Obama’s Appeal Depends on Your Definition of Change

by Stuart Rothenberg February 26, 2008 · 11:05 PM EST

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) continues to promise change and stress his ability to unite Americans. It’s a feel-good campaign built on soaring rhetoric and good intentions.

Pardon me if all of the fawning from the national media, and the endorsements from Caroline Kennedy and Garrison Keillor, leave me less than convinced that he can bridge the deep divide that separates Americans.

Withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq won’t bring Americans together. Nor will raising taxes on the affluent or enhancing the power of organized labor to recruit more members. Even a stem-cell research bill won’t bring Americans together, though a clear majority surely supports it.

In politics, the devil is always in the details, and except in rare cases, Obama has either avoided them or, more importantly, failed to note the obvious contradictions in his message and his record.

Yes, Obama is a wonderful speaker, and his calls for change obviously resonate with many Americans. With seven out of 10 Americans agreeing that the country is headed off on the wrong track, it isn’t surprising that every candidate has talked change. No one has promised a third Bush term.

The question, of course, is what kind of change? Does Obama want to find common ground between Democrats and Republicans? Will he push issues and alternatives only with a national consensus? Or is “change” simply a value-neutral word for liberalism?

In the spring of 2005, 14 Senators tried to make Washington run more smoothly by signing an agreement for the 109th Congress that had the effect of killing Democratic plans to filibuster President Bush’s appointees to the appellate bench and eliminating a GOP strategy that would disallow filibusters of judicial appointments.

Barack Obama, who talks about changing the tone in Washington, didn’t join that “Gang of 14.”

Part of the problem with Obama’s message — and part of the reason it has so far been successful in his White House bid — is that different people read different things into his message of hope and change.

During an interview on a Washington, D.C., radio station the morning of the Potomac primary, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) talked about why he is drawn to Obama’s message of change. One didn’t need to read very hard between the lines to see that Kennedy thinks “change” means a dramatically more liberal agenda.

There is, of course, nothing surprising or wrong with this. You would expect Kennedy to support a candidate with whom he agrees.

But other voters, including some Republicans and many independents, seem to be attracted to Obama because they see him as someone who will improve the tone in Washington, bring Americans together and “get things done.”

Again, those are understandable goals. The only problem is that Kennedy’s view of Obama and the other one are all but impossible to reconcile.

If Obama satisfies Kennedy and the Democratic Party’s most liberal constituencies, it’s unlikely that he is going to bring the country together. And if Obama does truly take steps to find a middle ground between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, he certainly will disappoint his party’s base.

The reality is that half of the country leans Democratic and half leans Republican. Yes, there are some issues on which many Americans agree, but if Obama limits himself to those, he’ll have a thin agenda.

Instead, Obama is likely to strike out in a different direction from Bush. And if he thinks his communication skills alone will bring along the whole country (as he seems to), he is deluding himself. America is divided because Americans have very different views.

Obama was rated the most liberal Member of the U.S. Senate in 2007, up from the 10th most liberal Member in 2006 and the 16th most liberal in 2005. That suggests that he will follow a rather predictably liberal agenda if he is elected president later this year.

Even more telling, possibly, was a recent interview Obama gave to television anchor Leon Harris and journalist John Harris. In it, Obama tried to have things both ways.

When he was asked by Leon Harris how he reconciles his support for the D.C. gun ban, which was declared unconstitutional by a federal court last year and which bars all handguns not registered before 1976, with his statement that he has “no intention of taking away folks’ guns,” Obama launched into a confusing explanation of “conflicting traditions in this country.”

He ended his monologue by saying, “We can have a reasonable, thoughtful gun control measure that I think respects the Second Amendment and people’s traditions.” But the D.C. gun ban is based on the premise that the Second Amendment doesn’t give individuals the right to own a gun.

Maybe if Obama wraps up the Democratic nomination in the next few weeks, he’ll give all of us a better idea of what he’d really like to do as president. We can only hope so. Another eight months of soaring but empty rhetoric about bringing people together and bringing about change will leave most of America brain-dead.