OBAMA AND CHANGE….I don’t want to beat this into the ground, but yesterday I linked to an Ezra Klein post lamenting the fact that Barack Obama hasn’t been using his immense rhetorical gifts to actively move public opinion in a more liberal direction. Matt Yglesias responds:
Ultimately, though, the question of whether or not deep down in his heart Obama is really the liberal Reagan or not is neither here nor there….The extent to which Obama or Clinton or anyone else governs as a progressive will have more to do with the objective circumstances in which he or she finds himself or herself — the congressional balance of power, the strength of interest groups, the quality of organizing on the ground — than it will with what lurks in the deepest recesses of his or her brain.
For what it’s worth, this isn’t my concern. I don’t have the slightest doubt about Obama’s genuine devotion to the center-left. His record is crystal clear on that point.
Rather, my question is about his political courage. Obama obviously has the talent to move people, and at some point he’s going to have to decide whether he’s willing to use that talent to start persuading the American public of the value of liberal policies, not merely the value of coming together and “making change.” The latter might get him elected, but it won’t get him elected with a tailwind of public opinion actively in favor of implementing a liberal agenda.
Now, my concern on this score is fairly minor. It’s not as if Obama is hiding his views or anything, and the ideological stakes will inevitably come into sharper focus during the general election campaign. Right now he’s trying to win a primary against a woman with broadly similar liberal views, so emphasizing unity over ideology is a smart tactic.
Still, speaking only for myself, at this point I’d like to see some kind of Sistah Souljah moment in reverse: something that demonstrates his willingness to take political risks on behalf of moving public opinion to the left. After all, if Obama is willing to take political risks now, it’s a good sign that he’ll be willing to spend political capital later.
UPDATE: I guess today is Sara Robinson day. In a post that accurately takes to task the “cult” critique of Obama’s campaign, she says:
[Obama has] tapped into a deeply pressurized seam of repressed fury within the American electorate, and he’s giving it voice, a focus, and an outlet. Are the results scary? You bet: these people want change on a scale that much of the status quo should find terrifying. Are they unreasoning? The followers may be — but as long as their leader keeps a cool head, that’s not as much of a problem right now as we might think; and the heat will dissipate naturally in time. Is this kind of devotion even appropriate? You bet. You don’t get the kind of deep-level change we need without first exposing and channeling people’s deep discontent. Obama’s change talk may be too vague for most people’s tastes (including mine); but the fact is that if we’re serious about enacting a progressive agenda, rousing people’s deepest dreams and desires and mobilizing that energy is exactly how it’s going to happen. And Obama’s the first candidate we’ve had in a generation who really, truly gets this.
This could hardly be farther away from my view of the Obama phenomenon. “Repressed fury”? “Scary”? I don’t see that at all. “Change on a scale that much of the status quo should find terrifying”? I don’t think there’s anyone on the planet who’s terrified of Obama. Frankly, I’d be pleased to see a hint of this now and again in Obama’s campaign, but I just haven’t. His domestic policies aren’t even as progressive as Hillary Clinton’s, his foreign policy is a step in the right direction but still well within the center-left mainstream, and the “change” his audience cheers for is the feel-good U2 variety, not the mad-as-hell Howard Beale variety.
Am I totally off base here? I like Obama, but I don’t really see him tapping into popular anger at all. There’s a part of me that wishes he’d dip a toe in those waters occasionally, but I haven’t seen it yet.