Let Obama Be Obama

There’s been a lot of talk of Obama moving towards the center. Sometimes it only seems like the candidate is moving towards the center due to the differences between a primary and general election campaign. A candidate must attract their party’s base during the primaries while working to attract a wider range of voters during the general election. Ed Kilgore has three good points to consider regarding the perception of Obama moving towards the center:

First of all, a candidate doesn’t really have to “move” at all to create the perception of a different message and strategy once the primary season is over. The general election issue landscape is inevitably going to be different, for the simple reason that the candidate and partisan debate will be different. An example: Barack Obama spent a significant amount of time during the primaries arguing with Hillary Clinton about the relative utility of an individual mandate as part of any plan for universal health coverage. Nobody would expect that issue to matter much in a general election competition with John McCain, who opposes public-sector enabled universal health coverage altogether. Much more broadly, the Democratic nomination contest was in part “about” the various candidates’ applications of progressive principles to policy and political challenges, in detail. The general election is a contest between progressive and conservative agendas, and both candidates will naturally stress those aspects of their agendas that have the widest electoral appeals. That’s not a matter of “moving,” but simply of recontextualizing to a different audience and a different debate.

Second of all, as the TDS Roundtable on swing and base voters earlier this year illustrated, there’s plenty of disagreement about the definition and nature of “swing voters.” They don’t necessarily all reside in the ideological “center” of the electorate on every issue, and moreover, “base” voters don’t necessarily have inconsistent or antagonistic points of view from “swing voters.” The two things that are pretty hard to deny are that (1) undecided “very likely” voters are indeed a disproportionately important electoral prize because winning each of them produces two net votes, and (2) most successful campaigns in a competitive environment manage to energize the partisan base while expanding it into the ranks of independents and even the other party’s base. Huffington’s horror at swing-voter pandering, and her manifest contempt for swing voters themselves, probably reflects the fashionable but very dubious Lackoffian belief that swing voters are cognitively confused, perhaps even stupid or amoral people who can only be appealed to by an even more strongly expressed partisan “frame.”

Third of all, it amazes me that anyone should be surprised by Barack Obama’s willingness on occasion to stray from Democratic Party orthodoxy or from strict down-the-line partisanship. It has been an important part of his political persona from day one. And those who accuse him of cynicism for expressing heretical thoughts on FISA or gun control or the death penalty now are perhaps the real cynics, who somehow thought he didn’t really mean all his early talk about transpartisan politics or overcoming the stale debates of past decades.

The claims of moving towards the center must be considered individually as opposed to trying to come to a general conclusion. On FISA I do question whether Obama is making the right move, along with a tremendous number of his supporters. It at least says something about Obama that he allows so many supporters on his own campaign web site to criticize this position. Just try to imagine George Bush doing the same.

Obama’s view on faith based programs is a more acceptable compromise, considering that it is necessary for Democrats to reach voters who do not normally vote Democratic. Obama has made his consideration of separation of church and state clear in his speech (in contrast to some misleading news reports). Obama is likely to try to bridge the partisan gap by proposing programs which liberals normally do not support. Many liberals are apprehensive about this, often due to recalling the “triangulation” of the Clinton years. The difference is that when Obama proposes compromises he also sticks to core liberal principles, such as insisting that separation of church and state be resepcted in any faith based programs. I’m sure I will disagree with Obama on a number of points, but Ed is correct. The best course is to let Obama be Obama.

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  1. 1
    Paul, Obama Blog says:

    Another thing people are wary about is the possibility of the continuous campaign that goes on even if Obama should get elected.
    In such a case, the “candidate” i.e. president is never held accountable because everyone is concerned about winning the next election.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    At least in the second term the president is no longer a candidate. There is the risk that by then everyone is looking towards the next election and he’s a lame duck. (Actually in Bush’s case it was a good thing that he was a lame duck most of his second term.)

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