Sometime before Barack Obama's strong showing on Super Tuesday, the
Washington Post observed that the senator had been campaigning
across this great land on a "platform of hope and change." Whether
or not the Post was being arch, they had it about right.
Obama rarely speaks about policy specifics; "hope" and "change" are
the two dominant messages he preaches on the stump. But he has two
secondary themes: "straight talk" and "unity." They don't receive
nearly as much attention: Perhaps because an examination of them
shows Obama to be a somewhat conventional political figure.
During the course of his standard stump speech, Obama promises to
deliver "a politics that [isn't] grounded in ideology, but in
practicality. Not in spin and PR, but in straight talk." He promises
to tell voters not what they want to hear, but the hard truths that
they need to hear. And he portrays himself as the great uniter of
the Republic. As the voiceover in one of his ads explains, "Only
Barack Obama can bring a fractured people together. ... He embodies
the hope of our nation."
But on both of these themes, Obama's behavior is very different from
Start with the straight talk. During his South Carolina victory
speech, the crowd kept chanting that "race doesn't matter." It was a
comforting thought in the wake of an election where more than 80
percent of African Americans voted for the African-American
candidate. And Obama fed that sentiment, saying, "The assumption
that African Americans cannot support the white candidate ... we are
here tonight to say that that is not the America that we believe in.
I did not travel around this state ... to see a white South
Carolina, and a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina."
But the uncomfortable truth is that race mattered very much for
Obama in the early going. Not only did African Americans vote in
overwhelming numbers for Obama in what looked, at least on the
surface, like racial solidarity. But, as Real Clear Politics's Jay
Cost discovered, a regression analysis of the voting in Nevada and
South Carolina showed almost a straight-line correlation between the
racial make-up of an area and the percentage of white votes Obama
received: The more uniformly white an area was, the better Obama did
among white voters; as the area became more racially mixed, Obama's
percentage of the white vote dropped.
This phenomenon could mean any number of things and ultimately may
be unimportant to the outcome of the election. But it does show that
race matters to many Obama voters.
Then there's his stance on immigration. Obama is for comprehensive
immigration reform. He says he wants to begin such reform by
securing the border with Mexico, which he justifies by saying that
we need to know who is coming into America. At the Los Angeles
debate, for instance, he said "there is no doubt that we have to get
control of our borders. We can't have hundreds of thousands of
people coming over to the United States without us having any idea
who they are."
Yet he dismisses the impact illegal immigrants have on low-wage
workers. When asked about this, he said: "I think to suggest somehow
that the problem that we're seeing in inner-city unemployment, for
example, is attributable to immigrants, I think, is a case of
scapegoating that I do not believe in, I do not subscribe to."
Immigration reform may or may not be a good idea on balance, but to
refuse to recognize the pressures illegal immigration puts on
low-end wages is to shy away from a very hard truth.
On the question of "unity," Obama's behavior is even more uneven.
During one campaign stop in New Hampshire, Obama was heckled by
anti-abortion protestors. When his decidedly pro-abortion crowd
began to jeer them, Obama defended the protestors, saying that their
demonstration was honorable and within the great American political
tradition. It was a striking moment of Obama acting as a unifying
Yet a few weeks later, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Obama
released a statement that was decidedly less unifying. He called
abortion a "fundamental right" and boasted that he has always been a
strong supporter of "reproductive justice." He said that Roe "is
about more than a woman's right to choose; it's about equality."
Nothing in his fullthroated defense of abortion-ondemand went so far
as to hope that abortion could be safe, legal, and rare.
The more closely you listen to Obama, the more obvious it becomes
that while he's very much for civility, his commitment to unity is
suspect. He frequently says that after he's elected president,
Americans will be able to "take our country back." He also talks
about bringing together the people who have "lost faith in this
There is a real divide between those who think that America is doing
okay, and can do better, and those who think that America has been
hijacked and must be taken back from some nebulous other. But Obama
has no interest in bridging this chasm. When he talks about unity,
Obama means uniting the people who agree with him. He wants to unite
51 percent of America. And if you follow him around enough, very
occasionally he lets that notion slip.
One night in New Hampshire, Obama embarked on a long discourse that
hinted at what his idea of unity entails:
[I]n my own life, I've discovered that if you really know what you
stand for, if you know what you believe in, if you know who you are
fighting for, if you know what you care about and cannot be
compromised-then you can afford to reach out across the aisle. You
can talk to people who don't agree with you. And you do so not just
because you think that you're always going to persuade them, but
because people out in America, outside of Washington, are listening.
And they want to see that we can-that we don't have to agree on
everything to work on something. That we can disagree without being
disagreeable. That's how we can attract independents [to the] change
agenda. That's how we can attract some Republicans. That's how we
build a working majority for change. ... And you can afford to be
courteous. And you can say, "Yes, sir." And "No, sir." "Yes, ma'am."
"No, ma'am." But if you're going to be in the way of change, get out
of the way-we're pushing you aside. Very politely of course. That's
how we win elections.
Obama's definition of unity sounds a lot like power politics. But at
least he wants to practice it politely. For a Democratic party that
has been dominated lately by anger and rancor, that's a change worth