Obama the Truthteller?

OBAMA THE TRUTHTELLER?….Andrew Sullivan reads Karen Tumulty’s piece on Barack Obama in this week’s Time magazine and enthuses “We need this guy. We’re lucky to have him.” Why? Because he says what he thinks is right regardless of the audience he’s speaking to.

But has he always done that? Apparently so. Tumulty’s piece reminded me yet again of a profile that Benjamin Wallace-Wells did for us three years ago that’s stuck with me ever since. Here’s his description of a routine meeting Obama held at a forum in downtown Chicago in late 2004:

Before his audience, Obama told a fortyish man worrying about taxes that government will have to do more to help the middle-class, not less, and that limiting taxes shouldn’t be his narrow political priority. He told a white-haired woman peace activist who criticizes Israel that the Palestinians are in the wrong, and then when this appears to encourage a pro-Israel man, tells that guy that the Israelis are far from perfect, too. Obama was measured throughout; he tends to come off as an expert and wonk, an earnest, hopeful policy nerd.

A group of older black women asked, humbly, for vague assurances that he would redirect federal housing policy to emphasize low-rise, rather than high-rise, projects — most housing advocates think low-rise buildings would be easier to police and maintain, and encourage more neighborly interactions. The grandmas were throwing him a softball, hoping only for a signal that he was open to their concerns, that he would side with the experts. Obama was having none of it. “Low-rise isn’t going to solve all your problems,” Obama said sternly. “I’ve worked in the projects, and, let me tell you, low rise has problems of its own.” The particular lady who had asked the question looked rebuked, and there was a surprised wince in the church: Did he really just say that to a bunch of trapped-in-the-projects grandmas?

“Obama tells you the hard truths, and other politicians, particularly from Chicago, they tend to tell you what they think you want to hear,” Lowell Jacobs told me. Jacobs is a retired plumber in Rock Falls, Ill., a grimy old steel mill town at the western edge of Dennis Hastert’s district; he is also the chair of the Democratic county commission, and was one of only two chairmen outside of the Chicago region to endorse Obama in the Democratic primary this year. “Barack’s got something different,” Jacobs told me. “He makes you feel like he’s not a politician, but a leader.”

Yes, he does. Which is why I’m probably more genuinely undecided between the major Democratic candidates this cycle than I have been for a long time. All three of them appeal to me in significant ways but none of them have completely sealed the deal. (In Obama’s case, I’d like to see him be a little more willing to make some of the right enemies.) It’s a pretty tough choice this year.

The upside of this is that I don’t think I’ll be disappointed regardless of who wins. They’re all good candidates. And there’s still plenty of time to make up my mind.