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Does Obama's Message Match the Moment?
Obama offered a similar argument two days later at a Boys and Girls Club in Waterloo, saying that the country was "failed by a president who didn't tell the whole truth" but that it was "also failed" by the rest of the D.C. establishment. But the crowd broke into such loud applause after his charge against Bush that his broader criticism of the Washington system sounded like an afterthought. Similarly, those moments on the trail when he allows himself to take clear shots at Bush -- on issues such as torture, military contractors and education funding -- tend to win him his loudest cheers.
David Axelrod, Obama's chief campaign strategist, argues that there is no mismatch between the senator's bipartisan appeal and Democratic anger at Bush, saying in an interview that Obama's call for reconciliation is itself implicitly an "anti-Bush message." "One of the reasons Democrats have been so angered by Bush is that he's been so fundamentally divisive and intractable and unable to hear other points of view," he said.
Obama's unifying message was the strategy of choice, Axelrod said, because it has been the main theme of his career. If Obama does not criticize Bush and Republicans more, he said, it is because he has "never been an aficionado of the cheap applause line." As for the idea that Obama should instead frame his message around the fact that he has none of Clinton's baggage and would therefore be a better candidate in November, Axelrod said he doubts that approach would work.
"Senator Clinton has enormous negatives, were she to go into a general [election], and the fact that Barack is a good unifier is a good harbinger for the general," he said. But, he added, "voters get sold short. They're smart and sophisticated. They realize that it's important to replace a Republican with a Democrat, but that it won't do enough" if "all we do is change parties without challenging our politics."
On the trail, Obama emphasizes the practical benefits of his ability to bring people together, but less in terms of his chances of beating the GOP nominee next fall than in terms of what he could accomplish as president. (The closest he comes to playing up his electability is to joke about Republicans he says whisper to him at events, "Barack, I'm a Republican and I support you!") More often, he points to his success working with Republicans in the Illinois legislature and says that a desire to bring the same approach to the White House is what motivates his campaign.
"We've become so accustomed to just assuming that 45 percent of the country is red and 45 percent is blue. . . . Even if we [eke out a victory], we can't govern. There's gridlock," he told a crowd at the University of Iowa. "My belief was that I could change the political map and end gridlock." He added: "If we could gain a 60 percent majority on any of these issues, we could actually get something done. My goal . . . is finding that 60 percent majority."
This applies most to reforming health care, he tells voters. He plays down differences between his proposal and those of Clinton and former senator John Edwards (N.C.), telling the state university audience that all three are going to "set up . . . plans you can buy into it if you're poor, if you can't afford it we're going to subsidize it, we're going to emphasize prevention, blah blah blah."
The real difference, he said, lies in who would win support across the aisle. As he put it a day later in Independence: To pass universal health care, "we need to build a movement for change. It' s not going to happen just because you elect a Democrat."
After the University of Iowa event, Kelly Gallagher, a real estate lawyer, said she saw Obama's point. If Clinton is elected, she said, "things will become much more divisive." She added: "That's part of the problem with Hillary. I think she won't be able to get a lot done. There's a much greater probability of Obama being able to achieve his goals."
Irene Rosenbaum, a retired social worker, was less convinced. She agreed with Obama that "not all Republicans are bad and not all Democrats are good." But she was not sure he would be able to rise above partisan divides any more than Clinton. "The Republicans would be against other Democratic candidates, too," she said.