Less than meets the eye

January 11, 2008

What does Barack Obama stand for when you look beyond the rhetoric?

MILLIONS OF people are rightly inspired by the prospect of electing an African American president in a country founded on slavery.

Sen. Barack Obama's big success in the Iowa caucuses and his elevation to co-frontrunner status in the Democratic primaries appears to be based on channeling the hopes of millions who are tired of the Washington political establishment that Sen. Hillary Clinton personifies.

Obama's profile as a candidate of "change" who wants to transcend the partisan battles of the past appears to be attracting support from large numbers of people, including young people, who had not been involved in politics before. In this sense, Obama's early success is good news for those who want a break with the stale right-wing orthodoxy that has dominated mainstream politics for a generation.

But when you look beyond his inspirational rhetoric, what does Obama actually stand for? And what would his ideal of a post-partisan government look like?

In many ways, Obama remains what Ezra Klein, writing in the American Prospect early last year, described him--"a cipher, an easy repository for the hopes and dreams of liberals everywhere."

Though Clinton was able to come back five days later with a victory in New Hampshire, the Iowa results at least showed that Obama isn't the 2008 version of Howard Dean--the challenger to the party establishment whose success in motivating some activists and collecting millions in Internet contributions came to nothing in the 2004 primaries.

There are many reasons why Obama isn't Dean, but one is surely that Obama has a much deeper line into the existing party establishment than Dean did.

We know this because Obama matched Clinton's war chest by tapping the same corporate and wealthy sources of money Clinton does. Obama's finance chair is Penny Pritzker--an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune and major Democratic donor--is an experienced fundraiser.

Obama has collected more donations from "individuals" than Clinton has, but many of these "individuals" are the same type as Clinton's: corporate management people who "bundle" their contributions with others from their firms.

In fact, according to Federal Election Commission data tabulated by the Center for Responsive Politics, Clinton and Obama run first and second among Democrats and Republicans in contributions from the following industries: commercial banks, computers/Internet, education, health professionals, pharmaceuticals, and television and film.

Clinton and Obama were nearly tied in contributions received from hedge funds and private equity firms (both come in behind former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani). Save for about a $1,000 advantage to Giuliani, Obama would have ranked second to Clinton in funds from the securities industry.

It appears that a segment of the people to whom the Democratic Party really responds believe that Obama is best situated to win in November. It may even be that "Clinton fatigue" has set in among this group. It certainly isn't because Obama's politics or policies represent anything sharply different from Clinton's.

IF YOU compare Obama's and Clinton's positions on most issues, point for point, they hardly differ. As the campaign wore on through 2007, even their positions on the Iraq war--still Obama's strongest trump card against her--appeared to converge.

So with little of substance separating them, Obama gained support on other, gauzier themes: youth, "change" and some vague notion that he can bring people together across the political spectrum.

Because the Clintons have dominated the Democratic establishment for almost two decades, it's easy to forget that Bill Clinton also positioned himself and Al Gore in 1992 as "new voices for a new generation"--the Baby Boomers who would displace the Second World War generation, as embodied by WWII veteran George H.W. Bush.

Obama often criticizes Clinton's relentless "triangulation"--unprincipled maneuvering to some "center" against both conservatives and liberals. Yet Obama's talk about being able to strike bipartisan deals in Washington sounds suspiciously like the Great Triangulator himself, Bill Clinton, when he ran for president in 1992.

"When we put aside partisanship, embrace the best ideas, regardless of where they come from, and work for principled compromise, we can move America not left or right, but forward"--that may sound like a line from Obama's current stump speech, but it was actually from a Clinton speech in 1992.

One might even go so far as to characterize Obama's 2008 stance as "Clintonism without Clinton."

This is one reason why Hillary Clinton, having lost the aura of "inevitability" that seemed to surround her nomination, may still struggle to win the argument against Obama, even with her victory in New Hampshire.

As the liberal journalist Joe Conason pointed out in Salon after the Democratic debate in New Hampshire, when it seemed like Obama would ride the momentum from Iowa to another victory in New Hampshire: "Clinton was unable to exploit the mistakes committed by Obama. His sly gestures toward the right and the Republicans, his inadequate health care proposal and his Social Security gaffes [i.e., endorsing the privatizers' view that Social Security faces a "crisis"] offered her the chance to flank him on the left, where he was strongest and she was weakest, owing to her Iraq war vote.

"She scored in the debate over health care, but retreated when he attacked her plan's mandated coverage (as if his own plan didn't include a mandate to insure children)."

Conason attributed Clinton's failure to exploit Obama's weaknesses to being "weighed down by her advisors and her own habitual style." But another equally plausible explanation is that Obama's rightward moves don't strike Clinton as all that remarkable--since they reinforced policy stances close to her own.

Those who are counting on Obama's promises to "reach across the aisle" to get things done might take a look at Obama's record on health care reform in the Illinois General Assembly.

According to a September 2007 report in the Boston Globe, Obama's role in passing 2004 legislation committing the state of Illinois to the goal of universal health care amounted to helping water down the bill on behalf of health insurance companies. One leading health care activist told the Globe, "In this situation, Obama was being a conduit from the insurance industry to us."

If this is what post-partisanship and compromise really mean to Obama, the millions who invested their hopes in him will be disappointed. But the smaller group who invested their millions in him may be very satisfied indeed.

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