Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Candidate Review Wednesday: Barack Obama

Three weeks ago, I outlined my plan to review the Democratic presidential hopefuls and come to some resolution on who I would support for the nomination. I started with Hillary Clinton. Last week was John Edwards turn. Today it is Barack Obama.

If you haven't seen the prior diaries in this series, it would be helpful to give them at least a quick scan. Below the fold, I'll briefly review my methodology and reasoning when evaluating the candidates. OK, here we go...



As I discussed in the overview to this series:

There are two top level criteria I am going to use to evaluate the
candidates. The first is their ability to win the nomination. The second is their ability to win the general election.

In my attempts to evaluate candidates chances to win the nomination, I am going to look at these factors:

  • Values projected in the Message
  • Stance on issues
  • Fundraising ability
  • Staff competence
  • Primary strategy
  • Does this candidate make me feel it?

I am a true believer in values based decision making. Here are the values I have chosen to bring to bear on this particular process:

  • community
  • individual liberty and capacity for self-government.
  • equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none.
  • thirst for innovation and civic duty.
  • insist upon new, viable means to achieve progressive ideals.

OK, having said all of that, here we go with Obama's values expressed in his speeches. Obama burst on the scene for most of us with his Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention on July 27, 2004:

Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation, not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy. Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago, "We hold these truths to he self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness."

That is the true genius of America, a faith in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles. That we can tuck in our children at night and know they are fed and clothed and safe from harm. That we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door. That we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe or hiring somebody's son. That we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution, and that our votes will he counted, or at least, most of the time...

The people I meet in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks, they don't expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead and they want to. Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don't want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or the Pentagon. Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. No, people don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of
opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better. And they want that
choice.

In Remarks to the American Legion Legislative Rally on March 01, 2005, Obama had this to say:

I thought about the hundreds of Illinois veterans I've met over the last few years. We asked them to leave their homes, leave their families, and risk their lives in some far-off place to protect us. And yet, somehow, we're still hearing stories like the one I heard from a veteran named Bill Allen, who told me that on a trip to Chicago, he actually saw homeless veterans fighting over access to the dumpsters. That's what I thought about. And finally, I thought about a young man named Seamus Ahern, who I met during the campaign at a V.F.W. hall in East Moline, Illinois. He told me about how he'd joined the Marines because he was so proud of this country, and he felt that as a young person in his early twenties he wanted to give something back. He was getting shipped out to Iraq the following week, and as I listened to him explain why he'd enlisted, the absolute faith he had in our country and its leaders, his devotion to duty and service, I thought this young man was all that any of us might hope for in a child. But then I asked myself: When Shamus comes home, will we serve him as well as he served us? That's the question we should be asking ourselves when we talk about veterans' benefits and the veterans' budget. And that's the standard we should meet.
On May 02, 2005 at an NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner, Obama said:

...it's one thing to know that everyone has a seat at the lunch counter, but how do we figure out how everyone can pay for the meal? It was easy to figure out that blacks and whites should be able to go to school together, but how do we make sure that every child is equipped and ready to graduate? It was easy to talk about dogs and fire hoses, but how do we talk about getting drugs and guns off the streets?" This is what they told me.

And of course, I reminded them that it wasn't very easy at all. That the moral certainties we now take for granted - that separate can never be equal, that the blessings of liberty enshrined in our Constitution belong to all of us, that our children should be able to go to school together and play together and grow up together - were anything but certain in 1965.

In the budget they passed this week in Congress, they gave out over $100 billion in tax cuts, on top of the trillions they've already given to the wealthiest few and most profitable corporations.

One hundred billion dollars. Think about what that could do for our kids if we invested that in our schools. Think of how many new schools we could build, how many great teachers we could recruit, what kind of computers and technology we could put in our classrooms. Think about how much we could invest in math and science so our kids could be prepared for the 21st century economy. Think about how many kids we could send to college who've worked hard, studied hard, but just can't afford the tuition.

Think about all that potential and all that opportunity. Think about the choice Washington made instead. And now think about what you can do about it.

I believe we have a mutual responsibility to make sure our schools are properly funded, our teachers are properly paid, and our students have access to an affordable college education. And if we don't do something about all that, than nothing else matters.

But I also believe we have an individual responsibility as well.

Our grandparents use to tell us that being Black means you have to work twice as hard to succeed in life. And so I ask today, can we honestly say our kids are working twice as hard as the kids in India and China who are graduating ahead of us, with better test scores and the tools they need to kick our butts on the job market? Can we honestly say our teachers are working twice as hard, or our parents?
Speaking at the Pritzker School of Medicine Commencement on June 13, 2005, Obama said this:

...Today, as we continue to find new ways to live longer and better, the greatest single threat to the health of our nation is not a scarcity of genius or a failure of discovery; it is a lack of collective will to ensure that every single American has access to effective, affordable health care. It is our inability, after years and years of talk and gridlock, to finally do something about the crushing cost of health care in America.

45 million Americans are uninsured - over 5 million more in the last four years. This isn't just a moral shame, it's an economic disaster that's catching Americans in a vicious cycle. Because the uninsured can't afford health care, they put off seeing a doctor or end up in the ER when they get sick. Then their care is more expensive, and so premiums for all Americans go up - to the tune of $922 a family. Because everyone's premiums go up, more Americans lose their health care.
And on the Confirmation of Judge John Roberts, which he voted against, Obama said this:

The problem I face -- a problem that has been voiced by some of my other colleagues, both those who are voting for Mr. Roberts and those who are voting against Mr. Roberts -- is that while adherence to legal precedent and rules of statutory or constitutional construction will dispose of 95 percent of the cases that come before a court, so that both a Scalia and a Ginsburg will arrive at the same place most of the time on those 95 percent of the cases -- what matters on the Supreme Court is those 5 percent of cases that are truly difficult. In those cases, adherence to precedent and rules of construction and interpretation will only get you through the 25th mile of the marathon. That last mile can only be determined on the basis of one's deepest values, one's core concerns, one's broader perspectives on how the world works, and the depth and breadth of one's empathy.

In those circumstances, your decisions about whether affirmative action is an appropriate response to the history of discrimination in this country or whether a general right of privacy encompasses a more specific right of women to control their reproductive decisions or whether the commerce clause empowers Congress to speak on those issues of broad national concern that may be only tangentially related to what is easily defined as interstate commerce, whether a person who is disabled has the right to be accommodated so they can work alongside those who are nondisabled -- in those difficult cases, the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge's heart.

I talked to Judge Roberts about this. Judge Roberts confessed that, unlike maybe professional politicians, it is not easy for him to talk about his values and his deeper feelings. That is not how he is trained. He did say he doesn't like bullies and has always viewed the law as a way of evening out the playing field between the strong and the weak.

I was impressed with that statement because I view the law in much the same way.
The problem I had is that when I examined Judge Roberts' record and history of public service, it is my personal estimation that he has far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak. In his work in the White House and the Solicitor General's Office, he seemed to have consistently sided with those who were dismissive of efforts to eradicate the remnants of racial discrimination in our political process. In these same positions, he seemed dismissive of the concerns that it is harder to make it in this world and in this economy when you are a woman rather than a man.
So how do these values expressed in these speeches square with Obama's positions on the issues? As always, I am starting with Iraq. It is still the biggest issue on the minds of the public, by far. Unlike, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, Barack Obama was not in the United States Senate when the AUMF came up for a vote. He was in the Illinois State Senate. But he did say this Against Going to War with Iraq on October 02, 2002:

I don't oppose all wars... After September 11th, after witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears, I supported this administration's pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance, and I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again. I don't oppose all wars... What I am opposed to is a dumb war...I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the middle east, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.
Now that he is in the US Senate and faced with actually voting on these issues, Obama is somewhat less forthright. Obama reportedly told the Associated Press the Congress should pass the war funding money without a time line for withdrawal if Bush vetoed the spending bill. Statements like that have not enhanced Obama's standing with the progressives in his party.

Obama has not laid out detailed positions on many of the other issues. However in Remarks to the National Conference of Black Mayors on May 05, 2007, Obama laid out strong positions on education, energy independence and global warming and affordable housing.

Obama's position on Health Care from his web site:

In his book, The Audacity of Hope, and in a series of speeches and public events Barack Obama has outlined specific principles for providing affordable and comprehensive coverage and for improving quality of care and reducing of costs for everyone. These include tackling medical inflation and spiraling health care costs, developing new mechanisms to extend portable, affordable coverage, and reforming health care delivery so that it emphasizes prevention and efficiency.

As a first step, Barack Obama wants to hear from you. He is hosting a series of community discussions around the country to hear not only from policy experts, but also from real Americans who are struggling with the health care system, doctors and nurses, people with insurance and without it.
There does not seem to be a ringing call for single payer universal health care in there.

Obama is the only candidate who takes on Government Corruption on his web site.

On fund raising, the New York Times had this to say at the end of the first quarter:

Mr. Obama’s total for the first fund-raising period of the 2008 presidential race was close to Mrs. Clinton’s. She reported Sunday that she had raised $26 million, but declined to provide a breakdown of contributions for the primary season versus the general election. Mr. Obama said $23.5 million of the money he raised was for the primary season.
It did turn out that Obama had actually out raised Clinton in primary money. He also had more contributions under the campaign finance limit, meaning he has more mileage left in his donor base than Clinton. This was a truly stunning development.

Obama has put together an interesting campaign management team. Certainly the finance department, led by Julianna Smoot, has proved to be top notch. Smoot was finance director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this past cycle.

At the top of the campaign is David Axelrod, his media strategist. Axelrod is founder of Chicago-based AKP Media and handled Obama's 2004 Senate race. He has an "A" client list and consults for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Rep. Rahm Emanuel. The Washington Post has this to say:

David Axelrod, a former newspaper reporter who has worked on past campaigns for no fewer than five of the Democrats racing to the White House, a form of political ubiquity that only enhances his reputation. This time, he's with Obama.

A measure of his status in the top tier of Democratic spinners, scripters and fixers is that when his peers detect something subtle and good, they presume Axelrod must have had a hand in it.
David Plouffe, another partner in AKP Media is the campaign manager. You can read up on Plouffe at his Wikipedia listing.

Despite the credentials of the top management, the Obama campaign has had a couple of stumbles so far. There was the dust up with the Clinton campaign over the David Geffin remarks. More recently, CNN had a story titled Obama publicly scolds staff for scheduling decision:

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, told New Hampshire firefighters Friday that he was frustrated his staff did not build into his travel schedule a personal appearance before their union meeting taking place in the coastal city of Portsmouth. Instead, the presidential hopeful had to address the IAFF and Federation of State and Provincial Firefighters Association this morning by telephone.

"I have to tell you, I wish I was there," Obama said over a speakerphone. "My staff had already scheduled some things and they couldn't wiggle out if it. They heard from me a little bit because I wasn't happy I couldn't be there personally."

Altogether not a big deal. But it is something to watch for as the campaign goes on.

Obama's primary strategy can be devined from a review of his campaign staff. The staff is weighted with folks heavy on Iowa experience. New Hampshire, not so much. Obama is a Senator from Illinois, a neighbor state to Iowa. Somewhat like Edwards, it appears Obama is looking to get momentum going with a strong showing in Iowa. In the latest Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, John Edwards is leading at 29%, but Obama has slipped past Hillary Clinton into second at 23%. Clinton trails at 21%. A second in Iowa would not be a campaign killer for Obama. Particularly if he beats Clinton.

New Hampshire shows Clinton with a 12 point lead over both Obama and Edwards according to the Real Clear Politics Average through May 15th. Whatever momentum is developed coming out of Iowa and Nevada will surely have a major impact on New Hampshire.

In head to heads against Republicans, the latest RCP average has Obama leading Giuliana by 3.4 points and McCain by 5 points. These are not quite as big a lead as Edwards has over the GOP rivals, but certainly in the ballpark. Obama appears to have a better than reasonable chance of winning the general should he be the nominee. Certainly a better shot than Clinton does.

Now we are at that very subjective point. Does this candidate make me feel it? There is a lot to like about Barack Obama. His message of working together to solve our problems, to turn the page does resonate with me. The values expressed in his speeches are my values. I'm more than a little concerned about his unwillingness to let those values guide him in his current views on Iraq. It concerns me all the more because on other issues, he has not laid out any measure of specificity on how he would proceed. In sum, Senator Obama has not closed the deal with me at this point.

So where does that leave me? Let me know where it leaves you. Next week, a look at the "other" candidates.

1 comment:

Union Democrats said...

Your reviews are very helpful. Tho I've been reading and studying these candidates your Candidate Review Wednesdays--complete with links--have been illuminating and worth sharing with local (live)discussion groups where members don't read blogs. I've been taking your work from the netroots to the grass roots.
Thank you for the thoroughness and clarity.
--TampaBay Democrat