Obama Watching

Blogger Cobb says: “The latest on Obama is that there is a significant difference between his acceptability as a political candidate for President and his electability.” Cobb is referring to a GQ article entitled Above the Fray by Ryan Lizza that points to a gap between “the percentage of Democrats who said they strongly approved of Obama with the percentage who said they would vote for him. ”

Pollsters are beginning to talk about Obama’s “beer problem.” Survey after survey shows that he appeals to the college-educated, “wine sipping” Democrats but isn’t reaching less educated “beer drinkers.” His aides explain away the polls, insisting that voters with more education are just paying closer attention to the campaign, and so therefore these numbers are actually good news—the more voters tune in, the more they will move to Obama. According to this theory, Hillary’s support among working-class Democrats is just a result of her famous name.

So today is not so much about hope and movement-building as it is about the realities of Iowa politics. Obama’s message up until this point has been purposefully vague. Like a giant fishing net, the plan was to scoop up as many supporters as possible with a widely appealing but general call for reform. After trawling for a while, his pollsters have inspected the haul and are sending Obama back to do some more targeted angling. Today he’s casting for two species: those troublesome downscale Democrats here in Webster City and old people later on in Story City. Both groups are unimpressed with Obama, according to the polls, but are essential to his efforts to close the Gap.

Lizza has been following the Obama campaign for months and you really have to read Lizza’s entire article to get his in depth view of how Obama combines old and new political styles, blends idealism and realism, but this ‘out take’ gives a sense of what is new and exciting in Obama’s approach.

He leans forward and becomes more animated as he speaks. “One of the dangers of movements is that they always want to be completely pure and have everything their way. But politics is about governing and making compromises. And so sometimes folks who come into politics with a movement mentality can be disappointed.” As I listen, I realize I have never witnessed a politician so genuinely trying to fuse idealism and pragmatism. The theme runs through almost everything he says. “But the flip side of it is,” he explains, hinting at what divides him and Hillary, “if it’s all tactics and all politics, and there’s not the idealism, if it’s not touched by that sense of movement, then you actually never bring about change. Then it’s just pure transactions between powerful interests in Washington.”

That is the balance the sixties often lacked and I would say today’s Kossites likewise do not have. Lizza also has a nice analysis of the discrepancy between the inspirational Obama of the 2004 Democratic convention speech that earned him national prominence and the more conventional politician people are now seeing.

One way to describe Obama is that underneath the inspirational leader who wants to change politics—and upon whom desperate Democrats, Independents, and not a few Republicans are projecting their hopes—is an ambitious, prickly, and occasionally ruthless politician. But underneath that guy is another one, an Obama who’s keenly aware that presidential politics is about timing, and that at this extremely low moment in American political life, there is a need for someone—and he firmly believes that someone is him—to lift up the nation in a way no politician has in nearly half a century.

The reference is clear – fifty years ago was the end of the Kennedy era and, until Obama, we have not quickened to the eloquence of the likes of John and Bobby. I lived and worked on the south side of Chicago in 1968 and had occasion to visit two kinds of working class family – black and Catholic. The black families had a picture of JFK and Martin Luther King and the Catholics had a picture of JFK and Pope John XXIII. The hope those three men generated in America is hard to grasp if you did not live through those times. To look back, is to see those days obscured by Vietnam and Watergate.

As I lived though that period each turn of events was a shock – like a blank page in a book never before written. Now I see a cycle that tends to happen whenever hope powerfully takes hold of the collective imagination. Two extreme examples are the French revolution and China’s Cultural revolution. On the other hand, the human race has also shown itself capable of sustainable positive change and I think an important precondition for such lasting progress is the balance Obama indicates. It is worth remembering that the sixties did finally accomplish for American blacks what the overreach of the 1860s could not.

Recently Obama has fallen behind Hilary is the polls and he has made gaffes on foreign policy matters. It may be part of what every new candidate goes through – the moment when the press starts holding them accountable for every slip. He still has time to recover. As an expatriate my main interest in the US election is foreign policy and Obama’s position to the left of Hillary on the war is not going to attract my vote. But as an American wanting to see a new left – a neo left if you will – emerge I am sympathetic to what Obama is trying to do. I think the Clintons along with their friend Tony Blair represent the first wave of the neo left. The first attempt to find a way beyond the predictable ideology of the 20th century left. Obama, I believe, will take it further. In reading the Lizza piece through what I admired him most for was making a concerted attempt to be less ideological.

Obama revels in moments like these, when he has the chance to turn down an easy pander and tell a hard truth. He likes to remind people that he made a speech in Detroit criticizing the auto industry. More recently, he spoke before the National Education Association and endorsed merit pay, which is akin to addressing a sailors’ convention and advocating a ban on swearing. Here in Greenwood, a Mr. White wants to know what Obama is going to do to lower gas prices. “I don’t want to lie to you—there are not that many good short-term solutions,” he says, launching into wonky-professor mode as he discusses refinery capacity and petroleum blends. “But the truth is, the primary problem we’ve got is we consume too much gas,” he adds. “Any politician who comes in and says he’s going to be lowering gas prices right away is just not telling the truth.”

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