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.
Many progressives wonder whether Obama will show that an outsider can force real change in government, or that the Senate club has become so insulated that Mr. Smith can no longer go to Washington. But that question brings another one: whether Obama wants to challenge the club in the first place. "There's no doubt that I will be staking out more public positions on more issues as time goes on," Obama said cryptically. Does that mean he is going to be more confrontational? "The question is not whether you end up being confrontational," he said in a tone that made clear he had been pondering that idea long before I brought it up. "The question is, Do you let confrontations arise as a consequence of your putting forward a positive vision of what needs to happen and letting the confrontation organically emerge, or do you go out of your way for it?"
By almost all measures, Obama has been a solid liberal, both in his early career as a community organizer and then as a local politician. In the Illinois State Senate he supported increased funding for healthcare and education and wrote bills to publicly finance judicial campaigns and create a state earned-income tax credit. His charisma, intellect and ability to build bipartisan coalitions were evident early in his career, fueling progressives' high hopes for him. In the US Senate, for the most part he has stuck with his party on key votes when so-called moderates didn't. For example, Obama voted against the corporate-written Central American Free Trade Agreement. And he was particularly outspoken after Hurricane Katrina, leading the charge among lawmakers demanding answers about the government's failure to protect New Orleans.
But while Obama has a solid liberal record, many believe there is a difference between a liberal and a true progressive. For example, his signature legislation today is his "healthcare for hybrids" proposal, which would give away hundreds of millions to auto companies to relieve them of some of the costs of paying for retirees' healthcare. In exchange, the companies would produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. The goals are unassailable, but the policy reflects the liberal carrot of appeasing a powerful industry rather than the progressive stick of forcing that industry to shape up by simply mandating higher fuel-efficiency standards.
The occasions when Obama has broken with his party indicate similar inclinations. Just one month into his term, the former civil rights lawyer defied the Democrats and voted for the class-action "reform" bill. Opposed by most major civil rights and consumer watchdog groups, this Big Business-backed legislation was sold to the public as a way to stop "frivolous" lawsuits. But everyone in Washington knew the bill's real objective was to protect corporate abusers. A few weeks later, though he voted against the credit-card-industry-written bankruptcy bill, Obama also voted against an amendment that would have capped credit-card interest rates at a whopping 30 percent (he defends his vote by claiming the amendment was poorly written).
Then there is the Iraq War. Obama says that during his 2004 election campaign he "loudly and vigorously" opposed the war. As The New Yorker noted, "many had been drawn initially by Obama's early opposition to the invasion." But "when his speech at the antiwar rally in 2002 was quietly removed from his campaign Web site," the magazine reported, "activists found that to be an ominous sign"--one that foreshadowed Obama's first months in the Senate. Indeed, through much of 2005, Obama said little about Iraq, displaying a noticeable deference to Washington's bipartisan foreign policy elite, which had pushed the war. One of Obama's first votes as a senator was to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State despite her integral role in pushing the now-debunked propaganda about Iraq's WMD.
In November Obama's reticence on the war ended. Five days after hawkish Democratic Representative Jack Murtha famously called for a withdrawal, Obama gave a speech calling for a drawdown of troops in 2006. "Those of us in Washington have fallen behind the debate that is taking place across America on Iraq," he said. But then he retreated. On Meet the Press in January Obama regurgitated catchphrases often employed by neoconservatives to caricature those demanding a timetable for withdrawal. "It would not be responsible for us to unilaterally and precipitously draw troops down," he said. Then, as polls showed support for the war further eroding, Obama tacked again, giving a speech in May attacking the war and mocking the "idea that somehow if you say the words 'plan for victory' and 'stay the course' over and over and over and over again...that somehow people are not going to notice the 2,400 flag-draped coffins that have arrived at the Dover Air Force Base."
Another area of retreat and equivocation for Obama is his role in party politics. He had previously said he didn't "want to be the kingmaker," because "it's never been sort of a role that I've aspired to in politics." Yet Obama forcefully intervened in a suburban Chicago Congressional primary on behalf of Iraq veteran Tammy Duckworth, the candidate handpicked by Democratic power brokers, against grassroots contender Christine Cegelis, who in 2004 garnered an astonishing 44 percent against GOP incumbent Henry Hyde and who almost beat Duckworth. Wasn't this the very kingmaking role he'd said he didn't want to be a part of? Obama said only, "There are going to be strategic questions about who do I think is best equipped to win the general elections." One senior Congressional aide said, "Obama showed himself to be the pure political hack he is. Here you have a guy whose own success was predicated on winning primaries against party-backed candidates now using his enormous political capital to go to bat for the same party machines he says he doesn't want to be a tool of."
Although Obama said such high-profile primary endorsements were rare, a similar controversy arose a few weeks later. Just as Ned Lamont's antiwar primary campaign against prowar Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman was gaining momentum, Obama traveled to the state to endorse Lieberman. Like the Duckworth endorsement, Obama's move was timed to derail an insurgent, grassroots candidate. To progressives this may seem surprising, given Obama's progressive image. But remember, according to the New York Times it is Lieberman--one of the most conservative, prowar Democrats in Washington--who is "Obama's mentor in the Senate as part of a program in which freshman senators are paired with incumbents."
At the end of a long day, we sat down in Obama's Capitol Hill office. It was time to talk specifics, so I asked him to explain his "healthcare for hybrids" auto-industry proposal. Why not simply push to strengthen fuel-efficiency mandates?
"There is a difference between an opinion writer or thinker and a legislator," he said, making sure to note that he is also a co-sponsor of bills that would mandate better fuel efficiency. "I a lot of times don't get an opportunity to frame legislation in ways that I would exactly prefer. I have to take into account what is possible within the constraints of the institution." Fuel-efficiency standards, he said, provided a good example of what he was talking about. Michigan Democrats "Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow are as progressive a set of senators as you can hope to find," he continued. "But if you have a conversation with them about standards, they are adamantly opposed. That's something that I've got to take into account if I'm going to be able to actually get something accomplished."
This theme had been reiterated all day: Obama is all about the art of the possible within the system. "This is a classic conflict within the left: Are you a revolutionary or are you a reformist?" Obama said. "I am less concerned with the labels that are placed on me in terms of what kind of leader I am, and I am more interested in results.... I think within the institutional structures we have, we can significantly improve the life chances of ordinary Americans." I asked him to give me some specific examples of what he meant. Is a proposal to convert America's healthcare system to one in which the government is the single payer for all services revolutionary or reformist? "Anything that Canada does can't be entirely revolutionary--it's Canada," Obama joked. "When I drive through Toronto, it doesn't look like a bunch of Maoists." Even so, Obama said that although he "would not shy away from a debate about single-payer," right now he is "not convinced that it is the best way to achieve universal healthcare."
Obama has a remarkable ability to convince you that his positions are motivated purely by principles, not tactical considerations. This skill is so subtle and impressive, it resembles Luke Skywalker's mastery of the Force. It's a powerful tool for a Democratic Party that often emanates calculation rather than conviction. "I don't think in ideological terms. I never have," Obama said, continuing on the healthcare theme. "Everybody who supports single-payer healthcare says, 'Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.' That represents 1 million, 2 million, 3 million jobs of people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places. What are we doing with them? Where are we employing them?"
Shifting back to how he sees himself in the Senate, Obama seemed to amend his previous statement about what kind of leadership progressives can expect from him. "I am agnostic in terms of the models that solve these problems," he said. "If the only way to solve a problem is structural, institutional change, then I will be for structural, institutional change. If I think we can achieve those same goals within the existing institutions, then I am going to try to do that, because I think it's going to be easier to do and less disruptive and less costly and less painful.... I think everybody in this country should have basic healthcare. And what I'm trying to figure out is how to get from here to there." He went on to tell me about his support for other structural changes such as public financing of elections, forcing broadcasters to offer free airtime for candidates, adding strong labor protections to trade pacts and major efforts to create a more just tax system.
Obama is telling the truth--he's not opposed to structural changes at all. However, he appears to be interested in fighting only for those changes that fit within the existing boundaries of what's considered mainstream in Washington, instead of using his platform to redefine those boundaries. This posture comes even as polls consistently show that Washington's definition of mainstream is divorced from the rest of the country's (for example, politicians' refusal to debate the war even as polls show that Americans want the troops home).
Obama's deference to these boundaries was hammered home to me when our discussion touched on the late Senator Paul Wellstone. Obama said the progressive champion was "magnificent." He also gently but dismissively labeled Wellstone as merely a "gadfly," in a tone laced with contempt for the senator who, for instance, almost single-handedly prevented passage of the bankruptcy bill for years over the objections of both parties. This clarified Obama's support for the Hamilton Project, an organization formed by Citigroup chair Robert Rubin and other Wall Street Democrats to fight back against growing populist outrage within the party. And I understood why Beltway publications and think tanks have heaped praise on Obama and want him to run for President. It's because he has shown a rare ability to mix charisma and deference to the establishment.
Barack Obama makes a convincing case that he is not overly motivated by political machinations. Many have accused him of Hillary Clinton-style positioning for a potential presidential run. But that kind of calculation does not appear to be in play, at least not right now--and Obama chafes when anyone implies the opposite. "You should always assume that when I cast a vote or make a statement it is because it is what I believe in," he said. "The thing that bothers me is the assumption that if I make a judgment that's different from yours, then it must mean I am less progressive or my goals are different, meaning I must be not really committed to helping people but rather I am trying to triangulate or drift toward the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council]."
Still, there's no question that his passions are confined by intense caution. Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen, tells the story of how, after Obama voted for the class-action bill, he attended a meeting of public-interest groups. "We were worried about what his vote indicated about him for the future," she said. "And he told us, 'Sometimes you have to trim your sails.' And I asked myself, Trim your sails for what? You just got elected by a wide margin--what are you trimming your sails for?"
Obama will often be a reliable liberal vote, and he can give one hell of a speech. But we should believe him when he downplays our expectations. He says he's "a work in progress," but he's in an institution that tends to stifle greatness. As comic Jon Stewart said, "Everybody thought Barack Obama was going to [inspire people] when he came to Washington, but, you know, the Senate seems like the place where smart people go to die."