Sunday, July 22, 2007

Obama's populism: pro-black, pro-union - Anti-Hilary?

Matt Stoller of OpenLeft recently made some insightful comments on the shift towards populism in Barack Obama's political rhetoric. He pulls some telling bits from Obama's discussion of health care:

On health insurance, for example, Obama repeated his pledge to sign a universal health care bill by the end of his first term, saying, "I shouldn't have better health insurance than you since you're paying the bill for my health insurance."

This is very different than the call for universal health care in January. Today, he's directly blaming the lobbyists and industries. In January, he was blaming cynicism and unnamed skeptics.

"And when some try to propose something bold, the interests groups and the partisans treat it like a sporting event, with each side keeping score of who's up and who's down, using fear and divisiveness and other cheap tricks to win their argument, even if we lose our solution in the process."

It's a good piece. And I had come to a similar conclusion about Obama's new populist posture having read of Obama's recent pro-labor stances.

"I stood on the picket line and marched with workers at the Congress Hotel in Chicago last week," Obama said. "I had marched with them four years earlier and I told them when I left that if they were still fighting four years from now, I'd be back on that picket line as president of the United States and we'll get the Congress Hotel organized."

I definitely respect Obama's conviction. I think that, when/if I raise children, they will know never to cross a picket line from about the same age they know never to steal or start fights. But I have to wonder about how much of this new populism is coming from a more strategic place of interest.

It's no secret that there is something of a divide between the Democratic establishment and the Democratic activists. The former tends to include people with high-school educations, organized labor, working-class folks, etc. The activist wing tends to skew to college students and people with graduate degrees. Right now, as the insurgent candidate, Obama is wildly popular with the activists. He has made himself into a phenomenon largely by ingratiating himself to the intellectual vanguard of the party, due in no small part to his own unabashed intellectualism. But what has made him a phenomenon outside the activist community is that he expertly combines his intellectual posture with soaring rhetoric and a workmanlike affability.

Nonetheless, Obama's deficit in support relative to Clinton and Gore shows that the Democratic establishment, including the parties more populist elements, have yet to be entirely sold on his candidacy. So while I do not doubt the sincerity of Obama's anti-special interest, pro-union politics, I also think it's clear that he needs to emphasize those aspects of his campaign if he is to make any inroads with Hilary's base.

If anything about Obama has been made clear in this campaign, it's that Obama is a fast learner. Mary Mitchell recently compared his underwhelming performance at Howard, where Clinton nailed the most crucial issues affecting black Americans at the expense of a wavering Obama, to his comfortable position as an "in-your-face" black populist before the NAACP.

"The massacre that happened at Virginia Tech was a terrible tragedy, and we were grief-stricken and shocked," Obama said. "But in this year alone in Chicago, we have had 34 Chicago Public School students gunned down, and for the most part there has been silence. We have to make sure that we change our politics so that we care just as much about those 34 kids in Chicago as we do about those kids at Virginia Tech."

Accused by critics of being too "skittish" to address black issues head on, Obama's spirited responses seemed crafted to put those critics to rest.

The pressures of political candidacy in a divided party are legion. Obama is learning to walk the wire between being too black for white voters and note black enough for black voters. Ann at Feministing has noted that Hilary faces similarly perplexing demands from feminist voters. Balancing populism with intellectualism is just one more act that Democratic candidates are expected to perform. While clearly not as linked to identity politics as the concerns of race and gender currently confronting the two front-runners, there is a sense in which candidates, owing to their elite credentials, are expected to prove their populist credentials without resulting to furious Lou-Dobbs-style pulpit-pounding.

As of now, I'm actually glad to see Obama take some more aggressive stands, whether or not it's emergent from some calculated anti-Hilary politicking. A passionate candidate who wants to unite everyone is great, and easy to get behind. But the same passionate candidate who is willing to call the anti-working class, anti-black and anti-democratic interests of the American establishment to the mat is all the more inspiring. Obama's had the insurgent's crown for awhile now - it's high time he's begun to do some in-surging.

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