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Barack Obama's Independent Streak | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Barack Obama's Independent Streak

President Obama raced across the country this weekend to get out the vote for Democratic candidates.

But he wasn't helping every Democrat.

In one state, he pointedly refused to back the most prominent Democrat on the ballot.

And he did so with the purpose of helping the candidate—a liberal independent—who might just beat the Democrat.

The state is Rhode Island and Obama stirred quite a controversy when he went there to raise money and back Democratic congressional candidates but pointedly failed to endorse Democratic gubernatorial candidate Frank Caprio.

Caprio was furious. He said the president could "take his endorsement and really shove it, as far as I'm concerned."

Do you think that, perhaps, Caprio would have preferred to take Obama's endorsement and put it in his television commercials?

Of course that's the case.

Rhode Island is one of the most reliably Democratic states in the country, and Obama remains a good deal more popular in Providence and Pawtucket than he is in Pensacola and Plano.

But Obama made the right choice, even if he made Caprio mad.

Officially, the White House says, the president is sitting out of the Rhode Island contest "out of respect for his friend Lincoln Chafee."

But, of course, the mention of Chafee by name makes the White House statement sound an awfully lot like an endorsement of the independent candidate for governor—a former senator who served as the last of the chamber's true moderates before his defeat in 2006. Chafee cut his ties with the GOP a year later and became an early backer of Obama's presidential run.

The president is not just being loyal to a friend, however.

Chafee, who is running roughly even with Caprio in the polls, is more than just a credible contender in the Rhode Island race. He is one of the few serious gubernatorial candidates anywhere this year who is talking seriously about how to maintain public education and public services in tough economic times.

That's not to say that Chafee is right in all his approaches, or on every issue.

But what he is doing this year is important.

Chafee's running as an honest player, who asks Rhode Islanders to trust him when he says that it is neither fiscally nor morally responsible to foster the fantasy that it will be possible to cuts taxes, balance budgets and maintain social services and public education. Chafee is leveling with Rhode Islanders, telling that the state's in dire financial straits and that the only way to set things right is with a combination of fiscal discipline and fair taxation.

Chafee's honesty, and his commitment to maintaining civil society, has won him the support of the state committee of the Service Employees International Union, as well as the United Nurses and Allied Professionals and United Food and Commercial Workers unions. He's also backed by environmental groups such as Clean Water Action, activist groups such as Rhode Island's Future and a number of grassroots progressives.

That does not mean that the whole coalition that elected Obama is now backing Chafee. Many Democrats are backing Caprio, despite the fact that the Democratic nominee reportedly considered becoming a Republican earlier this year.

The "D" after Caprio's name keeps him competitive, however. The race is close. Hence Caprio's anger over Obama's neutrality.

Perhaps even more significant is the fact that the White House has made no objection to the latest television ad from the Chafee campaign.

The ad features 2008 candidate Barack Obama telling a rally in Providence: "Real change isn’t voting for George Bush’s war in Iraq. I knew what it was. Lincoln Chafee knew what it was. We were voting for war."

The tape's two years old. But that's the Democratic president hailing Chafee's judgement on the eve of an election when the indepdendent candidate for governor will win if he can get enough Democrats to vote for the man the White House describes as "(Obama's) friend Lincoln Chafee."

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