Really, It’s All About Obama III: Why Are They Tied?

The press and political world are wondering why John McCain has apparently evened up with Barack Obama, despite a week of embarrassing flubs.  How could Obama have lost ground?

But if you start from the assumption that this election is all about Obama, it’s really not surprising at all.  He said it himself:

“If you are satisfied with the way things are going now, then you should vote for John McCain,” Obama says before rattling off a list of current concerns, including rising gas prices, home foreclosures and job losses as the country fights two wars. Then, Obama promises “fundamental change.”

With the exception of Ted Kennedy, John McCain is the best-known politician in America who hasn’t been president or vice-president.  Whether he is “McSame” is a matter for debate, but one thing’s for sure.  He is who he is and you know who he is.  If he has a bad week, if he misspeaks, if he changes his mind on offshore oil drilling or tax cuts, it doesn’t alter our view of him.

The picture of Obama isn’t so clear yet.  The things he says resonate more because they add proportionally more to the sum of knowledge about him.  When Obama alters his positions, there is more of an impact on his overall reputation, because his initial set of positions represented most of what we knew about him.  He is in a real bind on Iraq, because he owes his nomination to his ability to chide Hillary Clinton for her pro-war vote in 2002.

The conventional wisdom is that he can “run to the center” without penalty, but I challenge that opinion.  You could not imagine an article like this one appearing with regard to any of the Democratic candidates since 1976, all of whom tried to position themselves as centrists after securing the nomination.  Some repositionings didn’t seem legitimate, perhaps.  But none have been portrayed as betrayal:

In the breathless weeks before the Oregon presidential primary in May, Martha Shade did what thousands of other people here did: she registered as a Democrat so she could vote for Senator Barack Obama.

Now, however, after critics have accused Mr. Obama of shifting positions on issues like the war in Iraq, the Bush administration’s program of wiretapping without warrants, gun control and the death penalty — all in what some view as a shameless play to a general election audience — Ms. Shade said she planned to switch back to the Green Party.

“I’m disgusted with him,” said Ms. Shade, an artist. “I can’t even listen to him anymore. He had such an opportunity, but all this ‘audacity of hope’ stuff, it’s blah, blah, blah. For all the independents he’s going to gain, he’s going to lose a lot of progressives.”

Later in the article, Shade allows as how she is far out of the mainstream, and the theme of the article is that Obama doesn’t really need to worry about the far left.  But it’s another clue to Obama’s situation that some in the far left thought Obama was one of them.  It’s the amplitude of surprise that impresses me.  Compare that with McCain’s situation.  The far right knows he’s not one of them.  When McCain strikes a centrist pose, they might resent it, but they expect it and have accounted for it already.  They’re surprised when he agrees with them.

It’s all about Obama.  If his statements and positions gel into a coherent whole, a graspable persona, and a philosophy, he probably wins.  But if voters are still trying to square Statement A with Statement B, voters will probably settle for McCain.

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Obama Can Reboot the Federal Government

Pilobolus enacts social mediaBarack Obama apparently resents it when he’s accused of being vague about the policies he’ll pursue as president, seeing such questions as a political trap.  He’s not unjustified in this fear, but since he doesn’t have a record of doing anything in particular in the public sphere — if he had a signature issue, it was ethics and campaign reform, and he just jettisoned that with his decision to raise unlimited private funds in his general election bid — he does have to be more specific than another candidate with a record and a reputation might have needed to be.

I think the promise of Obama is that he will bring to the US government of the new opportunities for collaboration and network formation that creative people have developed in the past five years, using the Internet’s capabilities as their primary tool.  Social media is why my son’s life is going to be very different from mine.

Social media could also be why Obama’s presidency could be very different from any of his predecessors.  Who knows, maybe the state of the art is such that McCain would also embrace these techniques, but if you had to pick between them as to who would usher in that future first, it wouldn’t be a contest. It’s Obama.

There’s a tension, however, between the futuristic orientation of Obama’s young supporters and the essential stodginess of the Democratic Party — a condition Obama’s acolytes haven’t really experienced yet.  The Democratic Party gives life to, and is the death of, idealism in youth.  The situation was nicely captured in today’s Sunday New York Times Magazine, in a short piece by NYU sociology professor Dalton Conley.  Here are some of the key grafs:

The chatter these days is that the Republicans are a party that has run out of ideas. The Soviet Union is long gone; welfare has been reformed; market logics have permeated almost every aspect of our lives (eBay, anyone?). The truth is that the triumph of conservative ideas may present a political problem for the ailing Republicans, but the party that’s truly lacking in new ideas is my own, the resurgent Democrats.

There is lots of talk in progressive policy circles that we need a “New New Deal” or some other sort of postindustrial revision to the social contract. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, after all, were forged in a society in which, for the most part, social organization was concentric. By way of analogy, think of Russian nesting dolls: children were nested in families; each family had one breadwinner; that breadwinner worked for a single employer; those employers were firmly rooted in the United States; and, to top it all off, the vast majority of people living in the country were citizens. This form of social organization made the social contract possible. There were clear parties to cut the deal, so to speak.

(snip)

Today, by contrast, the most common model of social organization is crosscutting social groups.

(snip)

These more complex social arrangements create many problems for the old social contract.

(snip)

So perhaps we need to reimagine these nesting dolls and instead think of the social contract along the lines of a computer network or the hub-and-spoke airline network in the U.S. In such “scale free” networks, distance has been collapsed by long links that allow you to skip between any two points in a couple steps. The government’s role is less as a backup provider — in case one link of the nested chain breaks down — and more as honest broker and resource hub across groups.

In health care, for example, the government could act as a pooler, forming health-insurance-purchasing cooperatives, randomly assigning unaffiliated individuals to groups that would then contract with private insurers. Likewise, the state could set up universal investment accounts for retirement savings, college savings and health expenditures. In education, the feds could mandate that any institutions of higher education that receive government dollars must make their research and course materials available online in an open-source format free of charge.

Private companies and nonprofits are already stepping in to fill this role. The Freelancers Union allows self-employed individuals to purchase health insurance at less expensive group rates. And M.I.T. and iTunes U have already inaugurated the open-courseware movement. But government has an important role to play. After all, the state can absorb a lot more risk than smaller entities can. Think how well government-backed V.A. and F.H.A. mortgages worked after World War II as compared with how the private market has fared lately.

(snip)It’s not surprising that the private-sector, new-economy companies are ahead of government in adapting to the networked society, but if progressives want a victory in the world of ideas and policy — and not just a couple of good election cycles — they are going to have to stop talking F.D.R, J.F.K. and L.B.J. and start thinking eBay, Google and Wiki.

Social network diagramOn my other blog, From 50,000 Feet, I wrote about Obama as viewed similarly in a Wired story.

These aren’t the ideas that will get Obama elected, surely.  He already gets mocked as the “egghead” in the race.  He’s compared in an uncomplimentary fashion to such famous Democratic intellectuals as Adlai Stevenson and Michael Dukakis.

But someday, somehow, one of our presidents is going to rescue the federal government from its sclerotic ways and figure out how to treat us like valued customers.  I think it will have to be a Democrat, because only a Democrat will be trusted to reconfigure social safety-net programs, and only a Democrat can butt heads with the public-employee unions that exist to kill efficiency reforms and expert to emerge with anything to show for it.

Obama can grow in the areas where he is now weak.  McCain is what he is. He’s the Pope Benedict XVI of this election, the safe, stall-for-time choice for president who will hold the office honorably while both parties figure out what their new directions will be.  Obama might not be ready (see my last post), but modernizing the colossus that is the US government is a task no one will ever be ready for.  You have to start somewhere, and Obama brings more of the kinds of tools we’ll need than anyone else with a credible chance to become president in 2012.

Brakes on the Pendulum?

We seem to be coming out of the conservative era in American politics that was first glimpsed with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and zenithed with the elections of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.  Since George McGovern’s overwhelming defeat in 1972, Democratic candidates for president have all acknowledged the tide was against them.  Mondale and Dukakis claimed they refused to apologize for being liberals, while apologizing.  Carter and Clinton insisted they weren’t liberals at all, and Clinton really didn’t govern like one, achieving all his successes through triangulating the activist wings of both parties. The continued strength of the conservative current was demonstrated in 2000 and 2004 when a deeply flawed candidate, George W. Bush, managed to put his two sharper, smarter opponents on the defensive, forcing them into mistake after mistake. 

This election season feels different.  I guess we’ll find out soon enough, but I think the country is readier for a sharp left turn than at any time since the last liberal era began in 1932.  In 2008, I think you could get a lot of people to agree there are “malefactors of great wealth” to use FDR’s great phrase.  The economic issues that cut the deepest are aimed directly at industries and individuals who seem to have taken advantage of this country to accumulate their wealth, to the detriment of middle class people. The insurance companies.  Big pharma.  The oil companies.  Mortgage brokerages. Hedge fund managers. The presidents of financial institutions who make disasterous investments then drift away, carrying with both arms duffel bags full of severance money. 

The picture of unfettered capitalism painted by the most prominent capitalists on the business scene is not a pretty one.  It was said the magic of the market would benefit all of us.  Lately, it hasn’t, so the conservative warnings against the damage high taxes do to the economy ring hollow.  Politically, it would seem to be a perfect time for a political movement attacking capitalism — in the American formulation, the “excesses” of capitalism.  We don’t really have an intellectually coherent Left in this country in the 19th-century European sense.  But we do have a political location where capitalism’s disappointed, disaffected and disgusted can unite — the Democratic Party.  

And, they are about to nominate the most unapolegetically liberal candidate since McGovern in Barack Obama.  In doing so, they are specifically rejecting a continuation of the successful Clinton legacy.  Today’s Democrats largely no longer find Clinton’s reign to be such a success. Oh, it’s tied in with his and her ethical problems, but even his pure policy plays were either more wins for conservatism (welfare reform, NAFTA), symbolic changes in a liberal direction (the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows workers to take time off to care for a sick child — at their own expense), or big flops (do I need to remind anyone about health care?).

If you believe Obama, his administration will bring back liberalism in a big way.

Do you believe him?  Check that: I’m not doubting his sincerity.  I think he wants an activist government to create greater security for middle-class voters.  My question is: If he wins, will he be able to pull it off?  Will he take advantage of Democratic majorities in both houses (something Clinton had, but squandered after just two years) and get health care reform passed?  Will he really go after the oil companies and mortgage companies?

Or is that going to be impossible?

This is what I’m dying to find out. Have the pitiless realities of the global economy rendered liberalism obsolete?  Can Milton Friedman be repealed?

I sense the American voters are anxious to find out.  They’d like to believe — “yes we can” — that we can use the tools of government to construct a fairer, more secure, more democratic and more sustainable economy than the one we have now.  Will that belief survive the first two years of an Obama Administration?

If so, Obama could be the next FDR.  But does that seem realistic to you?

P.S. I realize McCain is still close in the polls and might win.  He’s got the national security issue about as locked up as a candidate can, and his domestic-policy views are closer to liberalism than any Republican has tried for decades.  He’s not to be written off by any means.  If this election is about homeland security and national defense, he wins.  

Or: He wins if the American public decides it isn’t ready to revive liberalism.

Or: He wins if the American public concludes Obama doesn’t have enough experience to back up his promises.  

I Did Not Know the Term “Tar Baby” is Racist

I was surfing through MSNBC today and saw a headline that made me do a double-take:  “McCain uses term ‘tar baby’: Later says he regrets it.” 

Here’s what presidential candidate John McCain said, according to the AP:

Answering questions at a town hall meeting, the Arizona senator was discussing federal involvement in custody cases when he said, “For me to stand here and … say I’m going to declare divorces invalid because of someone who feels they weren’t treated fairly in court, we are getting into a tar baby of enormous proportions and I don’t know how you get out of that.”

I’ve used the expression “tar baby” lots of times.  It is one of the most useful literary metaphors in the American idiom.  What other two-word expression exists to describe a situation where the more you try to fight your way out of a situation, you just get more trapped by it?   

But, according to the AP story on MSNBC, ‘tar baby’ “is considered by some a racial epithet.” 

Really? 

From one perspective, I suppose, everything in “Uncle Remus,” the most recognized source of the “tar baby” story, is racially suspect.  A collection of fables told by an ex-slave, transcribed in a recognizably old-south African-American dialect by a white journalist, Joel Chandler Harris, these were folk tales about the trickster B’rer Rabbit and his battles of wits with B’rer Fox and B’rer Bear.    The stories aren’t racist at all, but the dialect in which they are told is highly stereotypical.  In fact, that dialect might be the source of certain stereotypes that persisted for decades.

The “tar baby” story was the most memorable, giving us not only the one expression, but also, “please don’t throw me in that briar patch!” Which is a way of saying you hope your adversary tries to hurt you by doing something you secretly know will benefit you.  The briar patch was how B’rer Rabbit escaped from the “tar baby” trap. I’ve heard that expression dozens of times in business settings.  It came into wide use in the 1990s.  

The manner in which “Uncle Remus” is offensive is a little bit contradictory.  The tale-teller’s dialect is considered by some to be demeaning and offensive.  But also, according to Wikipedia,

Alice Walker accused Harris of “stealing a good part of my heritage” in a searing essay called “Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine.” Toni Morrison wrote a novel called “Tar Baby” based on the folktale recorded by Harris. In interviews, she has claimed she learned the story from family, and owes no debt to Harris.

So, in one respect, Uncle Remus is a demeaning stereotype.  In another respect, he is a repository of African American culture that was misappropriated by whites and should be returned to its rightful owners.

It’s certainly not a factor one can ignore:  Could an African-American writer have published a book like Uncle Remus in the 1880s?  Definitely not.  

Wikipedia goes on to provide another perspective:

Black folklorist Julius Lester holds a somewhat kinder view of Harris. He sees the Uncle Remus stories as important records of Black Folklore, and has rewritten many of the Harris’ stories in an effort to elevate the subversive elements over the racist ones.

In fact, Harris does appear to have been somewhat of a folklorist himself, albeit one limited by his race, culture and moment in history.  He was born poor and illegimate in Georgia and grew up to become a journalist in Atlanta.  It was in the Atlanta Constitution where the tales first appeared.

In 1999, a Random House word-of-the-day site provided a definition of “tar baby,” first talking about the tar-baby folk tale, Uncle Remus, and so forth, but then adding this:

The expression tar baby is also used occasionally as a derogatory term for black people (in the U.S. it refers to African-Americans; in New Zealand it refers to Maoris), or among blacks as a term for a particularly dark-skinned person. As a result, some people suggest avoiding the use of the term in any context.

I’ve never heard it used that way.  It’s pretty clear from the context that Senator McCain didn’t mean it that way. It would make no sense.

But given all the controversy around the expression, I think the prudent thing is to stop making further references to Uncle Remus as anything but an historical benchmark. This is the position the Walt Disney Company has taken in refusing to release on video the 1946 film, “Song of the South,” based on Uncle Remus.  At a 2006 shareholders’ meeting, Disney CEO Robert Iger explained the decision this way:

“I screened it fairly recently because I hadn’t seen it since I was a child, and I have to tell you after I watched it, even considering the context that it was made, I had some concerns about it because of what it depicted. And though it’s quite possible that people wouldn’t consider it in the context that it was made, and there were some… [long pause] depictions that I mentioned earlier in the film that I think would be bothersome to a lot of people. And so, owing to the sensitivity that exists in our culture, balancing it with the desire to, uh, maybe increase our earnings a bit, but never putting that in front of what we thought were our ethics and our integrity, we made the decision not to re-release it. Not a decision that is made forever, I imagine this is going to continue to come up, but for now we simply don’t have plans to bring it back because of the sensitivities that I mentioned.”

Where I started with this post was a discussion of the American idiom.  John McCain unthinkingly used a term that was nearly universally recognized as part of it, with a meaning that transcends its cultural origins.  It didn’t make him or any of us a racist for using it.  Like I said, it was an extremely useful and humorous short-hand.

But now we’re on notice. Unless and until the folk tale in question finds its way back into the American idiom via a more authentic source, “tar baby” is out.

What If We Held an Election and None of the Candidates Qualified?

According to the New Republic’s John B. Judis, none of the six major presidential candidates for 2008 is qualified to be president.  Five of them have no foreign policy experience (sorry Hillary, but being First Lady doesn’t really count, and as a senator you haven’t been involved).  The one whose resume shows him to be qualified, John McCain, is discounted by Judis because “in his dogged pursuit of a neoconservative agenda, McCain shows little evidence of having acquired any wisdom from that experience.”

Given what’s at stake in 2008, Judis is right to be alarmed. 

Like everything else that’s wrong with politics nowadays, the roots of the problem in selecting a president qualified to serve as commander-in-chief and our nation’s representative to the world go back to the 1960s, Judis says.  By the 1970s…

(p)opular primaries became the main vehicle for nominating candidates. That meant that the party itself, and the party convention, became increasingly irrelevant. What mattered was a candidate’s ability to win votes in the primaries, especially the early ones. Foreign policy played a peripheral role, and only as a component of the themes the candidate developed. What mattered most was the ability of the candidate–best evidenced by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and even George W. Bush–to make voters feel that he cared personally about them. That demanded special skills from a candidate and from a large campaign staff devoted to polling and media, including advertising.

Jimmy Carter was the first of these post-sixties candidates, and he set the standard that subsequent candidates have followed. Even though the United States was still in the throes of a foreign policy crisis caused by its defeat in Vietnam, he ran primarily on a Watergate promise of personal honesty and integrity. His experience consisted of one term as Georgia’s governor. He had no experience in foreign policy and was being tutored during the campaign by Zbigniew Brzezinski, but the voters didn’t hold it against him. George W. Bush’s campaign in 2000 was a carbon copy of Carter’s campaign. He stressed personal qualities and knew, if anything, even less about foreign policy than Carter did. But he ran a skillful campaign and won.

Few of these candidates could boast any expertise in foreign policy. Many of them, as in the past, were governors. The senators and House members who ran for president were unlikely to have served on the foreign relations committees–committees that are generally shunned by presidential aspirants because they are irrelevant to local constituents and because they don’t provide a basis for fundraising. When challenged on whether they had the experience to be president, many of the candidates cited their experience running for president. The ability to campaign became the test of the ability to govern.

Whenever I read things like this, I always say to myself:  “God must love the United States of America.  Left to our own devices, we’d be screwed.”   I hope we haven’t done anything to piss Him off.  

Who would be qualified to serve as president, who has a chance?  Gore is the obvious choice.  Who else?