Monday, August 4, 2008

Obama gets a little clearer on reparations

No checks in the mail but lots of indirect favouritism for losers

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama opposes offering reparations to the descendants of slaves, putting him at odds with some black groups and leaders. The man with a serious chance to become the nation's first black president argues that government should instead combat the legacy of slavery by improving schools, health care and the economy for all. "I have said in the past - and I'll repeat again - that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed," the Illinois Democrat said recently.

Some two dozen members of Congress are co-sponsors of legislation to create a commission that would study reparations - that is, payments and programs to make up for the damage done by slavery.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People supports the legislation, too. Cities around the country, including Obama's home of Chicago, have endorsed the idea, and so has a major union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Obama has worked to be seen as someone who will bring people together, not divide them into various interest groups with checklists of demands. Supporting reparations could undermine that image and make him appear to be pandering to black voters.

"Let's not be naive. Sen. Obama is running for president of the United States, and so he is in a constant battle to save his political life," said Kibibi Tyehimba, co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. "In light of the demographics of this country, I don't think it's realistic to expect him to do anything other than what he's done." But this is not a position Obama adopted just for the presidential campaign. He voiced the same concerns about reparations during his successful run for the Senate in 2004. There's enough flexibility in the term "reparations" that Obama can oppose them and still have plenty of common ground with supporters.

The NAACP says reparations could take the form of government programs to help struggling people of all races. Efforts to improve schools in the inner city could also aid students in the mountains of West Virginia, said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau. "The solution could be broad and sweeping," Shelton said.

The National Urban League - a group Obama addressed Saturday without mentioning the issue in his speech - avoids the word "reparations" as too vague and highly charged. But the group advocates government action to close the gaps between white America and black America.

Urban League President Marc Morial said he expects his members to press Obama on how he intends to close those gaps and what action he would take in the first 100 days of his presidency. "What steps should we take as a nation to alleviate the effects of racial exclusion and racial discrimination?" Morial asked.

The House voted this week to apologize for slavery. The resolution, which was approved on a voice vote, does not mention reparations, but past opponents have argued that an apology would increase pressure for concrete action. Obama says an apology would be appropriate but not particularly helpful in improving the lives of black Americans. Reparations could also be a distraction, he said. In a 2004 questionnaire, he told the NAACP, "I fear that reparations would be an excuse for some to say, 'We've paid our debt,' and to avoid the much harder work."

Taking questions Sunday at a conference of minority journalists, Obama said he would be willing to talk to American Indian leaders about an apology for the nation's treatment of their people.

Pressed for his position on apologizing to blacks or offering reparations, Obama said he was more interested in taking action to help people struggling to get by. Because many of them are minorities, he said, that would help the same people who would stand to benefit from reparations. "If we have a program, for example, of universal health care, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because they're disproportionately uninsured," Obama said. "If we've got an agenda that says every child in America should get - should be able to go to college, regardless of income, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because it's oftentimes our children who can't afford to go to college."

One reparations advocate, Vernellia Randall, a law professor at the University of Dayton, bluntly responded: "I think he's dead wrong." She said aid to the poor in general won't close the gaps - poor blacks would still trail poor whites, and middle-class blacks would still lag behind middle-class whites. Instead, assistance must be aimed directly at the people facing the after-effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws, she said.

"People say he can't run and get elected if he says those kinds of things," Randall said. "I'm like, well does that mean we're really not ready for a black president?"


Leftists think Obama's oil drilling pivot is a loser

Tokenistic though it is

Obama's flip on drilling strikes me as a major error. Even when analyzing it entirely as a political move, where the specifics of the legislation and the popularity of drilling are irrelevant, it still comes off very poorly. Straight up, it just looks like he caved. That is a terrible image for any politician to radiate. It isn't about moving to the left, right and center. It is about not moving away from yourself. That looks bad, no matter what the bill is, and no matter how popular is may be.

This won't help him get elected. This will do the opposite. Last week, after the Berlin speech, I thought there was no way Obama could lose the election. Now, I worry it might be a toss-up.

About the only thing that could save Obama in this case is that McCain did the exact same thing on this issue earlier in the year. So, they look equally bad, and it is mentioned in the coverage:
Republican rival John McCain, who earlier dropped his opposition to offshore drilling, has been criticizing Obama on the stump and in broadcast ads for clinging to his opposition as gasoline prices topped $4 a gallon.

But, that is in the third paragraph, while title reads "Obama shifts, says he may back offshore drilling."

Oh yeah, it is a really sucky idea, too. While allowing Republicans to go through with all of their sucky ideas has actually been an electoral boon for Democrats of late, since the ideas cause major problems. Then again, there is also the problem that those ideas cause major problems. In this case, Obama will help the creation of a major problem along, but actually receive a negative electoral benefit from it. And that is a big-time political error.


Democrats anxious for Obama to widen lead

In 1980, Ronald Reagan asked voters whether they felt better off than four years earlier. He went on to defeat Jimmy Carter a few weeks later. On Friday Barack Obama raised the same question: "Do you think that you are better off now than you were four years ago or eight years ago?" he asked voters in Florida. "And if you don't . . . do you think you can afford another four years of the same failed economic policies that we've had under George W. Bush?"

With unemployment on Friday jumping by 51,000 to take this year's job losses to almost half a million, Mr Obama is mining a potentially rich seam. But a number of Democrats, including advisers to the Obama campaign, are worried that the Democratic party's overall electoral advantage this year has not yet translated into comfortable leads for Mr Obama. On Friday Gallup showed Mr Obama just one point ahead of John McCain - a significant tightening in the past two weeks.

Mr McCain's improving fortunes have coincided with a strikingly negative turn in his campaign's tactics, with the launch last weekend of an advertisement criticising Mr Obama for failing to visit wounded soldiers when he was in Germany because the Pentagon refused to permit the media to accompany him. That allegation has since been debunked.

But the signs are that Mr McCain's continuing attacks - most recently in a commercial that portrayed Mr Obama as a vapid celebrity against images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears - may be striking a chord with the white working class voters who shunned Mr Obama so emphatically in many of his primary contests with Hillary Clinton.

With just one month to go before Labour Day - the traditional beginning of the general election - and only three weeks before the Democratic convention, many Democrats fear that time is running out for Mr Obama to overcome the suspicions of this key swing vote.

"We have got to move away from these beautifully choreographed speeches which appeal to groups of voters who are unassailably in the Obama camp already," said a non-staff adviser to Mr Obama. "What plays well with the educated liberal voter sometimes grates with the blue-collar folk, whom we need on our side if we are going to win."

The numbers back up the concern. Although Mr Obama has a good shot at winning traditional Republican states such as Colorado, Virginia and even North Carolina, he cannot capture the White House if he loses more than one of Pennsylvania, Ohio or Michigan - the more traditional, blue-collar swing states, which Mrs Clinton won by huge margins in the primary contests. Polls suggest these states are too close to call.

At this stage in the 1988 presidential race, Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate, had a 17 percentage point lead over George H.W. Bush, who went on to win the election. John Kerry emerged from the 2004 Democratic convention with a strong lead over George W. Bush only to lose the election as well. In 2008, conventional wisdom says Mr McCain is running a much less effective campaign than either of the Bushes.

That only reinforces disquiet about Mr Obama's inability so far to take a decisive lead. "Even on his worst day, Bill Clinton was able to signal that he understood voters' concerns and that he felt their pain," said Douglas Schoen, a Democratic consultant. "Obama has no trouble with the campaign stagecraft. But this isn't Harvard, it's the beer hall. He has to talk in language that people understand."

Conventional wisdom also suggests Mr McCain's campaign overstepped the mark by moving on to direct negative attacks on Mr Obama's character. But Mr Obama has also kept up a stream of material for them to exploit. At a meeting with Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday, he said he represented the world's hopes for America. "This is the moment the world is waiting for," he said when asked about his overseas trip. "I have become a symbol of restoring America to its best traditions."

The Obama campaign says the remarks were taken out of context. But reports such as this can still play badly in communities that pay little attention to foreign policy and are looking for empathy with their economic situation, say analysts. "Look, Obama has pulled off a good tour of Europe and it was probably necessary," says a Democratic consultant who backed Mr Obama against Mrs Clinton. "What we need now is campaign events in hospital emergency rooms and in unemployment offices and small town diners. These people have a vote."

Given the McCain campaign's barely concealed contempt for Mr Obama and Mr Obama's occasional tendency to present his candidacy in soaring, epochal terms, many believe the pattern of negative attacks is now here to stay. "Obama obviously thinks very highly of himself," says Juleanna Glover, an adviser to Mr McCain. "Not everybody shares that view."


On the Offense

I have no idea what the general reception of McCain's "The One" ad about Barack Obama will be; but I thought it was clever and effective. Humor is one of the best and most under-utilized assets in a presidential campaign; when a clever and/or humorous charge embodies a widespread feeling or concern about a candidate, it can be extremely effective, and sometimes even crippling.

It's of course important to criticize Senator Obama on the issues and on his philosophy; but in politics, campaigns need to provide its supporters, and undecided voters, with a thematic - a broad truth about a candidate which is strengthened by evidence and by that candidates own actions and words.

Those who control the narrative often control the outcome of a race.

Obama is a very skilled campaigner, among the best we've ever seen, and a candidate who is frankly hard for his opponents to tag. He is, in the vernacular of boxing, a very good bobber and a weaver. But the McCain campaign is, I think, zeroing in on one of Obama's real weaknesses - the sense people have that he's a World Celebrity, glitzy and hip, and that his campaign is more about a mood than a set of ideas. There is the sense that Obama is about style and aesthetics rather than substance and solid judgment. And of course there is Obama's supremely high opinion of himself. As I pointed out here, Obama at times seems to view himself and speak of himself in almost quasi-Messianic terms (he is "the moment that the world is waiting for" and "a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions," the healer of the planet and, to quote Charles Krauthammer, the Lord of the Seas).

This kind of thing ought to be mocked - and, in McCain's latest ad, it is. My sense is that in the last couple of days - as evidenced by Obama's deeply unfair and harmful (for Obama) use of the "race card" - the community organizer from Chicago is getting a bit rattled. The fact that the polls are closing when the Obama people must surely have thought the gap would be widening can't help matters.

John McCain, while still the underdog, has a chance to pull out this election. He's gotten more aggressive in the last week or so and it is, I think, beginning to pay dividends. Stay tuned.


That Dollar Bill Thing? Obama admits it was racial -- letting down his defenders

After spending a couple days denying that obvious, Obama admits that his "You know, he's new, he's... doesn't look like the other presidents on the currency, you know, he's got a, he's got a funny name" remark did refer to his being black.
"I don't think it's accurate to say that my comments have nothing to do with race," Obama said. "Here's what I was saying and I think this should be undisputed: That I don't come out of central casting, when it comes to presidential races. For a whole range of reasons. I'm young, I'm new to the national scene, my name is Barack Obama, I am African American, I was born in Hawaii, I spent time in Indonesia. I do not have the typical biography of a presidential candidate. What that means is that I'm sort of unfamiliar and people are still trying to get a fix on who I am, where I come from, what my values are and so forth in a way that might not be true if I seemed more familiar."

I love the contorted double negative at the beginning. So, let's do the under the bus body count on this one...his own spokesman, the blogging editors of the NY Times and most of the rest of the media. Andrea Mitchell, who volunteered to serve as Obama's chief defender and attacker of McCain on this matter, was unavailable for comment.

A note to the Obama masses in the case you haven't noticed you and what credibility you have are disposable. But fear not, for while you may be laughed at in this lifetime, the Obamassiah will surely reward you in the next.


It is time to attack Obama's policies

McCain needs to make voters afraid of Obama. Not, as he suggests self-servingly, by emphasizing that he "doesn't look like all the other presidents on dollar bills," but by hitting him on the two fronts where it would really hurt -- the economy and national security. Obama's inexperience and the wildly liberal proposals he has made in his primary campaigning, both set him up for a crippling blow this month.

Oil drilling is an issue, but it does not provoke the fear that the McCain campaign needs to elicit to win. It's just an issue disagreement with bad consequences for the nation. Obama's position on the issue is not a recipe for national disaster.

But his tax plans and their likely economic consequence are very much a plan for catastrophe. Doubling the tax in invested capital, and ratcheting up the top tax bracket to an effective 60%, will plunge the nation into a real depression. Not a recession or a downturn or a correction or a slowdown. A depression. McCain needs to hammer this point home again and again and again in his advertising. He has to put top level economists on television talking about what the Obama tax program will mean to America. Obama is suspect as an ideological liberal, anyway. And nobody thinks he has the experience to be a good president. So the potential to scare voters by accurately elaborating what his tax plans will mean to the entire country -- not just the rich on whom the burden will directly fall -- is enormous.

When Obama says he will only tax the rich, it's like saying he won't shut down the entire ship, just the engine room. If McCain just talks about Obama's tax program in the abstract, most voters will shrug and note that the tax hikes won't really apply to them. Only 2% of Americans earn more than $200,000 a year and only 6% make more than $100,000. But if McCain explains the economic impact of Obama's tax proposals on all Americans, he will score points and could score a knockout.

The national security offensive should have two parts. First, McCain's ads should portray Obama as naive. By taking off on his comment that Iran is a "tiny country" that couldn't hurt the US much, he can show how the Democrat is not prepared to cope with the serious national security problems which will face the next president. The more the crisis with Iran ratchets up, the more dividends this approach will reap for McCain. But, as with the argument of an impending depression if Obama wins, McCain needs to begin the argument now and let it pile up by the fall.

Secondly, McCain should take Obama's proposed changes in the Patriot Act and show how they would weaken us in the face of domestic terror threats. Don't let the liberal media fool you. Bush's domestic security initiatives are very popular. How will Obama explain his legislation to notify suspected terrorist groups seven days after Homeland Security begins an investigation of them? Or how will he explain his opposition to the wiretapping that saved the Brooklyn Bridge from destruction. McCain needs to paint Obama as weak on homeland security.

I think McCain's celebrity ad was brilliant and has taken Obama off his game. It also discombobulated his media sycophants. It took what was seen as a positive and raised questions about it.

That said, Morris does suggest some lines of attack where Obama should be vulnerable and it would put him to the task of defending his liberalism. McCain needs to listen to this advice.