Barack Obama: A Campaign of Big Ideas and Better Judgment
by Max Fletcher, Wed Aug 22, 2007 at 01:20:05 PM EDT
I am an Obama supporter--unaffiliated with the campaign--offered the opportunity to blog about the campaign on the front page each Wednesday.
Unless you are one to eschew the campaign coverage offered by the traditional media, you have likely noticed in the past few weeks that coverage of the Democratic Primary has largely revolved around the actions and words of one candidate: Barack Obama.
After outlining policies challenging the conventional wisdom surrounding diplomacy with dictators, ruling out the use of nuclear weapons, and where to fight the war on terror, he was attacked by Hillary Clinton as "naive and irresponsible." The other Democratic candidates, sensing blood and opportunity, joined in the attack. Combined with similar--if perhaps more predictable--attacks from the right-wing media and Republican candidates, a narrative began to form in the traditional media's campaign reporting: Obama had committed gaffes that exposed his inexperience as a candidate, calling into question whether he was prepared to become President. As a result, Clinton has received a bump in her polling numbers. However, polling aside, there is reason for Obama supporters to view these developments in a positive light.
When Obama refused to back down from his positions, he forced the traditional media to scrutinize them beyond the previous terms of typical horserace political journalism, and a new narrative began to develop (albeit still largely within the confines of the horserace perspective). While David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer frowned on Obama's willingness to meet with leaders of problem countries and his categorical statement that he would not use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan or Pakistan, as he continued to stand up for himself in the face of criticism, he was rewarded by being cast as the candidate of "change" in the primary contest with Hillary Clinton, who was now said to represent "experience." In doing so, he successfully shed the label of naivety and inexperience on foreign policy. David Yepsen confirms the success of this maneuver in his evaluation of Sunday's debate in Des Moines:
After a string of strong debate performances so far in the campaign, Clinton seemed a little off her game at ABC-TVs gathering this morning...
But the Sunday sunrise nature of the event didn't stop some of the others from having strong performances. Obama may be the biggest winner.
He was in the cross hairs for much of the early part of the session and he stood up well to the scrutiny over his foreign policy positions and questions of whether he¹s qualified to be president...
He came off as knowledgeable and temperate. He looked presidential and unlike some of his earlier, halting debate performances, was much more polished and laid back in this one. At one point he joked: "To prepare for this debate, I rode the bumper cars at the State Fair."
His ideas, rather than being covered as gaffes from a political rookie, are now considered bold proposals defying Washington conventions, a theme that fits nicely within his campaign.
Big Ideas, Big Changes
Through his bold policy proposals and refusal to bow to conventional wisdom, Obama has been defining the direction of the race in the traditional media. Other candidates have largely been in the position of reacting to statements and proposals put out by the Obama campaign. Even before his strong debate performance Sunday, Obama was already being portrayed as the "change candidate" in mainstream political coverage. This was reflected in a CBS News Poll released August 15th:
Obama has presented himself as the candidate of change, and voters view him that way. 61% of voters think he would try new ways of solving the country's problems, and just 18% expect him to generally familiar approaches and try to do them better. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is seen as more traditional. Voters are divided: 43% expect her to try new ideas, while 40% think she would follow familiar approaches. Views among Democratic Primary voters are similar.
Voters say that new ideas matter to them--by a large margin, voters say they want innovative rather than traditional solutions to problems. 63% of voters want a President who will try new ways of solving problems, and just 24% want someone who will follow traditional approaches. Voters today express a greater desire for change than they have when this question was asked in previous years.
Barack Obama has offered arguably the most significant proposals to change Washington throughout the campaign. Both his urban poverty plan and his ethics reform proposal offered dramatic departures from current political orthodoxy. However, Obama has solidified his position as "the candidate of new ideas" over the past month largely through his foreign policy statements. While his willingness to meet with dictators, refusal to employ nuclear weapons to fight terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and his resolve to fight terror in Pakistan if that country's government cannot or will not have all been well-documented and discussed on this site, Obama's trend of bucking the foreign policy establishment continued Tuesday when, in an opinion in the Miami Herald, he called for a reversal of the Bush Administration's restrictions on Cuban Americans' ability to visit and send money to their relatives on the island.
These interests, and our support for the aspirations of the Cuban people, are ill served by the further entrenchment of the Castro regime, which is why we need to advance peaceful political and economic reform on the island. Castro's ill health and the potentially tumultuous changes looming ahead make the matter all the more urgent.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration has made grand gestures to that end while strategically blundering when it comes to actually advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in Cuba. This is particularly true of the administration's decision to restrict the ability of Cuban Americans to visit and send money to their relatives in Cuba. This is both a humanitarian and a strategic issue. That decision has not only had a profoundly negative impact on the welfare of the Cuban people. It has also made them more dependent on the Castro regime and isolated them from the transformative message carried there by Cuban Americans.
Obama also opened up the possibility of negotiations with Cuba, and, possibly, an end to the embargo and normalization of relations in the future:
Accordingly, I will use aggressive and principled diplomacy to send an important message: If a post-Fidel government begins opening Cuba to democratic change, the United States (the president working with Congress) is prepared to take steps to normalize relations and ease the embargo that has governed relations between our countries for the last five decades. That message coming from my administration in bilateral talks would be the best means of promoting Cuban freedom. To refuse to do so would substitute posturing for serious policy -- and we have seen too much of that in other areas over the past six years.
Obama's position once again represents a departure from the Washington foreign policy establishment. In recent years, Congress and both the Clinton and Bush Administrations have taken steps to codify and expand the embargo against the Cuban Administration and the Cuban people. Today, Hillary Clinton was once again forced to stand with President Bush and the Republican Party in support of his beefed up embargo, the provisions of which seem to largely be affecting the Cuban people, rather than the Castro regime:
In an opinion column in The Miami Herald, Sen. Barack Obama assailed President Bush's policy -- which restricts Cuban Americans to visiting relatives once every three years and sending only $100 per month -- as ``strategic blundering when it comes to advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in Cuba.''
Rival Sen. Hillary Clinton said she would continue the Bush administration's hard-line stance, for the most part. Clinton's campaign said she agrees that exiles should be able to freely send money to their relatives but said she does not favor ''any wholesale, broad changes'' to the travel restrictions until Fidel Castro falls...
''She supports the embargo and our current policy toward Cuba, and until it is clear what type of political winds may come with a new government -- if there is a new government -- we cannot talk about changes to U.S. policy,'' Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee said.
Two of the major Republican candidates, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, said Obama's proposal would bolster the Castro regime.
Once again, Obama is the candidate running against the failed Washington establishment, while Clinton is being forced to defend bad decisions by a bad President.
However, as Todd Beeton observed on Monday afternoon, Obama has work left to do to make up ground on Clinton. While I don't see the campaign abandoning the narrative of change, it has clearly introduced a new element to that argument: that Obama has shown better judgment than the other candidates in his political career, and will continue to do so in the future. Rather than representing a departure from his strategy of presenting himself as the candidate of change, Obama used the opportunity of Sunday's debate to tie his judgment into that theme and demonstrate his superior judgment and grasp of the issue:
There are only bad options and worse options, and we're going to have to exercise judgment in terms of how we execute this. But the thing I wish had happened was that all the people on this stage had asked these questions before they authorized us getting in. And I make that point--
--because earlier on we were talking about the issue of experience. Nobody had more experience than Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and many of the people on this stage that authorized this war.
And it indicates how we get into trouble when we engage in the sort of conventional thinking that has become the habit in Washington. Now, that judgment is going to have to be exercised moving forward, and I actually think that Joe's point about partition might be the right one.
The only area I disagree with -- with Joe on that -- is that it is important for the Iraqis to arrive at the conclusion that partition makes sense, as opposed to it being imposed by the United States government.
Because I think if that happens, if the perception is that we are carving up the country as opposed to the parties arriving at a decision, then that could antagonize some of the factions and actually make the problem worse.
While "Whatever happened to the politics of hope?" is possibly the least intelligent line of commenting I've seen on this election, it is clear that Obama is necessarily getting more aggressive in making distinctions between himself and the other candidates, particularly Senator Clinton. He will have to continue to do so in order to erase the deficit he faces against Clinton in the polls. In doing so, I hope to see him continue to take on the failed Washington establishment and the failed ideologies surrounding it. Senator Clinton continues to defend such unpopular policies at not only her own electoral peril, but at the peril of the future of our country. If Senator Obama continues to push big ideas and better judgment on both the foreign and domestic policy fronts, he has a great chance of becoming the next great President of the United States of America.