'What's Wrong With Senator Obama?'
My 14 year old son loves Barack Obama. He plays the "Yes We Can" music video by will.i.m so often he can recite Obama's New Hampshire speech (from which the video was made) word for word. Obama gave his 'Yes We Can' speech after losing the New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton. That refrain, meant to encourage his supporters after the loss, quickly became the mantra for Obama's campaign.
Far from needing encouragement, his supporters were energized by the New Hampshire defeat. My kid kept bugging me to get behind Obama. I tried to tell him as a political analyst for Fox News I had to stay neutral. He wasn't buying that and reminded me that his grandfather (my dad) had been involved in the civil rights movement and "if granddaddy was still around he would be for Obama". That was followed by "you're a wuss".
So I was a little surprised last week when my son asked me, "What's wrong with Senator Obama?" I asked why. "Because he sounds different", he says. Thinking the kid was referring to Obama's recent moves to the center on some issues I tell him every candidate for president repositions for the general election. My son gives me one of those teenage 'what planet are you on' looks and says, "never mind."
It took awhile but I realized my point about Obama's repositioning on Iraq, FISA, etc meant nothing to my kid. All he knew was that the "Obama of Summer" was somehow different than the Yes We Can "Obama of Winter" - and it bothered him. To my kid it wasn't a question of issues, but a perception that somehow Obama had changed. As Barack Obama learned this week it is a perception shared by thousands of his supporters who do understand the issues and, unlike my son, can vote.
So being an astute political analyst I went to YouTube in search of a clue to my kids concerns. I bring up the Yes We Can video which I hadn't seen for several months. I play it once and I'm moved. I play it twice and I must confess I get a bit emotional. For comparison I watch the video of Obama's press conference last week in North Dakota in which he tried to clarify an earlier statement about perhaps "refining" his position on Iraq after a trip there later this month.
Listening to both videos I get it. Obama did sound different. He was defensive, and I sense a bit annoyed that he was forced to explain himself in North Dakota. But the reaction from the press and many of Obama's supporters seemed to me shrill and politically naïve. After all, Obama, on this and other issues, was only repositioning for a broader electorate, something every presidential candidate before him had done.
Sure Obama appeared to be modifying his issue positions a lot lately, but most presidential candidates lock up their nomination early, allowing the art of repositioning to be more subtle. In Obama's case the protracted battle with Hillary Clinton did not allow him the luxury of time to be subtle. Apparently his supporters and some in the press just didn't get that point.
But the amount of angry internet traffic to Obama's website suggesting he was abandoning his positions apparently hit a nerve. In a town hall meeting this week Obama was forced to address the charges and to defend his progressive credentials. He blamed the criticism from "my friends on the left" and "some of the media" on their preoccupation with assuming a political calculation is behind every move he makes.
That response, coupled with Obama's North Dakota press conference and watching the Yes We Can video, began to clarify the "Obama of Summer" problem with his supporters. To a guy like me, who has been involved in many campaigns, what Obama was doing made sense. But to millions of Obama supporters (most having never been near a political campaign) Obama's general election repositioning stood in stark contrast to his 'elegance of defeat' in New Hampshire
I finally got it. While I was holding Obama to a typical political standard, his supporters' standard, forged in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, was more elevated and exacting. To them, the "Obama of Winter" had been a calling, while the "Obama of Summer" was causing an uncomfortable disconnect (as evidenced by a decline in the percentage of Obama supporters who tell pollsters they are 'totally' verses 'probably' certain to vote for him).
Obama can blame his "supporters on the left" for the recent flare up, but my sense is that much of the reaction can be laid at the feet of the growing number of political advisers surrounding him. Political consultants, especially at the presidential level, are a cautious breed. Their instinct is to dumb down the candidates positions to the lowest common denominator to avoid offending the most number of voters. A good example was the campaign's rationale for Obama's decision to bypass public financing after saying earlier he would accept it.
Obama's handlers came up with some lame excuse that the campaign's millions of small contributors were, in effect, another form of public finance. That's an 'Obama of Summer' line. I'd like to think the 'Obama of Winter' response would have been (had it not been dumbed down), "Because we're in a position to raise enough money to defend ourselves against getting mugged by Swift boat type thugs, we are not going to allow spending limits to leave us defenseless this time. Period!"
On Iraq, the 'Obama of Winter' statement most likely would have been, "Of course I'm going to listen to the commanders in Iraq on how best to withdraw our troops safely, but make no mistake, we will withdraw. If George Bush and John McCain had listened to Colin Powell and the Joint Chiefs (both opposed invading Iraq) in the first place, we would not be in the mess we are in now. Period!"
That was essentially the position Obama took anyway in clarifying his statement last week in North Dakota. There is a lesson here for Obama. The American people (and his supporters especially) want their presidents to be confident and to the point. They are tired of spin. Consultant driven dumbing down is the opposite of confident and obviously spin. The fact is Obama has moved very little but his recent explanations on issues have been dumbed down enough to give the impression that he has moved considerably.
Barack Obama should take a minute to watch the "Yes We Can" video, and look at the faces in the crowd. They are the backbone of his organization and the foundation of his massive internet contributor base. Obama set a standard for his candidacy last winter that his supporters still expect of him this summer. They expect more from Obama than politics as usual, and they have every right to want to see him meet those expectations.
Obama might then assess the advice he's getting from his political consultants (and veteran political supporters like me) and come to the conclusion that, unlike my son and the rest of Obama's young supporters who were drawn to the "Obama of Winter", we're the ones who just don't get it.