WASHINGTON – During the Democratic Party primary season, all those eons ago, Barack Obama deployed no more powerful line against Hillary Clinton than his insistence that “we can’t just tell people what they want to hear. We need to tell them what they need to hear.” More than just a catchy couplet, the phrase was a deadly arrow into the heart of Clintonism.
Few things crippled Hillary’s campaign like the belief that she would say or do anything to get elected, from supporting the Iraq war to claiming she’d dodged sniper fire in Tuzla. In Obama, Democrats seemed to have found something refreshing: a brave truth-teller unmoored to pollsters, someone who had spoken out against the war and could at last restore integrity and honesty to Washington politics.
But since Obama dispatched Clinton, he has seemed more attuned to what the people want to hear or perhaps he has simply traded the wants of a liberal audience for those of a more moderate one.
Either way, he is treading that reliably time-worn path every nominee follows to the political center. And the question for Democrats is whether to applaud Obama as a cunning politician who knows how to win or fret that he’s given undecided voters reason to think his “politics of hope” are just politics as usual.
First, let us count the repositionings. Recently Obama expressed surprising disagreement with a Supreme Court ruling that outlawed the death penalty for child rapists (he had previously questioned the rationale of capital punishment). He resisted criticizing another high court ruling that affirmed gun owners’ rights, even though he had previously seemed to support the gun-control measure at issue.
Obama also dropped his once-stern opposition to a congressional measure, despised on the left, that would legally shield telecommunications companies that cooperated with extra-legal U.S. government eavesdropping.
To some, even the contents of Obama’s iPod, recently revealed to Rolling Stone, smacked of political calculation, combining as it did Baby Boomer classics (Stones, Springsteen, Dylan) with highbrow jazz (Coltrane, Miles Davis) mindless top 40 pop (Sheryl Crow) and edgy-but-not-too-edgy hip hop (Jay-Z, Ludacris). Perhaps this playlist should be titled “Majority Coalition.”
In truth, Obama has been creeping toward the sanitized center for a while. After disdaining American flag lapel pins last year, he now wears one regularly. When Jeremiah Wright, his controversial former pastor, provoked outrage in March, Obama insisted he could not “disown” him, but proceeded to do so just a few weeks later with a public condemnation.
Obama now concedes that his sharp criticism of free-trade agreements such as NAFTA before industrial-area primary voters might have been “overheated.” He’s toughened his talk on Iran and in favor of Israel. He’s even shaded his rhetoric on Iraq, downplaying his primary season vow to withdraw all U.S. combat troops within 16 months for more careful talk of a gradual and “responsible” exit.
Each of these positions has been generally consistent with the prevailing views of the swing voters Obama will need to win in November: independents, liberal Republicans and moderate Democrats whose votes are still up for grabs. After all, Obama has already locked down most core Democrats, who wouldn’t think of staying home or voting for the prowar McCain. But according to an early June Gallup poll, McCain is beating Obama among independents who don’t lean toward either party.
McCain campaign operatives have welcomed these interesting new dimensions of Obama’s profile. Their core argument, after all, is that Obama is a charlatan — not a harbinger of new politics but a typical pol who has never taken real risks (unlike McCain, who defied his party on campaign finance reform in the late 1990s and recent public opinion over the Iraq War). Obama, they say, is a just another unprincipled flip-flopper: “John Kerry with a tan,” as prominent conservative activist Grover Norquist recently put it, in a formulation of questionable taste. (Never mind that McCain himself revamped core positions on issues ranging from immigration to tax cuts to secure the Republican nomination.)
That Obama is not the living incarnation of pure principle should be no shock; his vaunted political courage has always been overstated. While prescient, his famous 2002 speech opposing the Iraq War, for instance, was hardly a political risk. Obama represented Chicago’s highly liberal Hyde Park area as a state senator and was counting on a similarly antiwar coalition of African Americans and white liberals in his upcoming U.S. Senate candidacy.
And while taking on the Clintons may have been audacious, it was also opportunistic. He did not feel “the fierce urgency of now” until after the expected challenger to Hillary’s crown, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, abandoned his candidacy at the last minute.
Savvy Democrats understand that there was always a certain genius to Obama’s positioning, that to some degree his talk of changing politics was itself a skillful pose, which turned Clinton into a reactionary foil. They will appreciate his awareness for what it takes to get elected. Democrats have long believed that their side practices politics less skillfully, less ruthlessly, than the Republicans. Hence one of Clinton’s main promises to Democrats was that she could beat the Republicans at their own cynical game.
For now, they will have to hope that Obama hasn’t gone too far. An ever-confounding question of politics is to know at what point a shift to a more majority position is outweighed by the disillusionment and scorn of flip-flopping. Wherever that tipping point is, however, Obama hasn’t yet reached it. He is still better off with his current stances than he would be, say, explaining why he doesn’t believe that child rapists deserve to die.
It’s an unfortunate reality of politics that voters don’t want to hear what they need to hear. We want to hear what we want to hear. Obama’s recognition of that is a testament that he is, for better or worse, a shrewd, if far from pure, politician. Somewhere Hillary must be chuckling ruefully.
Michael Crowley is senior editor at New Republic magazine.