Okay, Barack Obama, you’ve survived the Hillary gauntlet. She “threw the kitchen sink” at you, and you hung onto your delegate lead until finally you inched over the top. You also survived the revelation that Rev. Jeremiah Wright, your pastor, mentor, spiritual advisor and the guy you bring your children to listen to every Sunday is a racist extremist. Kudos on both. It couldn’t have been easy.
But you were also lucky. Hillary Clinton is the emblem of a despicable political machine, to which there was a post-traumatic response among some Democrats, particularly the intellectual types who sleep-walked through their skanky reign, recited the talking points on TV when asked, and cheered Bill as if he was Stagger Lee giving a commencement address at Harvard. You gave them a wake-up call, and you offer an opportunity for cleansing.
Obama, you might get lucky again. John McCain isn’t as despised as Hillary, but he’s not a beloved figure among his own party, and he’s undeniable tied to George W. Bush on enough policies that the public’s rejection of what’s now being called “the GOP brand” might get him to the White House.
At that point Obama, I hope you can take a few weeks to figure out what it means to be the Leader of the Free World and the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military in the known history of the planet.
You need to take a class or something. You’re making some appalling errors right now.
On NAFTA: During a Democratic debate, Obama quite clearly threatened to unilaterally withdraw the US from the treaty if Canada and Mexico weren’t willing to renegotiate. It came out that his economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee met with Canadian officials as an Obama representative to tell them to take Obama’s anti-NAFTA rhetoric as “political posturing.” When a memo regarding this meeting was publicized, Obama’s campaign tried to issue a carefully parsed denial, but eventually had to acknowledge the meeting did happen and comments about the politics of NAFTA were made. Obama and his campaign reaffirmed, however, their anti-NAFTA bonafides. The story hurt Obama, and he lost the Ohio primary.
Now that he’s the nominee, he’s doing the usual things, including giving reassurances to Wall Street of his intentions. His method was a sit-down with Fortune magazine, during which he was asked about NAFTA. Not too surprisingly, Obama took a more moderate position on the treaty. The position shift isn’t what made him look bad. It was the clumsy way he did it:
“Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified,” he conceded, after I reminded him that he had called NAFTA “devastating” and “a big mistake,” despite nonpartisan studies concluding that the trade zone has had a mild, positive effect on the U.S. economy.
Does that mean his rhetoric was overheated and amplified? “Politicians are always guilty of that, and I don’t exempt myself,” he answered.
Now, however, Obama says he doesn’t believe in unilaterally reopening NAFTA. On the afternoon that I sat down with him to discuss the economy, Obama said he had just spoken with Harper, who had called to congratulate him on winning the nomination.
“I’m not a big believer in doing things unilaterally,” Obama said. “I’m a big believer in opening up a dialogue and figuring out how we can make this work for all people.”
This isn’t a shift in tone or emphasis. This is Obama talking about himself as if he doesn’t recognize that “politician” who was running around Ohio, getting all overheated and talking about unilateral moves that Obama doesn’t believe in. As if he was just seized by a passionate hatred of NAFTA, and not making calculated statements to draw votes from NAFTA-hating Ohio unionists, statements that these Ohioans would be justified in now calling lies.
In the big leagues, Obama, politicians shift around all the time, depending on the audience and the temper of the times. The moderate uniter-not-a-divider George W. Bush of 2000 would hardly recognize the Onward Christian Soldiers Bush of 2004. But you don’t make the shift by casting yourself as an unreliable source of your own beliefs. “Yeah, I said that, but I must have been crazy,” is a fair paraphrase of what Obama told Fortune.
He did it again on an even more sensitive subject: The status of Jerusalem in a hypothetical Israeli-Palestinian accord. From a Reuters story Tuesday that was headlined: Adviser denies Obama showed naivete on Jerusalem:
Democrat Barack Obama misused a “code word” in Middle East politics when he said Jerusalem should be Israel’s “undivided” capital but that does not mean he is naive on foreign policy, a top adviser said on Tuesday.
Addressing a pro-Israel lobby group this month, the Democratic White House hopeful said: “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”
The comment angered Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, as the capital of a future state. “He has closed all doors to peace,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said after the June 4 speech.
Obama later said Palestinians and Israelis had to negotiate the status of the city, in line with long-held U.S. presidential policy.
Daniel Kurtzer, who advises Obama on the Middle East, said Tuesday at the Israel Policy Forum that Obama’s comment stemmed from “a picture in his mind of Jerusalem before 1967 with barbed wires and minefields and demilitarized zones.”
“So he used a word to represent what he did not want to see again, and then realized afterwards that that word is a code word in the Middle East,” Kurtzer said.
The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1995 describing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and saying it should not be divided, but successive presidents have used their foreign policy powers to maintain the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and to back talks between Israel and Palestinians on the status of Jerusalem.
I am not running for president, and I don’t consider myself an expert on the Palestinian issue, but even I know that Palestinians take offense when US politicians promise U.S. Jewish leaders that Jerusalem will be Israel’s. This time it was Kurtzer uttering the “yeah, he said that but he must have been crazy” formulation, describing the misleading and confusing images in Obama’s mind that led him astray.
It’s also bound to be noted by conservatives and McCain’s campaign that Obama seems intimately aware of what Jerusalem looked like when he was all of six years old, but had no clue what his Weather Underground friend Bill Ayers was up to, blowing up buildings two years later. But more to the point, the claim that Obama is “not naive” doesn’t alter the inherent naivete in a presidential finalist talking off the top of his head on the most touchy international topic imaginable. Jennifer Rubin, an Obama critic who blogs for Commentary Magazine, spreads the responsibility to Obama’s campaign:
Even more so, if the advisor says Obama didn’t understand what he was saying. But wait a minute. Didn’t Obama have advisors on Israel assisting him with the speech? Where were they? Once again, this suggests that there is too little adult supervision of a candidate unaccustomed to speaking on the world stage about issues in which there are lots of code words, indeed in which every word (e.g. “preconditons,” “immediate withdrawal”) has meaning to Americans’ foes and friends.
The link on the words “adult supervision” will take you to another embarrassment, but this one implicating his “likely National Security adviser” Richard Danzig, who compared foreign affairs to Winnie-the-Pooh. He was probably kidding, Rubin suggests hopefully. But I’ve seen so many Democratic candidates destroyed by seeming unequipped to defend the country. You know, the Dems are supposed to be “the Mommy party.” To make the same point, I would have picked any book in the world but Winnie-the-Pooh.
Obama has had a meteoric rise to power, to the threshold of the presidency, which I believe he should be favored to win almost no matter what he does. But please, Obama, don’t scare the grownups, or else a lot of us might take our secret ballots and secretly pick someone else.
*Update, 6/20/08: The NY Times columnist David Brooks disagrees with any hint that Obama is naive. It’s all strategery, Brooks says:
This guy is the whole Chicago package: an idealistic, lakefront liberal fronting a sharp-elbowed machine operator. He’s the only politician of our lifetime who is underestimated because he’s too intelligent. He speaks so calmly and polysyllabically that people fail to appreciate the Machiavellian ambition inside.
But he’s been giving us an education, for anybody who cares to pay attention. Just try to imagine Mister Rogers playing the agent Ari in “Entourage” and it all falls into place.