,” Mr Obama said, “that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican party to the White House, a party founded on the values of self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity.”

Mr Obama’s appointment of Rahm Emanuel, a long-time aide to Bill Clinton, to be his White House chief of staff is a savvy choice that will tick a lot of people off. Mr Emanuel will be not only a force multiplier for a Democratic majority that has grown by 19 seats, but also – and more importantly – a brake on that majority. Republicans dislike him because they associate him with the Clinton White House and his sharp-elbowed leadership of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Democratic purists distrust him because he is a “New Democrat” in the Bill Clinton mould. Here, too, there is a Reagan parallel. The moment when it became clear that Reagan would leave his own ultras out in the cold was when he chose as chief of staff James Baker III, a member of the inner circle of his top primary rival, George H.W. Bush. The Baker choice was a sign that Reagan would govern mostly as the head of a nation, partly as the head of a party and only occasionally as the head of a movement.

There is not any “movement” on the left to match in intellectual seriousness the conservative one that brought Reagan to power. But there is a lot of pent-up desire for programmatic change in the hardline or utopian part of Mr Obama’s base. Their issues hardly came up in the election, although there is a desire to pretend that they did. When Mr McCain tried to tar Mr Obama as “Barack the Redistributor”, the Obama camp (correctly) described these as desperation tactics US voters would ignore. But those same attacks are now being reframed as a serious policy discussion. “Obama,” writes columnist Paul Krugman, “proudly stood up for progressive values and the superiority of progressive policies”.

Well, sometimes he did but more often he did not. While he opposed a California referendum to block gay marriage, which was passed partly on the strength of black voters that Mr Obama himself had brought to the polls, he also opposed gay marriage itself. He remembered, perhaps, that Mr Kerry would have been elected president in 2004 were it not for his party’s (and his state’s) association with the issue. Nor did Mr Obama stress gun control and abortion the way Democrats used to.

You could see what was best and most effective about Mr Obama’s approach in his primary debates against Hillary Clinton, particularly when they touched on healthcare. Mrs Clinton wanted to rethink the system from the ground up and even boasted of this as a virtue in every debate. She tried to hammer Mr Obama on the grounds that his own plan was not “universal”. Each time she used that word she lost swing voters. Mr Obama proposed retaining the many parts of the US system that are the best in the world. His most effective general-election advertisements were simple ones that promised voters in Virginia, Ohio and elsewhere that if they liked their employer-provided healthcare, they could keep it. Americans understand Mr Obama’s legislative inclinations have been on the left. But the Senate is not the presidency. The presidency is more about temperament than ideology and, in temperament, Mr Obama is a moderate. This may be the most novel thing about him.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

Text Source: Financial Times

Image Source: Mr. Fish

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