Saturday, February 02, 2008

Will the Real Barack Obama Please Stand Up

I thought I had Barack Obama figured out. I thought he was no more liberal than Hillary Clinton but far more likely to bridge the divides in this nation. But, if that’s what I am seeing, why are America’s leftists seeing something entirely different? A day after Obama gets the arch-liberal seal of approval, there’s this Christopher Hayes piece in The Nation, encouraging the left to rally behind Obama.

What struck me hardest was the way Hayes tries to write-off Obama’s conciliatory tone in the exact same way I and other independents have tried to justify Obama’s liberal record.

But he places more rhetorical emphasis on a politics of "unity" that, read uncharitably, seems to fetishize bipartisanship as an end in itself and reinforce lame and deceptive myths that the parties are equally responsible for the "bickering" and "divisiveness" in Washington. It appears sometimes that his diagnosis of what's wrong with politics is the way it is conducted rather than for whom.

In its totality, though, Obama's rhetoric tells a story of politics that is distinct from both the one told by Beltway devotees of bipartisanship and comity and from the progressive activists' story of a ceaseless battle between the forces of progress and those of reaction. If it differs from what I like to hear, it is also unfailingly targeted at building the coalition that is the raison d'être of Obama's candidacy.

In Obama, Hayes sees the progressives’ Reagan, a man so rhetorically gifted that he can bring along lots of people who would otherwise never agree with the agenda. Hayes believes Obama’s persuasion is honest (remember, progressives think the rest of us just need to be educated and we’ll all renounce our capitalist, imperialist, cultural chauvinist ways), but there’s a fine line between changing minds and tricking voters.

So who is Barack Obama? Is he a man who will bring us all to the table and, in effect, temper the worst urges of the left and right OR is he a man who will promote a leftist agenda while patting the rest of us on the heads and saying he really does care what we think? We can only guess. And that’s incredibly frustrating.

For now, I give up trying to decipher this man. I still think he’s a better choice for Democrats than Hillary Clinton, if only because she represents so much that is wrong with modern politics. But there’s little chance I’ll vote in the Democratic primary when it gets here in March. If Obama pulls off the improbable upset, we’ll have the much brighter lights of the general election to shine on him. Then, maybe we can base our judgments on who he actually is rather than who we hope (or fear) he is.

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Blogger Michael Reynolds said...

In the general he'll take a right turn. If it ends up being McCain v. Obama I suspect we're looking at a game played inside the 40 yard lines -- if I may indulge a sports metaphor.

In any event the liberal label has been distorted to the point of meaninglessness. I'm still waiting for someone to show me an Obama position that isn't within easy reach of the center. Universal health care polls pretty well. So does raising taxes on the rich.

9:57 AM  

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