The previous chapters have examined Obama’s political career so far, tracing his rise from obscurity to fame. We conclude the book by looking back at the lessons that Obama’s experience teaches us about American politics. We also consider his presidential prospects, both as a candidate and as a potential chief executive.
Obama’s political career illustrates several lessons. First, it shows that progressive candidates can compete in the contemporary money-driven political environment, but not necessarily without making some compromises. As discussed in chapter 4, Obama has more than held his own in the financial side of politics and has become one of the Democratic party’s star fundraisers.
In the first six months of 2007, Obama raised nearly $59 million from over a quarter-of-a-million people, thousands of whom contributed more than once to the campaign. The Obama campaign spent $22.6 millions during this time period. Barack Obama remarked, ‘‘Together, we have built the largest grass-roots campaign in history for this stage of a presidential race.’’ Obama’s use of the Internet to reach contributors and voters is also groundbreaking. Hillary Clinton raised a total of $63 million from January to June 2007 and spent $17.8 million. These figures do not tell the whole story, however. In the second quarter, Obama raised $10 million more than Clinton in contributions that can be used in the primary race. Many of Clinton’s supporters have already given the maximum amount allowed by law for both the primary and general elections.
Ironically, given his opposition to the current campaign financing system, his very success backs up the claims of those opposed to regulating political money. Specifically, these opponents argue that only weak candidates need public subsidies, and Obama’s ability to raise great deals of money supports this point. Like mainstream voters, important Democratic fundraisers have found his intelligence, charisma, and diplomatic skills compelling.
However, Obama enjoys a popularity rarely seen among candidates, and the impact of money in campaigns cannot be discounted. In the 2004 elections, 96 percent of House races and 91 percent of Senate races were won by the candidate spending the most money. Top spenders won 95 percent of House races and 76 percent of Senate races in 2002.
On the larger question of whether money buys influence over legislators, Obama’s experience reflects the base realities of national politics.
Critics charge that he has changed his position on issues like energy policy and financial services regulation to satisfy large contributors.
For example, in contrast to his efforts to stop predatory lending practices in the Illinois senate, he voted against a U.S. Senate provision that would have capped credit card interest rates at 30 percent. In his book The Audacity of Hope, he acknowledges that the necessity of raising money can undermine progressive concerns by isolating him from the poor. ‘‘I know that as a consequence of my fundraising, I became more like the wealthy donors I met.… I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of … the people that I’d entered public life to serve.’’ Obama’s voting record, though, demonstrates a commitment to the less fortunate and to clean government.
A second lesson is that Obama shows that a candidate can be effective without adopting scorched-earth political tactics. As discussed in earlier chapters, Obama has been successful while largely eschewing negative campaigning. The conventional wisdom suggests that negative campaigning is pervasive because it works better than positive appeals, although scholarly research casts some doubt on that conclusion. The impact on the American political system is not completely benign, as harsh and fact-challenged attack advertisements tend to discourage voting, especially among citizens with low levels of interest in and knowledge about politics. It is possible that Obama’s experience will change conventional ideas about the effectiveness of negative advertisements.
Third, in a somewhat similar vein, Obama’s rhetoric shows that messages targeted to the concerns of the majority of voters, rather than a narrower, if more passionate, ‘‘base’’ can succeed. Like Obama himself, a number of commentators have noted that American politics has gotten stuck in a ‘‘culture war’’ politics rooted in the 1960s that ignores issues more important to most voters, such as health care, the economy, effective schools, and the like. While subjects like abortion and gay marriage mobilize a passionate few, they tend to turn off more centrist voters. Thus, political elites, including candidates, have become more polarizing than voters appear to want them to be. As discussed in chapters 3 and 8, Obama has tried to refocus attention towards more ‘‘bread-and-butter’’ issues and has explicitly argued for moving past the political categories of the Vietnam War era. So far, at least, citizens appear to be responding.
Fourth, Obama’s experience suggests that the ‘‘glass ceiling’’ for minority candidates may be lifting. In the early 1990s, commentator Neal Peirce argued that it was difficult for black candidates to win in a constituency that is less than 65 percent black. The exceptional ones succeeded at winning lower-level offices, but rarely ticket-topping positions like governor or U.S. Senator. While Obama is certainly an extraordinary politician, his victory, along with that of Deval Patrick as governor of Massachusetts in 2006, suggest that the United States may be entering a new era for black candidates. The number of black candidates for statewide office from both major political parties continues to increase, and there are a greater number of African Americans that hold public office than ever before, providing the steppingstones to higher office. In 2004, the number of black elected officials nationwide was at a historical high of 9,101. While the elections over the next decade will indicate whether this trend continues, it is clear that African American candidates are becoming more competitive for top political positions.
Finally, Obama’s 2004 Illinois Senate campaign suggests that primary election voters deserve more credit for picking good candidates than they sometimes get. Some political scientists contend that party leaders would do a better job selecting nominees. It is a mistake to put too much stock in one U.S. Senate race to prove a more general point, but most observers agree that Obama and Jack Ryan were the best candidates in large fields. Moreover, Ryan was, by almost any standard, a better candidate than Alan Keyes, the choice of party leaders.
Speculation about Obama’s presidential ambitions swirled around him since his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. During his
October 2006 tour to promote his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama was encouraged by figures as diverse as talk show host Oprah Winfrey and conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks to run for president. On the October 22, 2006 edition of NBC’s Meet the Press, he acknowledged he was considering a run, which he formally announced in February 2007. This section analyzes the plusses and minuses of an Obama candidacy, as well as a few ‘‘wild cards.’’
On the plus side, Obama may be well positioned to put together a winning coalition of voters, especially in the general election. John Judis and Ruy Teixeira predict that, in the future, a coalition of highly skilled professionals working in post-industrial occupations, minorities, women, and the white working class will form the basis of a resurgent Democratic party majority. Obama seems likely to succeed with at least the first three of these groups, as discussed in the analysis from chapters 2 and 3. He ran particularly well in affluent suburbs and areas of the state where highly skilled service jobs are more common, as well as in black and Hispanic areas of Chicago. Exit polls taken after the 2004 general election showed he ran about six points higher among women than men. His appeal to the white working class is less certain. As noted in chapter 3, he did very well in some relatively rural, declining industrial areas of Illinois in the 2004 general election and among voters concerned about the economy. In the Democratic primary the same year, however, he lost many of these same areas to Dan Hynes, who had much more support among industrial unions.
Applying this logic to the 2008 Democratic nomination contest, he should do well in the critical New Hampshire primary, given the state’s growing number of affluent, highly skilled professionals. He should also be able to count on the support of black voters in southern state primaries where they make up a large percentage of the Democratic electorate, although, given previous questions about whether he is ‘‘authentically black,’’ this may not be a sure thing. A Washington Post/ ABC News poll taken in January 2007 showed that, in a head-to-head match-up with Hillary Clinton, Obama trailed by twenty-six points among black voters, which was greater than his deficit among whites.
Iowa, home of the nation’s first delegate-selection contest and a state where unions are a major force in the Democratic party, is less certain, as is Nevada, which will have a coveted early position for its caucuses in 2008. South Carolina will go to the polls in late January, and February 5, 2008 will be the political equivalent to football’s Super Bowl Sunday.
On this day, dozens of states all across the country will hold their primary elections. Large states like Florida, California, and New York wanted to increase their role in the nominating process, and they all shifted their polling dates as early as possible. Naturally, this truncates the selection process and requires a different campaign strategy. It will be almost impossible for anyone but the frontrunners to be viable after the first week of February.
He also has some issues working in his favor. In contrast to one of his anticipated rivals, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, he can point to long-standing opposition to the Iraq War, which should serve him well in Democratic primaries and caucuses and is unlikely to hurt him in the general election. His emphasis on economic issues should appeal to an electorate anxious about the effects of the global economy. In an effort to neutralize any negative political fallout from his liberal stances on ‘‘culture war’’ issues like abortion, he is reaching out to Evangelical Christians, a key Republican constituency in the past, on issues like fighting AIDS. As such, he is trying to court one of the few constituencies with which he fared poorly in his U.S. Senate race. Although he is unlikely to get a majority of their votes, he may win some converts. At the very least, he can neutralize efforts to paint him as hostile to religion.
It appears that voters will be in the mood for stylistic and substantive change in 2008. If this prediction pans out, Obama should benefit. His policy emphases and bipartisan approach to governing would be a marked change from the Bush administration’s approach. Stylistic differences are also likely. Bill Clinton has sometimes been called the ‘‘first black president,’’ and columnist Maureen Dowd suggests that Obama could, after a similar fashion, be the ‘‘first woman president.’’ ‘‘His approach seems downright feminine compared to the Bushies. He languidly poses in fashion magazines, shares feelings with Oprah, and dishes with the ladies on The View. After six years of chest-puffing, Obama seems very soothing.’’
Pundits and pollsters have been trying to gauge the public’s perception of the candidates for over a year now. National polls of whom the Democrats or Republicans favor for their party’s nomination are not of much value because the race will be decided state by state. However, it is fair to say that Obama has gained name recognition and is generally seen as positive, while Hillary Clinton is seen somewhat less favorably. A nation-wide USA Today/Gallop Poll taken in early August 2007 showed 48 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion, of Obama, 34 percent had not heard of him, and 9 percent were unsure. Senator Clinton, on the other hand, had a 47 percent favorable opinion, 49 percent unfavorable, no one indicated that they had not heard of her, and 3 percent were unsure. In most hypothetical races pitting Democratic and Republican candidates against each other in a presidential race, the Democratic candidate defeats the Republican candidate. Interestingly, though, Senator Clinton is victorious by a few more percentage points.
To have more influence in the presidential selection process, states have rushed to move their primaries earlier in 2008, and nearly half the states will have had their elections by February 5, the so-called ‘‘National Primary.’’ As of August 2007, polls in Iowa did not show any clear frontrunner, but Clinton and Edwards were at the top of the pack, with Obama closing in. In New Hampshire, Obama seems to be catching up to Clinton, with a July 28, 2007, American Research Group poll showing Clinton and Obama both favored by 31 percent, and Edwards at 14 percent. This trend seems evident in South Carolina as well. In Florida and California, however, Clinton has continued to have a 15- to 20-percent lead over Obama. In Illinois, Obama had a slight lead over Clinton, but she seemed invincible in New York, with close to half of those surveyed supporting her.
While these polls are interesting, they do not reflect the grass-roots support for a candidate or the ability of a campaign to get out the vote.
Both Obama and Clinton have strong organizations and the funding to endure the entire primary season. If no candidate receives a majority of delegates, which for the most part are awarded on the basis of the proportional vote a candidate receives in a given state and on the number of delegates from that state, there many be a need for a brokered convention. This last occurred in the Republican’s 1976 convention when President Ford did not have a majority of delegates and was challenged by Ronald Reagan for the nomination. Ford went on to receive the nomination on the first ballot, but the internal battle may have been a factor in his losing the general election.
Another factor in Obama’s presidential campaign is his lack of experience on the national stage. Despite the power of his rhetoric, he still may need to fine-tune his message to appeal to voters in a presidential contest. For example, his September 2006 speech during his visit to the Tom Harkin steak fry, a mecca for presidential aspirants, got a lukewarm reception by some in the crowd, as many found it overly cerebral and academic. As discussed in chapter 8, his rhetoric is sometimes so nuanced as to appear equivocal. Although a visit to New Hampshire in late 2006 met with adoring crowds, it is not clear that this worship resulted from his message.
In addition, he has never dealt with the pressure of a high-profile campaign. Due to his safe state senate district and the idiosyncratic nature of his 2004 general election race, he has never had to face full on Republican attacks. His most favorable coverage from the national media is almost certainly behind him. As Washington Post media critic
Howard Kurtz observed, ‘‘Reporters have a way of discovering the dark side of even the most admirable public figures. And if Obama takes his pristine image into the muddy arena of presidential politics, even the warm embrace of Oprah won’t protect him.’’
In fact, by 2006, he was already experiencing something of a local media backlash in Illinois. First, he was criticized for supporting ‘‘anti- reform’’ candidates in local races. He took heat for refusing to endorse political reformer Forrest Claypool in the 2006 Democratic primary for Cook County Board President. Critics charged that he sacrificed his moral authority as a reformer to protect his own political prospects.
In the general election race for the same office, newspaper columnists hectored Obama for an endorsement letter that allegedly misrepresented the Republican candidate’s position on abortion and for tarnishing his reform credentials by supporting a ‘‘machine hack.’’ In the
2006 primary election, he also appeared in campaign commercials for victorious state treasurer candidate Alexi Giannoulias, a financial backer of his 2004 Senate campaign, who generated controversy with bank loans to a reputed mobster. Most recently, his involvement in a real estate deal with indicted political fundraiser Tony Rezko, which resulted in Obama’s purchase of a house at a very favorable price, created further media headaches.
In his 2004 Senate campaign, Obama’s charisma helped him connect with ordinary voters. A campaign staffer noted that when voters met Obama they ‘‘fell in love with him.’’ Presidential campaigns have different dynamics, however. After the intimacy of the ?rst few primaries and caucuses, there is little chance for person-to-person politics, ‘‘retail’’ politics. Although Obama is obviously very effective at giving speeches to large crowds, he will also need to learn to deal with the ‘‘freak show’’ of bloggers, talk radio hosts, and cable TV commentators described by Mark Halperin and John F. Harris in their book The Way to Win. A positive for Obama is his willingness to engage the denizens of this realm. He communicates with bloggers by airing his views on Daily Kos, a popular liberal blog, and elsewhere.
More than any other candidate, Obama has utilized the Internet. In April 2007, Obama had nearly 1,543,000 ‘‘friends’’ on MySpace.com, the social-networking website. Hillary Clinton only had 41,500 people in her network. In fact, Obama has 50 percent more MySpace friends than all the other Democrats combined. Similarly, at this time, close to 2.8 million people watched Obama on his YouTube channel, the free-access, web-based media outlet. This is two million more viewers than the rest of the entire Democratic field.
He has appeared on cable television shows ranging from the Daily Show to Countdown with Keith Olbermann. He and his staff are very quick to respond to negative media attacks. For example, when Harper’s magazine printed an article criticizing his fundraising practices, he fired back quickly with a response on his website, calling the article ‘‘misleading’’ and offering a point-by-point rebuttal.
One wild card question is whether he can appear ‘‘presidential’’ enough. His relative youth and limited high-level government experience are obvious lines of attack against him, especially in the post-9/11 environment. Obama has already tried to downplay the experience factor, arguing that ‘‘Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have an awful lot of experience, and yet have engineered what I think is one of the biggest foreign policy failures in our recent history.’’ He has also tried to draw parallels between his own career and Abraham Lincoln’s, implicitly sending the message that someone with limited time in Washington can be a strong president. For example, his decision to announce his presidential candidacy at the Old State Capitol in Springfield implicitly draws this parallel. As discussed earlier, leadership may be the Achilles heel of his image. His Democratic primary opponents in 2004 saw this quality as a potential weakness, and the exit polls in Table 3-2 showed that he did not score particularly well on this trait among voters in his senate race. Similarly, his sometimes self-deprecating manner may appear unpresidential to some. Critics writing at the end of 2006 note that he has offered very little policy rationale for his candidacy, appealing to voters instead on his celebrity and biography.
Interestingly, Obama seems to be willing to challenge conventional wisdom about what affects electability in presidential races. For example, he does not apologize for his teenage drug use or seem to fall into the trap that ‘‘a single miscalculation or misstatement is fatal to American political careers.’’ Although voters often say they want ‘‘authenticity’’ in a candidate, it’s probably worth remembering that John
McCain’s famed ‘‘Straight Talk Express’’ in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries took him straight back to the Senate.
Race is another wild card. None of the five previous black candidates for president—Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Carol Moseley-Braun, Al Sharpton, and Alan Keyes—have come close to getting nominated.
Public opinion surveys suggest that a large majority of Americans are willing to vote for a black candidate. In practice, however, the racial dynamics of political campaigns work on more subconscious levels as voters react to a candidate’s race in ways in which they may not be fully aware. The clever use of subtle racial cues in commercials, for example, can tap latent racism. As discussed earlier in the book, Obama’s unique background inoculates him from some of the negative stereotypes that whites have about black candidates. Nevertheless, he may not be able to overcome the fact that black contenders face a more complicated task in marketing themselves than whites do. African American candidates must persuade black voters that the political system and white officials can be trusted and white voters that race relations are good, a more complicated task than white candidates face.
WOULD HE BE A GOOD PRESIDENT?
Political scientists have identified several qualities that effective presidents possess, including aptitude for public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, intellectual ability, and emotional intelligence. Often it is hard to judge a president on these criteria until he has left office, so what follows is somewhat speculative. Still, it is clear that Obama possesses exceptional intellectual gifts. In addition, former colleagues praise his emotional intelligence and maturity. Long before he had even entered public life, one of his law professors noted Obama’s unique combination of intellectual and emotional intelligence.
‘‘He’s very unusual, in the sense that other students who might have something approximating his degree of insight are very intimidating to other students, or inconsiderate and thoughtless. He’s able to build upon what other students say and see what’s valuable in their comments without belittling them.’’
How he will fare on the other qualities listed above is harder to judge.
He has clearly mastered many of the skills of public communication. As discussed in chapters 2 and 3, his rhetorical style persuades many who are inclined to disagree with him, and he uses effectively the nonverbal tools that appeal to audiences. The discussion in chapter 8, however, raises the question of whether his rhetoric is sometimes too cerebral and nuanced to reach the average voter.
Political skill requires the ability to overcome the stalemates inherent in the separation of powers system, as well as a reputation for effectiveness among other political elites. Before assessing Obama’s prospects on the first of these criteria, it is worth noting that the challenges the next president will face are likely to be particularly daunting.
He or she will have to operate in a challenging fiscal environment, as the retirement wave of the baby boomers begins and the bill for the Iraq War comes due. The trust in government that grew after 9/11, and can help ease institutional gridlock, has largely dissipated. Complicating Obama’s task in overcoming stalemate, if he were to be elected, is the fact that his celebrity may have raised expectations so high that what- ever he actually accomplishes will be a disappointment. This frustration may be especially bitter because voters often forget that the U.S. political system is designed to frustrate, not facilitate, action. In fact, he is already beginning to stress the point that American institutions limit action, in response to critiques on the left that he is not progressive enough. Although it has also engendered criticism on the left, Obama’s ability to raise money from Washington lobbyists and power brokers implies that he is accepted by the Capital’s elite ‘‘players.’’
Obama’s track record in the Illinois state senate also bodes well, but that is obviously a much smaller stage.
The biggest questions surrounding the likely success or failure of an Obama presidency may hinge on organizational capacity and vision. His lack of high-level executive experience raises questions about his organizational capacity, which includes ensuring that aides speak honestly, promoting teamwork, and creating effective institutions. A campaign aide, however, noted that he is very receptive to feedback from staffers and is willing to change his mind on the basis of their input. In talking to him, the staffer commented, ‘‘it doesn’t feel like it’s going in one ear and out the other.’’ His success in building the size and budget of the
Developing Communities Project in Chicago and his ability to organize civic projects like voter registration drives are impressive, but their scale does not compare to the presidency. If the organization of his presidential campaign is any indication of his ability to manage and lead large organizations, he seems to have the necessary skills and the ability to bring in strong, high-quality people. On vision, Obama has been praised for his ability to conceptualize problems, but he may be less effective at translating his broad ideas into specific policies in a creative way.
He will probably have a great deal of appeal internationally. His boyhood experience in Indonesia is likely to be viewed favorably in developing nations. However, his international experience as a youth may cause some to misjudge him, intentionally or unintentionally. Obama was accused of attending a radical, Muslim ‘‘madrassa’’ school in Indonesia when he was a boy. This story was originated by Insight Magazine, which is owned by the same company as the conservative newspaper, The Washington Times, and it was repeated on Fox News. The story was not accurate, and an Obama aide called the Fox broadcast ‘‘appallingly irresponsible.’’ Obama would be a president ‘‘who can speak directly to the world’’ and who would restore and promote strong alliances across the world. As president, he would expand and modernize the military as well as increasing foreign aid.
Barack Obama has the potential to make significant contributions on both the domestic and international political scene. After decades of bitter partisanship, he offers pragmatic policy considerations. After too many cycles of negative campaigning, he demonstrates that it is better to stand for something in politics than to besmirch others. Barack
Obama represents a new face in American politics, and he is inspiring many other people to care about the challenges and opportunities that face the next generation.