The Wall Street Jounal: Review & Outlook; June 4th, 2008; Page A20
The Obama We Don’t Know
With Barack Obama clinching the Democratic Party nomination, it is worth noting what an extraordinary moment this is. Democrats are nominating a freshman Senator barely three years out of the Illinois legislature whom most of America still hardly knows. The polls say he is the odds-on favorite to become our next President.
Think about this in historical context. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were relatively unknown, but both had at least been prominent Governors. John Kerry, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and even George McGovern were all long-time Washington figures. Republican nominees tend to be even more familiar, for better or worse. In Mr. Obama, Democrats are taking a leap of faith that is daring even by their risky standards.
No doubt this is part of his enormous appeal. Amid public anger over politics as usual, the Illinois Senator is unhaunted by Beltway experience. His personal story – of mixed race, and up from nowhere through Harvard – resonates in an America where the two most popular cultural icons are Tiger Woods and Oprah. His political gifts are formidable, especially his ability to connect with audiences from the platform.
Above all, Mr. Obama has fashioned a message that fits the political moment and the public’s desire for “change.” At his best, he offers Americans tired of war and political rancor the promise of fresh national unity and purpose. Young people in particular are taken by it. But more than a few Republicans are also drawn to this “postpartisan” vision.
Mr. Obama has also shown great skill in running his campaign. No one – including us – gave him much chance of defeating the Clinton machine. No doubt he benefited from the desire of even many Democrats to impeach the polarizing Clinton era. But he also beat Hillary and Bill at their own game. He raised more money, and he outworked them in the small-state caucuses that provided him with his narrow delegate margin. Even now, he is far better organized in swing states than is John McCain’s campaign. All of this speaks well of his preparation for November, and perhaps for his potential to govern.
Yet govern how and to what end? This is the Obama Americans don’t know. For all of his inspiring rhetoric about bipartisanship, his voting record is among the most partisan in the Senate. His policy agenda is conventionally liberal across the board – more so than Hillary Clinton’s, and more so than that of any Democratic nominee since 1968.
We can’t find a single issue on which Mr. Obama has broken with his party’s left-wing interest groups. Early on he gave a bow to merit pay for teachers, but that quickly sank beneath the waves of new money he wants to spend on the same broken public schools. He takes the Teamsters line against free trade, to the point of unilaterally rewriting Nafta. He wants to raise taxes even above the levels of the Clinton era, including a huge increase in the payroll tax. Perhaps now Mr. Obama will tack to the center, but somehow he will have to explain why the “change” he’s proposing isn’t merely more of the same, circa 1965.
There is also the matter of judgment, and the roots of his political character. We were among those inclined at first to downplay his association with the Trinity United Church. But Mr. Obama’s handling of the episode has raised doubts about his candor and convictions. He has by stages moved from denying that his 20-year attendance was an issue at all; to denying he’d heard Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary remarks; to criticizing certain of those remarks while praising Rev. Wright himself; to repudiating the words and the reverend; and finally this weekend to leaving the church.
Most disingenuously, he said on Saturday that the entire issue caught him by surprise. Yet he was aware enough of the political risk that he kept Rev. Wright off the stage during his announcement speech more than a year ago.
A 2004 Chicago Sun-Times interview with Mr. Obama mentioned three men as his religious guides. One was Rev. Wright. Another was Father Michael Pfleger, the Louis Farrakhan ally whose recent remarks caused Mr. Obama to resign from Trinity, but for whose Chicago church Mr. Obama channeled at least $225,000 in grants as a state senator. Until recently, the priest was connected to the campaign, which flew him to Iowa to host an interfaith forum. Father Pfleger’s testimony for the candidate has since been scrubbed from Mr. Obama’s campaign Web site. A third mentor was Illinois state Senator James Meeks, another Chicago pastor who has generated controversy for mixing pulpit and politics.
The point is not that Mr. Obama now shares the radical views of these men. The concern is that by the Senator’s own admission they have been major moral influences, and their views are starkly at odds with the candidate’s vision as a transracial peacemaker. Their patronage was also useful as Mr. Obama was making his way in Chicago politics. But only now, in the glare of a national campaign, is he distancing himself from them. The question is what in fact Mr. Obama does believe.
The young Senator has been a supernova exploding into our politics, more phenomenon than conventional candidate. His achievement in winning the Democratic nomination has been impressive. Now comes a harder audience. The presidency has to be earned, and Americans have a right to know much more about the gifted man who is the least tested and experienced major party nominee in modern times.