Saturday, March 8, 2008

Here's the Beef, Part I

The meat behind Obama's rhetoric is out there, those who assume it's not aren't even going to see it on the menu. This series will highlight Obama's experience, pragmatism, and ability to make change happen.

The following is an excerpt from an article by Nicholas Von Hoffman, published in The Nation:

"I am running for President because I believe that to actually make change happen--to make this time different than all the rest--we need a leader who can finally move beyond the divisive politics of Washington and bring Democrats, Independents, and Republicans together to get things done. That's how we'll win this election, and that's how we'll change this country when I am President of the United States."
--Barack Obama

He might have said "if" instead of "when" he is elected. In any case, more than one man has won the presidency promising less than Obama and failed to make good on what he said.

Hillary Clinton, though she got no nods of approval for it, scoffed at Obama's assertions that, once elected, Washington would not be the same. She is not the only old political hand to grimace at the idea that the skies will part and a beam from heaven will descend to touch people with a unifying grace with Obama installed in the Oval Office.

Those not wholly under his spell wonder if political transformation will occur. Ronald Reagan, the highest impact politician in the past half century, accomplished many things but did not achieve any profound change in how politics is done. Politics are played today just as they were in Reagan's time.

Politicians, journalists and even admiring skeptics listen to Obama, thrill to the grand phrases, so powerfully delivered, but, after the oratory, whisper that there is no meat on those bones. They wonder if these emotions, born of the urgent hopes Obama raises, hide a lack of substance. His opponents call Obama a rock star and say that the spaghetti-thin senator from Illinois is running a cult, not a political movement.

Nonetheless, Obama has a signal accomplishment to his credit, a substantial one, which may change the shape of politics. If elected he will be the first to enter the office without financial backing from the major business, industrial or professional groups with their PACs, their contribution bundlers and lobbyists. That first day, which Hillary Clinton has made famous, will find Obama not owing a thing to the big money pressure groups. You would have to go back a century and a half to name an incoming president with so few debts to repay.

Obama's base of a million or more individual contributors has made him a free man, politically speaking. If his accomplishment is not a one-off feat--if it is something that others can replicate--then he will, with a bow to Howard Dean, have changed the financial basis of presidential politics in the United States. That alone ought to put Obama in the history books, assuming that what he has done establishes a pattern and is not a unique feat, never to be repeated.

Entering the White House free of the usual obligations is not enough to enable President Obama to carry out the changes he hints at in his campaign. Having no favors to repay gets him started but the groups he did not have solicit for money will still have the power to checkmate him in Congress through their campaign contributions, mailings and advertising. Obama could end up a politically isolated President who will not be able "to turn the page," as he often puts it.

His page-turning has to do with an approach foreign to conventional politicians. Obama's speeches are peppered with references to governing from the bottom up, as contrasted to Hillary Clinton, who would govern from the top down. More than health plans or NAFTA or who was against the war first, it is this difference in thinking that most divides the two figures.

The difference is exemplified in Clinton's saying "...Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get [it] through Congress.... The power of that dream became real in people's lives because we had a president who said, 'We are going to do it,' and actually got it accomplished."

She was unjustly attacked for dissing King. Nevertheless, with those words Clinton showed how top-down people think. They believe that President Johnson got the law passed, although a bottom-up person would tell her that it was the people, tens of thousands of them, marching, protesting and being beaten over the head, who generated the political pressure which forced the act through Congress. If the credit goes to anyone, it goes to the people whom Martin Luther King Jr., led across the bridge in Selma, Alabama.

In speech after speech Obama tells his audience that he became a bottom-up thinker thanks to his days as a community organizer. He seldom fails to explain how he was formed by his experience. Hence his references to governing from the bottom up are more than sloganeering. They come, as he repeatedly says, from his days walking the streets of Chicago's South Side, organizing people.

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