The Two Obamas

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Last week, I saw Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama give two speeches. The first was enthralling, the second disappointing. Together, they offered a pointed reminder of Obama's undeniable promise as a politician and the fundamental, unanswered question of his candidacy: Is Obama truly the different, transformative kind of politician that he holds himself out to be?

Obama's first speech came Monday, before the Service Employees International Union. It was a tour-de-force demonstration of Obama's ability to inspire an audience. That 2004 convention speech was no fluke. The SEIU is John Edwards's crowd. The former North Carolina senator has been wooing it for years. Edwards received a rousing reception when he spoke later that afternoon.

But Obama, who had fallen flat in an appearance before an SEIU health-care forum in March, was on fire this time -- a performance that contributed to the SEIU's decision to hold off on a presidential endorsement.

"I don't know about you, but I'm tired of playing defense. We wanna play some offense," said Obama, who was wearing a tie in SEIU's trademark purple and wasn't too shy to point it out. "We're ready to play offense for a living wage. We're ready to play offense for a secure retirement. We're ready to play some offense for universal health care."

Granted, giving a red-meat pro-labor speech to a union crowd isn't the world's hardest act. Obama checked all the necessary boxes (letting workers unionize by signing cards, toughening enforcement of worker safety and overtime rules). If there are issues on which he diverges from the union line -- trade, perhaps? -- he wasn't saying.

By the time he finished, Obama had the crowd chanting. "Fired up! Ready to go!"

The next day, Obama was at a different hotel a few blocks away -- but it might as well have been a different universe. The spellbinding candidate had disappeared in favor of a guy in a suit reading his speech from a teleprompter. This wasn't surprising for a Serious Speech about tax reform. The Brookings Institution and the Tax Policy Center aren't a call-and-response kind of crowd.

But Obama's tax policy was more -- at least $80 billion more -- of the same old Democratic campaign playbook. He proposed a big new tax cut for the middle class, whose tax burden -- even factoring in payroll taxes -- is at the lowest level in decades. No income tax for seniors making less than $50,000 a year -- though seniors already receive an oversized slice of government benefits and special tax treatment to boot.

Not a word about fixing the alternative minimum tax, which has required increasingly expensive annual patches. As to serious tax reform -- maybe taking on the deductions for mortgage interest or employer-sponsored health care ( Hillary Clinton took a baby step in this direction in her health-care plan) -- nothing.

No matter. Obama got what he wanted, which was stories such as this from the Des Moines Register: "About 300,000 Iowa seniors would never again need to file federal tax returns under the plan, and 100,000 of those would save roughly $1,400 each year, the Illinois senator said as he campaigned through Iowa." Probably a coincidence, but nearly two-thirds of Iowa caucus-goers in 2004 were 55 or older.

This is the candidate whose announcement speech decried "the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics . . . our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points"?

A presidential campaign -- a successful one, anyway -- is not a suicide pact. But there has to be some space between Walter Mondale's I'm-going-to-raise-your-taxes candor and George McGovern's $1,000 tax rebate for everyone. Not that either one worked very well.

In "The Audacity of Hope," Obama deftly describes the unpleasant budgetary picture and its consequences. "We will probably have to postpone some investments that we know are needed . . . and we will have to prioritize the help that we give to struggling American families," he wrote.

Where's the prioritizing in an $80 billion-plus tax cut, on top of a $50 billion to $65 billion health-care plan? To put this in perspective, John Kerry's proposed tax cuts were the same size as Obama's -- over 10 years, not one.

Obama, to be fair, has had his mini-moments. At the National Education Association, in the midst of a speech as fiery as his address to the SEIU, he mentioned the dread subject of merit pay for teachers. In Detroit, he proposed higher fuel-efficiency standards for automakers.

The day before his SEIU speech, Obama was on Wall Street to talk about the need for "shared sacrifice" -- though he waited for the Brookings crowd to talk about the specific sacrifices of raising capital gains rates and eliminating the "carried interest" loophole for hedge fund managers and venture capitalists.

The question about Obama is not "where's the beef," Mondale's famous putdown of Gary Hart's "new ideas." It's: Where's the audacity?

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