Yesterday Frontline aired their episode entitled The Choice: 2008 which profiles the presidential candidates John McCain and Barrack Obama in depth. Even after all the coverage, the debates, the punditry, Frontline delivered one of the most informative pieces of biography on each of the candidates and their careers to date.
The interviews with Tom Daschle and Lindsey Graham stood out as the most interesting of each of the must-reads. According to Daschle, McCain was tempted to cross over to the Democratic party in 2001 after a bitter defeat by George W. Bush, particularly in the 2000 South Carolina primaries. The Bush-Rove campaign strategy absolutely smeared McCain in a truly despicable way that has permanently tarnished his name among social conservative Republicans to this day. Graham confirms it.
The report paints probably the most interesting portrait Obama I’ve seen. While I would like to write about McCain, I’ll only focus on my perception of Obama and how it impacted me.
Obama is nothing if not ambitious. He is a complicated character who doesn’t really seem to fit anywhere within traditional political molds, but he has been very adept at carving out his own.
The beginnings of his career of a political organizer were humble and well-intended, but he found that he could not effect the change he wanted at a grass roots level. Enter Harvard Law School where he became an influential leader who found his zenith of power in his election to the head of the Harvard Law Review. There he was able to bring a sense of unity among the conservative and liberal law students, and did not pander or cave to the pressure of his African American comrades who were lobbying for a greater emphasis on the hot button issue of affirmative action. If there is any evidence of conciliation within the Obama narrative this would be it.
His return to Chicago was to be about building a solid political foundation. The Windy City is known to be the capital of “Black America” where the headquarters of Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson are established. He formed a relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright on the South Side to position himself within the black community as one who belongs to an active spiritual community that was in touch with the needs of social justice.
But Obama did not exactly fit in with the Chicago’s black voters. Questions about his origins came up since he was an Ivy League educated Hawaiian, and many wondered whether he was “black enough” to represent the African American experience on the streets of the nation’s third largest city. When facing off with Alice Palmer, who initially put Obama in her place to run, but later rescinded the offer, he legally maneuvered around community petitions and got her name–and all the other opponents–removed from the ballot. Obama then squared off with Bobby Rush, a Congressman deeply rooted in the Chicago community, but lost to the heavily favored Bill Clinton-endorsed Rush in a landslide. The poverty stricken “Black Nationalist” voting block didn’t buy what he was selling.
Obama would learn from the experience. When the opportunity for US Senate arose, he courted the voters he knew would listen to him: upper-middle class white progressives. They had the money, the initiative, and the influence to put Obama on the map in a way the “Black Nationalist” constituents could not. His Senate victory was almost a forgone conclusion.
Since he has been in the Senate, he has had a desire to make a run for President and stuck to a two year plan that avoided any controversial votes that might tarnish his record. The longer the record, the harder it is to get elected, so goes the rationale. Obama saw a short window that presumed experience to be a liability, rather than an asset and built his strategy around making a blitzkrieg run for Office.
Obama strikes me as a conservative man in some ways. He is not radical in his approach to people. He knows what his assets and liabilities are and plays each card carefully whether they are on the table or close to the chest. His message of change from the ground-up is contradicted by his experience that lead him to believe real change comes from the top down. He knows how to effectively communicate and organize people who will listen to him. He is anything but dumb, and plays to his strengths brilliantly.
The contrast between McCain and Obama is stark. The former has often run off a risky and unconventional style that has bumbled in to both failure and success. Straight talk and the maverick persona do match with McCain’s history, but not always in ways that he likes to always paint himself. Obama is a perceptive and intentional decision maker who makes his moves carefully. My lot, of course, lies with McCain. A candidate who fears the scrutiny of a revealing record simply can’t be trusted with the presidency in my opinion. But I suppose others like that, because it gives them a sense of hope for the best a Washington outsider can offer. Obama may be able to deliver that if he truly does act in a bi-partisan way as he did on the Harvard Law Review.
Only time will tell.