Monday, March 24, 2008

Whither Obama?

I've been off for a while. Not away, just obsessing over some things other than this blog. Surely my millions of readers will forgive me this minor lapse.

I thought Obama's speech on l'affaire Wright was fine, even brilliant, as far as it went. Of course, you can talk all you want about race and nothing will happen. This is a problem that has no solution except patience over generations. That solution appears to be moving apace. I'm perfectly willing to believe that the discourse in black churches has its own impenetrable, slightly dysfunctional paradigm. I'm also willing to believe that Obama is unwilling to throw a mentor and friend completely under the bus. Good for him.

But I'm much more concerned with a niggling (oooooh, why did he use that word?), possibly paranoid suspicion that Obama is actually a pre-packaged product that's been carefully engineered to be foisted on us in as inoffensive a manner as possible. Further fanning the flames of my paranoia is this little item:
When asked about his legislative record, Obama rattles off several bills he sponsored as an Illinois lawmaker.

He expanded children's health insurance; made the state Earned Income Tax Credit refundable for low-income families; required public bodies to tape closed-door meetings to make government more transparent; and required police to videotape interrogations of homicide suspects.

And the list goes on.

It's a lengthy record filled with core liberal issues. But what's interesting, and almost never discussed, is that he built his entire legislative record in Illinois in a single year.

Republicans controlled the Illinois General Assembly for six years of Obama's seven-year tenure. Each session, Obama backed legislation that went nowhere; bill after bill died in committee. During those six years, Obama, too, would have had difficulty naming any legislative ?achievements.

Then, in 2002, dissatisfaction with President Bush and Republicans on the national and local levels led to a Democratic sweep of nearly every lever of Illinois state government. For the first time in 26 years, Illinois Democrats controlled the governor's office as well as both legislative chambers.

The white, race-baiting, hard-right Republican Illinois Senate Majority Leader James "Pate" Philip was replaced by Emil Jones Jr., a gravel-voiced, dark-skinned African-American known for chain-smoking cigarettes on the Senate floor.

Jones had served in the Illinois Legislature for three decades. He represented a district on the Chicago South Side not far from Obama's. He became Obama's ?kingmaker.

Several months before Obama announced his U.S. Senate bid, Jones called his old friend Cliff Kelley, a former Chicago alderman who now hosts the city's most popular black call-in radio ?program.

I called Kelley last week and he recollected the private conversation as follows:

"He said, 'Cliff, I'm gonna make me a U.S. Senator.'"

"Oh, you are? Who might that be?"

"Barack Obama."

Jones appointed Obama sponsor of virtually every high-profile piece of legislation, angering many rank-and-file state legislators who had more seniority than Obama and had spent years championing the bills.

"I took all the beatings and insults and endured all the racist comments over the years from nasty Republican committee chairmen," State Senator Rickey Hendon, the original sponsor of landmark racial profiling and videotaped confession legislation yanked away by Jones and given to Obama, complained to me at the time. "Barack didn't have to endure any of it, yet, in the end, he got all the credit.
And this:
Obama has spent his entire political career trying to win the next step up. Every three years, he has aspired to a more powerful political position.

He was just 35 when in 1996 he won his first bid for political office. Even many of his staunchest supporters, such as Black, still resent the strong-arm tactics Obama employed to win his seat in the Illinois Legislature.

Obama hired fellow Harvard Law alum and election law expert Thomas Johnson to challenge the nominating petitions of four other candidates, including the popular incumbent, Alice Palmer, a liberal activist who had held the seat for several years, according to an April 2007 Chicago Tribune report.

Obama found enough flaws in the petition sheets — to appear on the ballot, candidates needed 757 signatures from registered voters living within the district — to knock off all the other Democratic contenders. He won the seat unopposed.

"A close examination of Obama's first campaign clouds the image he has cultivated throughout his political career," wrote Tribune political reporters David Jackson and Ray Long. "The man now running for president on a message of giving a voice to the voiceless first entered public office not by leveling the playing field, but by clearing it."
Now add in the "Canada, don't worry about NAFTA, we'll work it out" sorta-non-story, and the "of course we have no clue what we'll do in Iraq until we, you know, get in office and are actually forced to know what we're talking about" story. You start to get this picture of, not exactly disingenuousness, but rather that the Obama campaign--and its candidate--have given a lot more thought, for a lot longer than we suspected, to the marketing and packaging of the commodity that we think of as the Candidate For President Barack Obama.

Actually, there's nothing with that on its face. At one level, it only reinforces the most important traits about Obama: that's he's incredibly bright, incredibly thoughtful, incredibly articulate (ooooooh, why did he use the Biden word?), incredibly adaptable. These are mighty fine attributes for a President.

Still, when you get past the obvious (and admittedly compelling) advantages to Obama as a Chief Executive, these stories emphasize the utter conventionality of his agenda. It's just the usual bag of liberal-populist pabulum that's floated around for the last forty years. Of course, maybe the US is only now ready for that liberal-populist pabulum, or that it merely needed the right messenger. It could happen.

Or maybe Obama is merely the best looking lipstick that's been applied to the pig so far.

No comments: