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Analysis: Obama chose winning over his word

Liz Sidoti

Barack Obama chose winning over his word.

The Democrat once made a conditional agreement to accept taxpayer money from the public financing system, and accompanying spending limits, if his Republican opponent did, too.

No more.

The chance to financially swamp John McCain — and maneuver for an enormous general election advantage — proved too great an allure.

Obama, a record-shattering fundraiser, reversed course Thursday and decided to forgo some $85 million so he could raise unlimited amounts of money and spend as much as he wants.

"It's not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections," Obama said in announcing that despite his previous commitment, he would rely only on private donations because "the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken."

And with that, the first-term Illinois senator tarnished his carefully honed image as a different kind of politician — one who means what he says and says what he means — while undercutting his call for "a new kind of politics."

McCain, for his part, painted the issue as a character test, saying: "This election is about a lot of things. It's also about trust. It's about keeping your word."

Not that the Arizona senator has much room to talk. He, too, has cast himself as a reformer who tells it like it is but his words and actions sometimes conflict with that identity.

Overall, the race between Obama and McCain amounts to an authenticity contest.

Voters are craving change from typical Washington ways and each candidate is claiming he offers a new brand of politics that transcends poisonous partisanship. Yet, each candidate, in what he says versus what he does, also is undermining his own promises not to become the politics of usual.

McCain, for instance, opposed President Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. Now, as a White House hopeful in 2008, he supports them; he says doing otherwise would amount to a tax increase. He also long advocated an eventual path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants. Then, while in the GOP primary, he emphasized securing the borders first; he says he listened to the public outcry and a defeated Senate bill.

The Republican also rails against special interests, yet he has faced criticism for having former lobbyists at his campaign's helm. And, just this week, McCain assailed Obama for proposing a windfall profits tax on oil, despite saying last month he would consider the same proposal.

"McCain's a four-star flip-flopper," said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic operative who worked for John Edwards in the primary. "The John McCain of 2000 wouldn't vote for the John McCain of 2008."

True or not, Republicans were quick to pound Obama over his money announcement.

"'Change We Can Believe In' has been thrown overboard for 'Political Expediency I Can Win With,'" said Todd Harris, a Republican analyst and aide to former presidential candidate Fred Thompson in the primary. "Every time Obama's change rhetoric meets his actual change record it evaporates in a cloud of hypocrisy."

Last year, as Obama competed against fundraising behemoth Hillary Rodham Clinton and before his fundraising prowess was evident, Obama proposed that both major party general election nominees agree to stay in the public financing system.

In a November 2007 questionnaire, Obama answered "yes" when asked: "If you are nominated for president in 2008 and your major opponents agree to forgo private funding in the general election campaign, will you participate in the presidential public financing system?" He added: "I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election."

Then, Obama raised enormous sums — and he started backing away from that position.

McCain, however, had indicated he would go along with the proposal and, since clinching the GOP nomination, has been trying to hold Obama to his commitment. Obama "said he would stick to his word. He didn't," McCain complained Thursday, and then told reporters in Minnesota, "We will take public financing."

Obama made his announcement as McCain was in the Democrat's hometown of Chicago — where McCain had come to raise money.

Obama's decision also came one day before the candidates were required to report their May fundraising totals.

The move could be the death-knell for the post-Watergate federal financing system designed to lessen the large donors' influence and reduce corruption.

It certainly will give Obama an extraordinary advantage over McCain and Republicans who have struggled to match Democratic fundraising this election cycle. Within hours, Obama showed his financial might by rolling out a 60-second television ad in 18 states, including several that have been reliable GOP strongholds.

Obama made the money announcement in a video message to supporters — and sought to empower them to give more.

"You've fueled this campaign with donations of $5, $10, $20, whatever you can afford," Obama said in an appeal seeking donations from $25 to $2,300 and beyond.

"Let's build the first general election campaign that's truly funded by the American people," Obama said — ignoring the fact that the system he's opting out of is paid for by taxpayers who donate $3 to the fund when they file their tax returns.

Obama blamed his decision in part on McCain and "the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups." But he failed to mention that the only outside groups running ads in earnest so far are those aligned with Obama — and running commercials against McCain.

So much for being a straight shooter.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti covers the presidential campaign and has covered national politics since 2003.

The Associated Press