Does Obama's Message Match the Moment?

Sen. Barack Obama says he wants to
Sen. Barack Obama says he wants to "turn the page" past the country's red-blue polarization. (By David Lienemann -- Associated Press)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2007

WASHINGTON, Iowa -- A hush fell over the crowd as Sen. Barack Obama crossed the field, his white shirt glowing in the sun, waves of cornstalks rustling behind him. Once inside the open barn on the county fairgrounds here, he offered a message as uplifting as the backdrop, promising a new era of consensus instead of partisan divide.

"We're going to win an election, but more importantly, we're going to change the country," the Illinois Democrat said. Nothing will get done in Washington "unless we not only change political parties in the White House, but also change our politics."

The audience of Iowa Democrats seemed receptive. But when it came time for questions, it was clear that at least some members of the crowd had not escaped the partisan mind-set that Obama said he wanted to overcome. What did he think about President Bush's veto of a children's health insurance bill? What, another person asked, did he make of the Bush administration's alleged denigration of science? What would he do to prevent Republicans from taking advantage of election flaws like the one in Florida in 2000, in which the questioner said "it's not over till your brother counts the votes"?

As Obama positions himself for the stretch run for the Democratic presidential nomination, his call for a "new kind of politics" faces a broad test in his own party, and not just of whether it makes any criticism of his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), seem hypocritical. As the pointed questions he received here suggest, it may be that his summons to "turn the page" past the country's red-blue polarization is not what many Democrats want to hear after seven years of mounting anger at Bush and the Republican-dominated government.

Obama faults a broken system in Washington for failures that many Democratic voters attribute simply to having the other side in power. By contrast, Clinton more directly exploits Democrats' feelings of resentment. She argues that the troubles of the past seven years -- the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, the widening income gap -- are the result not of broken politics in Washington but of poor Republican governance, and she says that she would offer competent leadership to fix what has gone awry since her husband left the White House.

Obama accentuated the basic differences yesterday in Iowa. Reminded by a shop owner in Vinton that Clinton is proposing a universal health-care plan just as he is, Obama countered that electing Clinton president would not be enough to get health-care reform passed. "It can't be the same kind of partisan battling we had in the '90s," he said, according to the Associated Press. "I think I can do better than Hillary Clinton, and that's why I'm running."

Nationally, Clinton's more straightforward appeal for a Democratic restoration seems to be working. Polls show her well ahead of Obama and the rest of the Democratic field, and for the first time she is beating him on the fundraising front -- prompting him to acknowledge his underdog status yesterday on his Web site.

But the Obama campaign hopes that in New Hampshire his post-partisan message will play well among independent voters, who can vote in the primary. And in Iowa, where polls indicate Obama is running better than in New Hampshire, voters in the past have been receptive to more conciliatory appeals.

"I'm looking for someone in the middle who can bring people together and tackle things head on," Ryan Flannery, a family doctor in Washington County, said after the fairgrounds event during Obama's Iowa tour in the first week of this month. Added Susan Barnett, an Iowa City secretary who saw the senator speak in Coralville: "We can't survive the divisiveness that's been going on. We need to build bridges."

But Gary Frost, a library conservator at the University of Iowa who was also in Coralville, noted the challenge Obama faces in running on a platform of national reconciliation at a time when Democrats are so angry. "It's a big reach, and I give him credit for that because it's risky," Frost said.

The risks are on particular display now that Obama is putting more emphasis on his early opposition to the Iraq war and seeking to draw a contrast with Clinton's support for the resolution authorizing it. Because Obama has mostly resisted attacking her by name, his critique extends to the entire Democratic establishment for not opposing the war.

In effect, this seems to lift some of the blame for the war from the Bush administration and place it on the backs of Democrats, an unlikely tack in a Democratic primary. "There are those who offer up easy answers. They will assert that Iraq is George Bush's war, it's all his fault. Or that Iraq was botched by the arrogance and incompetence of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney," Obama said in Coralville. "The hard truth is that the war in Iraq is not about a catalogue of many mistakes -- it is about one big mistake. The war in Iraq should never have been fought."

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