Thursday, August 21, 2008

Strong Obama, Weak Obama: The Time Interview

Obama's interview with Time's Karen Tumulty shows much of Obama at his best: defining the theoretical framework in which he crafts politics and policy. It also highlights a weak point, which may grow out of his attempt to deflect the superstar/celebrity tagging: a reluctance to meet attacks on his character and readiness head-on, to say I have what it takes.

The good stuff first: while it may sound out of step with American politics, Obama's greatest strengths are philosophical. He has thought through and defined clearly what's useful and valid in liberal and conservative thinking, and how those elements should be balanced; appropriate and inappropriate ways in which politicians can let religious faith inform their policy decisions; and ways in which the U.S. should and should not seek to promote its national values abroad. On the latter question, in this interview, he strikes an impressive balance between universalism -- a willingness to affirm that human rights and democracy are good for all peoples -- and recognition of cultural difference:
Tumulty: The question lingered with me as I finished reading 'Dreams,' one of the many things you're wrestling with is the issue of African history, is globalism — used to be colonialism — is it, on balance, net good or net bad for the world's people? Does it even make sense to talk in those terms?

Obama: I'm not sure it makes sense to talk in those terms. I think it's inevitable, partly because of technology, partly because of travel, migration patterns. I do believe that America has a special role to play in trying to lift up a set of ideas, a set of rules of conduct for countries, that aren't imposed by force, but by example. I think our economy has helped to provide a template for other countries, our judicial system has helped to inspire other countries.

When you think about our greatest victories—reintegrating Japan, Western Europe after World War II into the free world—there were enormous sacrifices, a lot of resources, but what was really powerful was how we could hold up ourselves and say, 'Individuals are able to live a better life under this system.' And I don't think that we should be ashamed of asserting that rule of law is better than no rule of law, that democracy is better than authoritarianism, that a free press is better than a closed press. Yet how we achieve, or how we approach this, I think, has to take into account that not everybody is going to be at the same place right away, and that if we think we can simply impose our institutions through military means, that we'll probably fall short, because the world may be smaller, but it's not that small.
Obama unabashedly asserts American exceptionalism, and universalism, while carefully defining the right and wrong ways to promote the truths we hold to be self-evident.

On the other hand, I find his response to a question about his "toughness" -- that is, how he should respond to attacks on his character -- fundamentally unsatisfying:

There are Democrats who are nervous that you are not tough enough for the general election.

I don't think that's just about me. I think they are congenitally nervous because we lost a bunch of presidential elections where people felt that we should have won, but keep in mind that whatever concerns people have about me, my campaign in particular, we heard those all during through the primaries, and the reason—as I said in this town hall meeting—that I think we're going to be successful is it's not about me. It's about the American people, it's about the fact that their wages and incomes have flatlined, their costs have gone up, they are losing their homes. They are losing their health care. They are worried about the future.

The Republicans are going to want to try to focus this election on me, what I want to do is focus this election on the American people and who can actually deliver for them. There's nothing new about this approach that they are taking. This is the same approach that they took against John Kerry and Al Gore and tried to take against Clinton. And so, as I said, what I think makes the difference this time is people understand this is a big election. We can't afford to keep on doing the same things we've been doing—the same policies or the same politics.
There's something false -- or rather, dangerously half-true -- in saying the election is not about him. Yes, at this point in history, Americans strongly favor Democratic policies. That's why the election is about him. The policy debates are almost pre-won; if he loses, it will be because of judgments about his character. Yes, those judgments may be false, and Republicans will stop at nothing to promote false ideas about his character and readiness to lead. His fundamental job is to convince Americans that he has the strength, and the judgment (compensating for lack of experience), and the integrity to get his domestic policies enacted and to safeguard and promote American interests and security abroad.

In fact this is literally nonsense: The Republicans are going to want to try to focus this election on me, what I want to do is focus this election on the American people and who can actually deliver for them. Who can actually deliver? You can! It's time to convert "yes we can" to "yes I can...deliver for you." Too many Americans are not convinced of that.

It's particularly unhelpful to base his response to attacks on the premise that Republicans used the same character-attactics against Kerry and Gore and Clinton and Dukakis (as he did in Chester, Virginia today). In the period Obama referenced, they batted .750 with those tactics. In the cases of Kerry and Dukakis at least, Americans bought the character arguments. Obama likes to say not this time. Why? It's not enough to lump himself in a class of should-have-wons, implying that the electorate was fooled in every case. Why are the attacks about him false? Why is he more fit to govern than McCain?

Related posts:
Obama and the vision thing
We've been here before: How Obama frames U.S. history
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II

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