By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Barack Obama this week unveiled the closing argument of his presidential campaign. It seemed more like a reminder of his unfinished business.
I'm not referring to Obama's specific plans. Policy goodies such as health care and renewable energy, billions for this and credits for that, are inherently future "deliverables," contingent on election.
I'm talking, rather, about Obama's entrancing promise of ushering in a new politics, one that rises above entrenched partisan rifts to unite a divided country.
This is, I believe, Obama's animating vision. It catapulted him into the national spotlight when he delivered his mesmerizing convention speech in Boston four years ago, emphasizing the common bonds between red and blue America.
It is what Obama described when he launched his improbable campaign on a freezing February day 20 months ago. Back then, Obama decried "the smallness of our politics -- the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle the big problems of America."
And it is the touchstone Obama returned to repeatedly in making his closing argument in Ohio on Monday. He talked about voters' chance to "put an end to the politics that would divide a nation just to win an election."
He said he decided to run because "I believed that Democrats and Republicans and Americans of every political stripe were hungry for new ideas and new leadership and a new kind of politics -- one that favors common sense over ideology; one that focuses on those values and ideals that we hold in common as Americans."
He emphasized, most of all, that "the change we need isn't just about new programs and policies. It's about a new attitude. It's about new politics -- a politics that calls on our better angels instead of encouraging our worst instincts; one that reminds us of the obligations we have to ourselves and one another."
This is stirring. As much as I tend to the cynical, I believe it is heartfelt. I would love to see a President Obama -- any president, for that matter -- put it into practice.
But this is not -- although it could have been -- the way that candidate Obama has run his campaign or the message he has run it on. I believe he sincerely would have preferred that it be different: more elevated and more honest, less beholden to party orthodoxy and less slashing toward opponents.
Yet Obama has run a rather standard Democratic campaign, largely obeisant to party constituencies and allergic to difficult choices. Run it brilliantly, yes, but not with much more than a passing hint of the new politics he envisions. Better angels, it seems, do not make the best campaign strategists.
Accepting his party's nomination in Denver, Obama decried the use of "stale tactics to scare voters." A few weeks later, he was airing ads warning that John McCain wanted to privatize Social Security and would slash seniors' benefits almost in half. You can't get much staler than that.
Certainly, McCain did not shy away from the cheap shot or the divisive argument; the palling-around-with-terrorists, Obama-as-socialist themes were not the elevated campaign that he, too, pledged to run.
I don't blame Obama for responding in kind as much as I bristle at his simultaneous posture that he is above that sort of gutter politics. Even more, I question his assumption that the pressures that led him to such campaign tactics will somehow melt away after the election.
What evidence is there that a President Obama would govern differently than candidate Obama campaigned? Would a President Obama press policies -- on teacher accountability, on climate change, on trade -- that discomfit Democratic Party interest groups? Does he have the spine to stand up to the inevitably overreaching demands of congressional Democrats? Does he have some magical, Republican-whisperer ability to quell a political opposition that will be determined from Day One to frustrate his program and regain power?
Obama's closing argument offers reassuring words, undergirded by his evident instinct for consensus and pragmatism.
I know how he wants to govern. I'm not convinced he can pull it off.