There are a few stories circulating about Senator Barack Obama, and you've probably heard at least one of them. Perhaps you've received a few via email.
There's the malicious lie-filled story that claims he's an America-hating Muslim, but that is completely untrue, and I'm tired of seeing it in my email inbox.
More interesting is the story that he's a new kind of politician, a consummate outsider who upsets all the rules and will bridge every divide. I would love for this one to be true, but it's difficult to find any evidence for this other than a fervent desire to make it so. It may be difficult to remember, but in 2000, another candidate declared the same desire. He claimed that he would be a "uniter, not a divider" as President. That pledge didn't survive the day George W. Bush was sworn in, since it seems to have been based on nothing other than a fond hope that everybody would like him in Washington just like they liked him in Texas. Unfortunately, Washington isn't like Illinois any more than it is like Texas.
Is Senator Obama a new kind of politician, delivering change we can believe in, or is he just yet another partisan politician, delivering politics as usual? Is he the new Kennedy? The new Reagan? The new Carter? The new Bush?
Nine out of thirteen members of Senator Obama's national security team were formerly officials in the Clinton administration. Does that seem like a sound basis for change we can believe in, or more like politics as usual?
On June 18, 2008, Patrick Gaspard joined the Obama campaign as Political Director. Gaspard was the Field Director for Americans Coming Together (ACT), a 527 group that hired criminals convicted of sex offenses, assault and burglary to collect personal information for voter registration, and was fined $775,000 by the federal government for misusing campaign funds. ACT were accused of other electoral shenanigans as well. Does the hiring of Patrick Gaspard sound like "a new kind of politics," or politics as usual?
You can't tell everything about someone by the company they keep, but you may be able to tell something. Someone who wants to move beyond party politics might have at least one person on his team from the other party, for example, but between Gaspard and the Clinton officials, the Obama campaign staff roster looks a bit like politics as usual.
Obama became a Senator in January 2005, so he has had a few years of being on the record at the federal level. His voting record seems to follow the Democratic party line quite closely. Good news if you're looking for a reliable liberal Democrat, but unfortunate for his image as an outsider or a post-political candidate.
In a 2007 YouTube debate during the Democratic Primary race, Senator Obama criticized the Bush administration's energy bill, saying "you can take a look at how Dick Cheney did his energy policy. He met with environmental groups once. He met with renewable energy folks once. And then he met with oil and gas companies 40 times. And that's how they put together our energy policy." The record shows that Senator Obama voted for that very bill in 2005. Is this change we can believe in, or politics as usual?
Here's one very specific example of what seems like a pattern of campaign trail pandering: On June 21, 2008, Senator Obama said, "just the other day, Senator McCain traveled to Iowa to express his sympathies for the victims of the recent flooding. I'm sure they appreciated the sentiment, but they probably would have appreciated it more if he hadn't voted against funding for levees and flood control programs, which he seems to consider pork." In fact, there was a proposed amendment to the 2007 Water Resources Planning and Modernization Act that prioritized work on those very levees: Senator McCain introduced the bipartisan amendment and voted for it with Democrat Russ Feingold, while Senator Obama voted against it!
Falsely accusing your opponent of something you've done yourself: is that change we can believe in, or politics as usual?
On March 18, 2008, Senator Obama gave a beautiful speech in response to reports that were circulating about his former pastor, Reverend Wright. Wright, it turns out, had made a number of statements that many people considered inflammatory, and some questioned whether Obama shared those views. I thought Obama's speech was excellent, and it summed up quite well the tensions many of us face with our friends and family. I thought – I hoped – the issue was settled.
Then, on April 28, Reverend Wright spoke to the National Press Club, and in response to a question about the March 18 speech, he said, "He had to distance himself, because he's a politician."
The next day, April 29, Senator Obama called a press conference to strongly denounce Wright, stating "if Reverend Wright thinks that that's political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn't know me very well. And based on his remarks yesterday, well, I may not know him as well as I thought either."
Senator Obama was willing to stand by his friend and mentor through thick and thin at great cost – until Reverend Wright suggested that he was just playing politics, and then, immediately, the relationship was over! Somehow this is intended to show us that Senator Obama is not playing politics as usual?
There was also some interesting wordplay during this kerfuffle: During that April 29 press conference, Senator Obama said of Wright that "He was never my quote-unquote spiritual advisor," though after the videos of Reverend Wright's sermons first surfaced, the Obama campaign announced back in March that Wright had left the campaign's "spiritual advisory" committee. Pundits can parse the words "spiritual advisory" and "spiritual advisor" for a week, but either way, it doesn't sound like plain talk to me; it sounds like politics as usual.
Please note that I'm not accusing Senator Obama of flip-flopping here. I think that it is good and right that people, even Presidential candidates, change their minds based on new information. Flip-flopping is when candidates change their minds with no new information at hand in order to appeal to particular groups of voters. Reverend Wright's April 28 speech provided the trigger for Senator Obama to change his mind on Wright without flip-flopping; it's just unfortunate that the trigger turned out to be politics as usual.
Flip-flopping is a time-honored political tradition, and Senator Obama is as guilty of it as anybody. Again, I'm not talking about changing your view based on new information. We can all understand a shift in priorities after an event like 9/11, or when gas prices rapidly rise to record levels. When conditions on the ground change, a good strategy takes that into account. Flip-flopping is different. It isn't related to conditions on the ground, but to political expediency, or to the audience.
In 2004, when running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, candidate Obama declared that it was "time for us to end the embargo with Cuba," adding, "It's time for us to acknowledge that that particular policy has failed." As recently as August 2007, Senator Obama suggested the embargo should be curtailed. Now, in 2008, addressing the Cuban-American National Foundation, candidate Obama declared, "I will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations."
Whether it is better to end or maintain the embargo isn't the issue that concerns me, it's why Obama's view changed. The key seems to be simply his audience. Addressing voters in Illinois is different from addressing the Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami. Does that sound like change we can believe in, or politics as usual?
Senator Obama has attacked Senator McCain for supporting, as he puts it, "tax breaks to corporations." Yet when speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Senator Obama said that he was considering corporate tax cuts. The difference appears, again, to be the audience: his attacks on Senator McCain are broadcast far and wide, while most readers of The Wall Street Journal will look favorably on corporate tax cuts. Is this change we can believe in, or politics as usual?
In a debate during the Democratic primaries on February 26, 2008, Senator Obama agreed with Senator Clinton that the U.S. "should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage" to force renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In a June 18, 2008, report from Fortune magazine, Obama "backed off his harshest attacks on the free trade agreement and indicated he didn't want to unilaterally reopen negotiations on NAFTA." Because the conditions on the ground changed, or because he was speaking to Fortune magazine, whose readership largely favors NAFTA? Change we can believe in, or politics as usual?
On May 16, 2008, Senator Obama pledged to meet Senator McCain to talk about foreign policy. He said, "If John McCain wants to meet me anywhere, anytime, to have a debate about our respective policies in Iraq, Iran, the Middle East or around the world, that is a conversation I am happy to have." Senator McCain offered to travel to Iraq with Senator Obama, but Senator Obama declined. (Anywhere?) Senator McCain proposed ten town hall meetings, free-form unscripted events with questions from voters rather than reporters, but Senator Obama declined, counter-proposing a single town hall meeting limited to the economy and held on July 4th, plus a single Lincoln-Douglas debate on foreign policy in August.
It's no secret that Senator Obama is strongest when giving speeches and rhetorically weakest when answering unscripted questions, and it's no secret that Senator McCain is very nearly the opposite. Of course, that's why Senator McCain prefers unscripted town hall meetings and Senator Obama prefers Lincoln-Douglas speeches. Both candidates obviously favor their own strengths, but is it really change we can believe in to say "anywhere, anytime" and then quietly negotiate as much as possible, or is it just politics as usual?
On June 19, Senator Obama announced that he would not be participating in the federal campaign finance program, becoming the first candidate to do so, breaking a previous pledge to use the public funds if his opponent would do the same.
Obama stated his support for public financing on June 29, 2006, and pledged in writing to accept public financing on November 27, 2007.
What would cause Senator Obama to break his promise? The public financing system hasn't changed since Obama first made his promise. Senator Obama claimed to be concerned about "so-called 527 groups, who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations," but the only 527 groups that have been active so far are Obama allies like MoveOn.org, who have spent millions attacking Senator McCain. Those 527 groups have existed since before Obama first made his promise, too.
So what changed? One thing: Obama has been able to raise a lot of money on his own. Accepting public campaign financing would mean new spending limits. Obama doesn't want to be limited, and he'll break his promise to ensure he isn't. Is that change we can believe in, or politics as usual?
Accusing his political opponent of "smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups" when in fact it has been his own allies who have been running 527 groups and attack ads — is that change we can believe in, or politics as usual?
Senator Obama has made many claims about his fund-raising that ring slightly false, as well as accusations that don't stand up to scrutiny.
Senator Obama has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from oil and gas company employees while criticizing his opponents for doing the same; he has held fundraisers at Washington lobbyist law firms while decrying Washington lobbyists; he accepts money from the spouses of lobbyists and people who have very recently de-registered as lobbyists, or are state (but not federal) lobbyists; he has taken more than half a million dollars from pharmaceutical employees after saying "I don't take pharma money."
Is this change we can believe in, or politics as usual?
I'll stop here, but the story doesn't end here. The worst stories circulating about candidates are rarely true, but the best stories circulating about them usually aren't true either. Senator Obama claims to be new and different, but the facts suggest he's a partisan politician playing politics as usual. Our choice in November isn't between an insider and an outsider, or between old and new. It's the same old choice it has always been: between left and right, between Democrat and Republican, between two politicians.