There have been many false accusations leveled at Barack Obama during this never-ending campaign season—from the malicious, such as being a Muslim or a follower of black liberation theology, whichever you choose—to the mostly benign, like being derided as an appeaser. But there is one aspersion in particular that has so far struggled to gain momentum, though as he becomes his party’s presumptive nominee it will be very potent indeed. The charge is that Obama is some kind of liberal Trojan Horse, ready to unleash a barrage of leftist measures as soon as he steps into the Oval Office.
It’s all part of his plan you see: Act a little right of center occasionally, you know, just to get in, and then before you know it he’s tapping the wealthy for a single-payer health-care system, inviting Ahmadinejad over to hammer out peace in the Middle East and then helping illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship while replacing oil companies with government agencies to manage renewable energy just for good measure. And all in his first term no less.
We have already seen this straw man tested out—so far unsuccessfully—in recent congressional elections, not only because the right feel it is a something of an achilles heal for Obama, and by extension Democrats asscociated with Obama, but mainly because this is the very real fear of many on the right. I’ve lost count of how many times I have read or heard right-wing pundits citing the National Journal’s report calling Obama the most liberal politician in the Senate of 2007. And if you have any means of communication whatsoever, whether it is a Blackberry or a pair of tin cans and some string, you will no doubt be pounded to deafness with that message as we shift gears from intra-party battle of attrition to all out ideological war.
The irony, of course, is that neither candidate is that ideologically driven. Given the current trends it looks as though they’ll both be running on a platform of patriotism and a bi-partisan record while attacking their rival for being too ideological. This would usually be par for course in any general election but here we have two candidates who are able to make very credible claims for reaching across the aisle, and also for the classic American story (albeit two very different versions). Obama, the son of an African immigrant and a Kansan woman, overcoming the odds to become the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review and now legitimate candidate for the United States Presidency. McCain, on the other hand bestows the more archetypal version, the one of the war hero who suffered stoically for his country whilst serving in the great stain on America’s recent history, Vietnam.
Although McCain has swapped his mantle of party maverick for opportunist after his recent change of mind on issues such as taxes, abortion, the Iraq war, immigration, torture and pretty much every other issue Americans care about, his image as bipartisan is still largely intact following his love affair with the media back in 2000.
The problem for Obama though is that while the right-wing of the Republican Party is only too aware of McCain’s flirtation with the so-called center, and have successfully dragged him back over to the right, the leftist element of the Democratic Party seem only too happy to embrace the Trojan Horse logic, and I would wager probably more so than their right-wing counterparts.
Personally, I would be delighted to see the scenarios mentioned at the top of this article unfold, but it is simply not going to happen. Barack Obama is a true centrist, he believes in consensus, debate and transparency, and throughout his career he has consistently shown that these are his guiding principles. Whether it is because he is black, an opponent of the Iraq War or perhaps because he started his political career as a community organizer—typically seen as very progressive—the secret hope that Obama is the liberal warrior we’ve all been waiting for is cemented more by virtue of who he is rather than what he has done.
Activist organizations such as NARAL, MoveOn.org and a multitude of unions shunned Hillary Clinton during the primaries in favour of Obama’s ability to mobilize once dormant supporters but this only serves to strengthen the image of liberal in disguise. There is, of course, an element of truth in all this. Obama is a Democrat and is naturally somewhat left of center on many issues, but that’s where it ends because unlike much of Obama’s youth contingent he is measured on all his positions and, more importantly, also willing to give ground. He wants universal health-care, though not through taxes but by making it more affordable; he believes gay and lesbian couples should share the same rights as married couples but not the title; and he is famously not anti war but “anti dumb-wars.”
But he is also undoubtedly in tune with the zeitgeist of America’s youth and is able to communicate and reassure them through language and demeanor that he empathizes with them and their beliefs.
Recently, Obama gave the commencement speech at Wesleyan College in the place of Teddy Kennedy (who it would seem according to all the premature obituaries has already died. He just doesn’t seem to know about it yet).
During his speech Obama asked this of his audience:
“At a time of war, we need you to work for peace. At a time of inequality, we need you to work for opportunity. At a time of so much cynicism and so much doubt, we need you to make us believe again. That’s your task, Class of 2008.”
These are not radical positions, and the second is congruent with the bedrock of the Constitution. Obama’s talent is that he is able to invoke the philosophy of the forefathers and refurbish it through the lens of the 21st century. Really, it is an indictment of our political culture, and more specifically the Bush Administration that such cornerstones of democracy are now interpreted as somewhat radical. So as long as Obama continues to frame his candidacy and core values as the antithesis of the status quo and thus appear radical then the perception that he is liberal on issues will naturally follow. This fallacy of extension, which has taken off considerably, bodes dangerously for him in the fall and certainly his first term if he becomes President.
Two weeks ago we saw a perfect illustration of the more negative side-effects of Obama’s political philosophy play out during an important Senate vote. Tellingly, he voted in favor of the disastrous Farm Bill while John McCain voted against the bill, a bill which the President also has promised to veto because of bloated subsidies for corporations (though it is very unlikely the veto will effect anything). There is little doubt that Farm Bill is the mother of all boondoggles. It is little more than an archaic program that swells the profits of agribusiness while ensuring that markets overseas are swamped with cheap surplus, helping to suppress the faintest hope of emerging local markets. Needless to say such conditions lead to poverty and mass migration, as we have seen in Mexico over the past 10 years.
Even though this particular bill provides more for regular Americans in the form of food stamps and nutrition than ever before, the funding is paltry compared to what the likes of Monsanto and others will receive. The reasoning behind the Democrats’ votes is two-fold: there are congressional seats in the Mid-West that are dependent on the farm lobby and the other is that this particular Bill demonstrates that the Farm Bill is evolving to where progressives would like to see it. In this case I believe McCain and Bush are absolutely right to excoriate the Bill and that Pelosi and Obama have sacrificed the opportunity for real change for an acceptable compromise. This is the danger of Obama’s guiding principle, namely that in times where a stand needs to be made he has deferred to compromise and consensus.
Above all, principles of democracy should always trump ideology, but we must also recognize that there are times where there is a choice between just and unjust, irrespective of dominant mood or tradition, as the California Supreme Court made clear recently, with its decision on gay marriage.
The concern we should be paying attention to, slight as it is, is not only that Obama may compromise in times of crisis, but also that if he wins in November because of a perception generated by hitching personal values to his rising star rather than through Obama’s agenda of unity, then we could witness the cruelest of all hang-overs for a vast swathe of the American electorate.
For his part Obama has always tried to make clear that he is the conciliator rather than the warrior. In fact he said as much at the commencement speech at Wesleyan, warning students, “We may disagree as Americans on certain issues and positions, but I believe we can be unified in service to a greater good.” It is important for Obama to continue to reiterate this message as much as possible but it is equally important to reassure all Americans that there is a place at the table waiting for them, if they choose to take it, as his core message of unity demands.
Liam Frost is a San Francisco resident.