Mr. Obama Goes to Washington
It's not every day that God calls your cell phone. But that's exactly what happened to me on an overcast afternoon last November. "Is this David?" asked the deep, vaguely familiar voice on the other end. When I told him it was, he said, "This is Barack Obama." Thinking it was a good friend playing a joke, I said I didn't believe him. But no, the voice insisted with a laugh, it was Illinois Senator Barack Obama, otherwise known in cult-of-personality political circles as a deity, a rising Democratic star or, as George W. Bush recently called him, "the pope."
Obama was calling because he was bothered that I had written a few blog posts questioning positions he'd taken that appeared to belie his progressive image, most prominently his vote for a corporate-written "reform" of class-action lawsuits, his refusal to frontally challenge the Iraq War after running as an antiwar candidate and his vote to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. One by one, Obama methodically answered each criticism. And when the call ended with his telling me he was committed to working with progressives, I was perplexed. Obama certainly talks a great game--but then, so have many false prophets over the years. I requested a formal interview, and to my surprise, Obama readily agreed. By the end of a day in Washington with him, I had the answers to two key questions: What can progressives expect from Barack Obama, and what does he really aspire to be?
I first met the Illinois senator in his Capitol Hill office, where he introduced me to his staff, all of whom seemed totally at ease with him. Unlike in many Congressional offices, there was no overuse of the words "senator" or "yes, sir." In separate conversations I had with many staffers, he was referred to as just "Barack." I was given a packet documenting Obama's accomplishments since his 2004 election, and it was hard not to be simultaneously impressed and underwhelmed. Given that he's one of the most junior members of the Senate, his successful efforts to secure additional funding for veterans' medical care and energy development in Illinois are no small feats. But considering that he's one of the most famous politicians in America, the accomplishments are fairly mundane.
"That's the constraints of being in the minority," Obama said, when asked why he hadn't used his media megaphone to push for more systemic changes. Then he adopted a signature Obama move: downplaying expectations. "What has probably been strategic was in the first year, my thinking was not to do a lot of message bills, in part because I've got a lot of colleagues here who do message bills," he said. "A lot of what I think is interpreted as caution is just a function of my institutional role as a freshman in the minority party and the limits that places on me in terms of being able to move legislation out of committee."
In a speech later that day, this theme came out again as he told the audience, "Remember, I've got a lot of clout--I went from 99th to 98th in seniority this year." His sarcastic point has some merit--but only some. After all, legislation is just one measure of success. Another is how big an impact a politician has on the public debate. Most members of Congress have to scratch and claw to get attention even on pressing issues. Obama, by contrast, can put whatever's on his mind on the front page of major newspapers. Does he want a public image as a low-key legislative technocrat with a nice packet of accomplishments? Or does he want to be someone who uses the Senate platform to move the national political debate?
Obama carefully answered the question about how he wants to define himself: "The amount of publicity I have received...means that I've got to be more sensitive in some ways to not step on my colleagues." For those who see him as a bold challenger of the system, this may be disappointing. After all, it oozes deference to the Senate clubbiness that has killed many a populist cause. And Obama has defended that club from outside pressure not only in his rhetoric but in his actions. For instance, last year he posted a long article on the blog Daily Kos criticizing attacks against lawmakers who voted for right-wing Supreme Court nominee John Roberts--even though Obama himself voted against Roberts. And in January Obama publicly criticized a fledgling effort to filibuster nominee Samuel Alito. Obama actually voted for the filibuster, but his statements helped take the steam out of that effort.
True, Obama did show a rare flash of defiance when he unsuccessfully pushed legislation this year to create an Office of Public Integrity, which would have enforced anti-corruption laws. But that kind of power-challenging move, which was met with strong resistance from both parties, was an exception. At the same time that he was ruffling feathers with that bill, he was one of the many Democratic senators who fled from Russell Feingold's motion to censure Bush over the White House's refusal to seek court orders for domestic wiretapping. Though polls showed that roughly half of Americans supported censure, it was shunned by the Senate club as too confrontational, and Obama seemed to agree.
That's the key word in trying to figure out Obama: He seems like everything to everybody, which is not necessarily his fault. Much of the media coverage of Obama has been personality focused, as the story of the son of a Kenyan and a Kansan, the third African-American senator since Reconstruction. Because the media have not looked as closely at his political positions, Obama has taken on the quality of a blank screen on which people can project whatever they like. But he hasn't discouraged this. A masterful politician, Obama has a Bill Clinton-esque talent for maximizing that screen and appearing comfortable in almost any setting. And, like Clinton, Obama has an impressive control of the issues and a mesmerizing ability to connect with people.