Mugger: Obamalot

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The day after Barack Obama’s mesmerizing, if curious, “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia, The New York Times issued an editorial that was rather disingenuously headlined, “Mr. Obama’s Profile in Courage.” This was not unexpected—even a middling satirist would be certain to include a JFK reference—from an influential daily newspaper that will certainly endorse Obama (or Hillary Clinton) over John McCain next fall. And in fairness to The Times, other newspapers that traditionally favor Democrats, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post, Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times, were nearly as exuberant in praising the senator for eschewing a mere explanation of his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and instead calling for a national dialogue on race relations.

The Times editorialist, besotted by Obama’s stem-winder on race and religion, claimed that the presidential candidate captured a “moment,” and “illuminat[ed] larger, troubling issues that the nation is wrestling with.” I don’t believe that in 2008 most citizens would cite discrimination as the primary issue they’re concerned with—it’s hard to top a currently struggling economy.  But let’s play along and consider the notion that Obama’s speech was, in fact, courageous, and deserves to be remembered as an address that summons up comparisons to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

Obama, like John McCain in his 2000 primary challenge to George W. Bush, has been afforded, until recently, the luxury of a largely adoring media, much to the chagrin of the Clinton machine. Not surprisingly, as a long campaign becomes dull, some reporters and columnists attempt to compensate for earlier coverage: And in Obama’s case this meant scrutiny of Wright and his provocative (to put it politely) pronouncements about the condition of this country. As Obama has acknowledged, and reporters were aware of since his campaign began, he’s attended Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for 20 years. So the current flap about Obama being tied to a man who says “God Damn America” instead of “God Bless America” isn’t a fresh revelation.
In fact, that Obama chose to address this political difficulty at a time when his future presidency is imperiled by a rough patch in the primaries—not to mention an impossibly convoluted Democratic nomination process—seems more like a necessary act of political expediency, dressed up by  Obama as something that transcends the grubby reality of collecting votes. It can be argued that his lengthy discourse on race would’ve been a “profile in courage” had he delivered it before a national audience last month when he’d defeated Clinton in 11 consecutive contests.

Like some others who watched the speech, Obama’s equation of Wright and his own grandmother, “a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world,” both of whom have made racially charged comments that make him “cringe,” didn’t strike me as very courageous or loyal. As conservative John Fund commented in The Wall Street Journal on March 19, “Now Mr. Obama’s campaign has made clear that his 84-year-old [white] grandmother, who has asked to be left alone, should be considered off-limits to political reporters. But yesterday, it was Mr. Obama who didn’t leave her alone when he used her for one of the central themes of his speech.” Wright, after all, is a public figure; Obama’s grandmother is not.

I doubt that this latest swirl of Obamamania—and give the man credit for not only writing his own material but also for creating events—will, in and of itself, change the dynamics of his very nasty battle with Clinton (and likely upcoming competition with McCain) very much. Those enamored with his candidacy received a morale boost after recent losses; opponents of Obama will not be convinced otherwise. The real question is, as usual, how the “swing” voters, those who don’t really focus on an election until after Labor Day, will react.

Since there are several weeks left before the media converges en masse on Pennsylvania for that state’s primary, where Clinton is at least temporarily ahead in the polls, the smart move for Obama would be to give a policy speech every week on different topics. Other candidates would run the risk of being largely ignored, but Obama’s oratory guarantees that any ballyhooed discussion of contentious issues would be front-page news and cable television fodder.

For example, if Obama went to Manhattan this week and gave an equally lengthy speech on economics—and no one would blame him for using the old Bear Stearns office as a backdrop—defending his anti-NAFTA statements, that would be daring as well as educational. Since there’s a good chance Obama will be president in less than a year, I’d like to hear him expand on the following remarks from the Philadelphia speech, when he deftly seized on the discontent of millions of white Americans. Obama said: “They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor… Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze—a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed.”

That’s populist rhetoric, of course; but wouldn’t it “elevate the discourse” if Obama proposed what precisely he’d do about the “real culprits”? Would he call for a minimum wage of, say, $15 an hour? Raise the capital gains tax to 50 percent? Would he renounce all free trade with other countries and penalize companies who are based in the United States but also do business overseas? He could also say, in blunt terms, how he’d manage the upcoming Social Security crisis instead of punting on the issue like Clinton does. It’s certain he wouldn’t revive Bush’s partial privatization plan, but it would be helpful to those evaluating his candidacy to know what his vision is.

Likewise, the following week Obama could hold forth for an hour giving a specific timetable for his proposed withdrawal from Iraq, as well as a discussion about Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. Not only would this series of speeches be unique in modern political history, but you can be certain that Clinton would be caught flat-footed. And all the “war room” maneuvering by her skeezy strategists and pollsters and oppo-researchers would be out of their depth.

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