Thursday, March 6, 2008

Obama as a Rorschach inkblot

He is so non-specific that everyone thinks he will do what they want

Phil Sowell, a retired government official, scarcely pauses for breath when asked what Barack Obama would do as President: "He will bring peace to the Middle East and anywhere in the world where there is tragedy."

But Larry Milton, 56, thinks that "he will be more worried about what happens here and less worried about other countries". Carrie Thompson hopes that he will "address global poverty and other issues which Republicans keep overlooking", while Ron Gaynor, 52, a lifelong Republican, says: "He will bring the power of veto and say `no' to a lot of this government spending - we seem to give money to people all around the globe."

They are all waiting to hear the man himself speak. It is a familiar scene, repeated across America dozens of times in recent weeks. Long queues snake around a sports hall - comprising people of all ages, races and social class - to gather under the Democrat presidential contender's slogan of "change we can believe in". But what, exactly, is this change in which they all believe? The Times conducted more than 50 interviews at a rally in Westerville, Ohio, where many supporters made plain they have contradictory - and burgeoning - expectations of what "President Obama" would do.

Sarah Jaffy, 41, says: "I really like his healthcare plan. And there's another policy - it's my favourite - ooh, I can't remember right now." Erin Henderson, 18, has gone with a gaggle of friends to see Mr Obama and she declares: "We're all really excited about him and we heard he might make it easier to get into college."

Today these voters could tip the balance of the Democratic presidential race Mr Obama's way. If Hillary Clinton loses Ohio and Texas, most observers - including her husband, Bill - say her candidacy will fail. She has become increasingly frustrated at seeing her poll leads evaporate in the heat of Mr Obama's phenomenal appeal. She rails against his soaring oratory, saying: "I could stand up here and say, `Let's just get everybody together, let's get unified.' The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know that we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect."

But Mr Obama's coalition of voters suggests his message is succeeding in reaching out, not only across the racial divisions that have long scarred America, but also over the partisan political landscape that has characterised the Clinton-Bush era. As such, he resembles another charismatic youthful politician who made ephemeral promises of hope, change and a new approach to government: Tony Blair in the UK 11 years ago.

It is a comparison not lost on Mr Obama's admirers, who answer charges that support for him is a passing fad by pointing out that the former Prime Minister won successive landslide election victories before his star began to fade. And, while British is politics is often dragged down by cynicism, the optimistic American psyche that is always open to a promise of "new leadership" and a "new beginning" may keep Mr Obama afloat for longer. Mr Blair, however, could offer evidence for his claim to stand for postpartisan politics, having defeated the old left of the Labour Party by dumping the Clause IV promise of mass nationalisation and steering the party towards the "radical centre" over three years in opposition.

Mr Obama, by contrast, can only really show a campaign that is winning support from many independent and Republican voters - despite having, according to a study by the National Journal, the most liberal voting record of any US Senator.

Mrs Clinton last week cited a passage from Mr Obama's book, entitled The Audacity of Hope, "where he said that he is a blank screen and people of widely different views project what they want to hear". The full quote, however, is more interesting. Mr Obama said he had many orthodox opinions as a Democrat and a black man, before adding: "That is not all I am. I also think my party can be smug, detached and dogmatic." He then set out views - on the free market, patriotism, spirituality, and a politics not based solely on "victimhood" - which he predicted will "get me into trouble".

Although admitting that he was new enough to be a blank screen on which "people of vastly different political stripes project their own views", Mr Obama added: "I am bound to disappoint some, if not all of them."

But, perhaps, not quite yet. At Mr Obama's Westerville rally, Eric Whitaker, a member of his coterie of friends travelling with him, discusses with passing British journalists any lessons to be learned from the Blair experience. "I guess the big challenge of leadership is disappointing your supporters at a rate they can deal with," he says. As he speaks, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a national security expert, is on the stage explaining why Mr Obama is qualified to be commander-in-chief. "It's just how you feel about it," he says. "I trust him."

Sitting in the audience, Alex Dukeman, 17, says that she expects Mr Obama to introduce universal healthcare. But isn't his plan voluntary while Mrs Clinton promises a compulsory mandate? "I just think he is a likable guy and he inspires people," she replies. Zach Adriaenssens, 20, says that Mr Obama is a "unifier" who can negotiate with Republicans "and will sort healthcare".

Donny Murray, 21, says that Mr Obama "has definitely got a better plan" for tackling global warming. How so? "I'm not sure about the specifics, I just think he'll get more people involved," he says. Freda Graan, 27, a Spanish teacher at Ohio State university, explains: "If you listen to Hillary, she says, `I will do this'. Obama says, `We will do this'. I'm not scared to be idealistic, it's my responsibility as a voter not to be cynical."

Yusuf Abdi, 55, says: "He will change everything - healthcare, no war, education. He can do anything." Karen Clark, a teacher, 58, says that she has switched her support from Clinton because "I want to be on the winning side".

When Mr Obama arrives on the platform, many in the crowd hold cameras above their heads to capture the moment, giving the appearance of a massed double-armed salute. As ever, a woman screams: "We love you Obama!" He replies, as usual, "I, uh, love you back."

His speech is low-key, lacking some of his higher flights of rhetoric but heavy with policy specifics, possibly a sign of how sensitive he remains to Mrs Clinton's recent criticism, which he spends a long time rebutting. But his proposals are not "tough choices", favoured by Mr Blair, but of a type that will not make him new enemies. Mr Obama, for instance, talks of a "middle-class tax cut" which will "make life more affordable for 95 per cent of Americans".

Outside the hall is Robin Lease, 52, a lycra-clad teacher who has just jogged two miles from Mrs Clinton's rally across town. "I wanted to see them both speak," she says. "I would tend to vote for Obama - I think he would be more liberal on social programmes," she says. "But then again, I'm a Republican. I know that sounds confusing."


Obama losing the Jewish vote

Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind yesterday predicted that Jewish voters would make "a mass movement toward Sen. McCain" if Barack Obama knocks Hillary Rodham Clinton out of the race in tomorrow's critical Democratic primaries. Hikind, an Orthodox Jew whose Borough Park district includes the largest Hasidic bloc in the United States, blasted Obama for what he called his half-hearted support of Israel and his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., who has repeatedly praised anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has endorsed Obama.

Hikind, a Democrat who has yet to endorse a candidate for president, said Obama had not satisfactorily distanced himself from Wright, his Chicago-based personal pastor, noting, "This is a man who thinks Farrakhan is a great guy and God's gift to the world." Hikind went on, "Obama has said that you can be a supporter of Israel even if you're for giving up land to the Arabs, which is true - but for a guy running for president to take a position like this in advance of getting into office, combined with everything else going on in the Middle East, that scares the hell out of me. "There are a hell of a lot of Jews who are concerned about these issues, and they go way beyond Hasidic and Orthodox Jews, people I describe as conservative Reagan/Giuliani Democrats," said Hikind, who backed Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns in 1980 and 1984.

Hikind's warning about Jewish concerns over Obama are being widely but privately voiced among top New York Democrats. "There is anxiety, there is concern, on the part of a lot of important Jewish Democrats in New York," one of the state's most influential Democratic activists told The Post.

Hikind, meanwhile, said he believed last week's controversy over Obama appearing in Somali garb during a visit to his father's native Kenya would have no impact on Jewish voters. "Something like that by itself doesn't mean anything," he said. Obama, who has repeatedly condemned Farrakhan for making anti-Semitic remarks, rejected his endorsement under pressure from rival Hillary Rodham Clinton during a debate last week. But while Obama has pushed Wright into the background of his campaign, Obama remains a member of his church.


Is Obama hypocritical or ignorant when it comes to NAFTA?

Barack Obama says he'll revive the art of American diplomacy, which sounds nice. We're not sure how this promise squares, however, with the diplomatic incident his campaign has caused in Canada, of all unlikely places.

Last week, Canada's CTV television network reported on a leaked memo from a Canadian diplomat casting doubt on Mr. Obama's sincerity. The memo reported that Mr. Obama's chief economic adviser, University of Chicago professor Austan Goolsbee, had told Canadian officials that Mr. Obama's vow to unilaterally withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement was simply campaign rhetoric aimed at Ohio primary voters. This week, Mr. Goolsbee said that's not what he meant at all when he attended a February 8 meeting at Chicago's Canadian consulate. Perhaps something got lost in translation.

Mr. Goolsbee maintains that he did say that Mr. Obama recognizes the benefits of free trade. But, Mr. Goolsbee adds, he also emphasized that Mr. Obama's objective is to strengthen Nafta's labor and environmental provisions. The accommodating Canadian Embassy nonetheless tried to smooth things over yesterday with a statement saying that "there was no intention to convey, in any way, that Senator Obama and his campaign team were taking a different position in public from views expressed in private, including about NAFTA." Which is too bad, because the apparent revelation that Mr. Obama doesn't believe his own trade rhetoric is the best news we've heard about the Illinois Senator's economic policy.

In Mr. Goolsbee's defense, we too have recognized a language barrier separating the U.S. and Canada, particularly when we enjoy watching NHL games on television. In their understated manner, Canadian analysts describe blows to the head as "messages" and sticks to the face as "taking liberties." So perhaps Mr. Goolsbee's obligatory nod toward the benefits of trade was interpreted in Canada as a passionate defense of free markets.

However, if the Chicago professor was in fact sending a signal that Mr. Obama does not really intend to destroy America's largest trade relationship, we can only say, "Kick save, and a beauty!" Leaving Nafta alone would be great news for Ohioans in particular, as the Cato Institute's Daniel Griswold recently noted. Canada and Mexico buy more than half of Ohio's exports, and since Nafta's 1993 enactment the U.S. economy has added a net 26 million new jobs. The average real hourly compensation (wages and benefits) of workers has climbed 23% and real median household net worth has increased by a third.

We suspect Mr. Goolsbee knows all of this, because the benefits of free trade are one of the few things that economists of the left and right agree on. The Commerce Department reports that while countries with which we enjoy free trade agreements generate only 7.5% of global GDP, they consume more than 42% of U.S. exports.

And along with importing our products, countries seeking open trade with America are also required to embrace the rule of law as a condition for such agreements. Colombia's inspiring progress shows that foreign policy benefits may exceed even the economic gains. But a rejection of the pending Colombian free trade deal, a rewrite of Nafta, and a literal embrace of Mr. Obama's campaign rhetoric would send a disastrous signal over our borders, north and south. Here's hoping Canadian officials heard Mr. Goolsbee correctly the first time.


Some good satire

Via Taranto

I agree with Kim Morrison that Barack Obama would be a great president. I have hope that he can provide free health insurance for everyone. I have hope that he can bring our soldiers home and make the world a safer place. I have hope that he can protect Americans from poverty by printing more money at the mint.

And, I have hope that he can make me a taller, more attractive, wealthier person, immune to all illnesses. The best part is that all of these will be accomplished at absolutely no cost to me.

Some skeptics would say that he can't do these things because he hasn't had enough leadership experience, foreign policy experience, or government experience. Some would say that Obama can't provide for all our needs without doubling taxes. And, some would say that he hasn't provided one piece of a specific plan to reach these goals.

Well, to those people I ask, "Where is your hope?" All these years I've been creating accomplishments and gathering experience to list on my resume. From now on, I'll just list my hopes and plans. All that work was so unnecessary.


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