On Policy, Obama Breaks Little New Ground

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

Already famous for his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama entered the Senate with more than the usual aspirations about the impact he could have.

So in 2005, he had his office arrange informal seminars so that experts on health care, the economy, energy and education could brief him. "I'm not running for president," he told a group of experts at his Capitol Hill office in the spring of 2006. But he said he had a "national voice" and wanted to use it.

When Obama changed his mind and decided to run for president after only two years in the Senate, however, he effectively dismissed the importance of policy proposals, declaring in one speech in early 2007, "We've had plenty of plans, Democrats," and in another: "Every four years, somebody trots out a white paper, they post it on the Web." He cast his "new kind of politics" in terms of his ability to transcend divisions and his unique biography and offered few differences on issues from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and the other Democratic presidential candidates.

But now this approach faces a new test from Sen. John McCain. The GOP candidate is making an aggressive appeal to independents by emphasizing his past and present stances against party orthodoxy, particularly his proposals to combat global warming.

Obama has not emphasized any signature domestic issue, or signaled that he would take his party in a specific direction on policy, as Bill Clinton did with his "New Democrat" proposals in 1992 that emphasized welfare reform or as George W. Bush did with his "compassionate conservatism" in 2000, when he called on Republicans to focus more on issues such as education.

Obama's campaign is "clearly politically transformative, it's clearly from a policy standpoint been cautious," said James K. Galbraith, a liberal activist and economist at the University of Texas at Austin who had backed former senator John Edwards in the early primaries.

"The change that Senator Obama has promised is one of tone and leadership style," said William A. Galston, who was a domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and is backing Sen. Clinton but who said he would enthusiastically support Obama if he is the party's nominee. "He has not dissented from party orthodoxy in the way Bill Clinton did on the way to the presidency in 1992," Galston added.

Heather Higginbottom, who runs Obama's policy office at the campaign's Chicago headquarters, cited education as one area in which Obama offers ideas that are not traditionally Democratic, arguing that the problem is not all about schools or funding, but about parents who let their children watch too much television. She said his proposal to give teachers bonus pay if they receive special training or if their students score high on standardized tests is an idea that some liberal-leaning teachers unions oppose. And she said the campaign has brought "fresh thinking" on many issues, particularly on one of Obama's favorites: increased government transparency.

But Higginbottom said the campaign's emphasis is on practical solutions, not ideological points. "I know it's interesting from a political perspective to look left, right and center, but we want to put forward ideas that will move forward in Congress," she said. "And we have the potential to engage people in a way they haven't been engaged recently and give them the tools to participate."

David Axelrod, Obama's top political adviser, said that the campaign will devote more staff members to policy (there are now seven) and that the senator's speeches will increasingly highlight his proposals.

"The next six months is going to be about competing visions for this country," he said. "Obama is looking forward, and his policies will reflect that."

Obama's domestic policy proposals, including expanding health care to all Americans and offering tax cuts for the middle class while raising taxes for those who make more than $250,000 a year, differ little from those that Clinton and other Democrats have proposed during the primaries. His ideas for solving the nation's housing crisis are similar to those of congressional Democrats, offering aid to people who cannot pay their mortgages and proposing a second economic stimulus package.

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