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Does Obama's Message Match the Moment?
Reconciliation May Be Hard Sell to Angry Party

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."

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.

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