Barack to the future: Is There Any There There?


By: Michael M. Bates

Illinois Senator Barack Obama has a brilliant future. The media, Democratic activists, fat cat donors and many John and Jane Q. Publics see something special in him. Described adoringly as a superstar, he does nothing to damper speculation that his sights are on the White House.

Undoubtedly he has a solidly liberal voting record. Yet when he’s speechifying and raising money – as he has in 25 states so far – he’s very short on particulars.

That could be because he’s an empty suit, but it’s not likely. The man is indisputably bright. Bright enough to be in Congress, anyway.

His imprecision could be because he’s so nuanced in his thinking that he makes John Kerry look decisive. Some of his statements in the Congressional Record indicate a thoughtful, reflective examination of different aspects of an issue.

When another Democratic senator suggested censuring President Bush, Mr. Obama was characteristically cautious. At first, he said he didn’t know whether he was for or against the move because he hadn’t read his colleague’s proposal. Then he decided against it, saying that the matter should be left to the courts. Clearly, he’s not looking for confrontation.

An article in Monday’s Washington Post underscored the freshman’s ability to charm enthusiastic audiences without saying what he believes in. “Obama’s Profile Has Democrats Taking Notice” mentions:

“He has yet to carve out a distinctive profile on the policy and ideological debates that are central to how Democrats will position themselves in a post-Bush era.” The piece goes on to note that while the senator commonly criticizes Republican tax cuts and the administration’s conduct of the Iraq war, he doesn’t spell out what he would do differently.

It’s reported that some senators think Mr. Obama is more interested in holding press conferences and giving speeches than he is in legislating. The solons wouldn’t say this for attribution, naturally, since as long as he’s pulling in bucks by the bushel the name of the game is Everybody Loves Barack. But it seems like the man who said he wanted to be a workhorse rather than a show horse has switched nags.

Perhaps Mr. Obama intends to run as a generic, non ideological Democrat while embracing as few controversial positions as possible. Many of his potential competitors are carting around more baggage than a Samsonite outlet store. Running simply on personality rather than philosophy may serve him well.

Or it could be that he genuinely doesn’t have firm beliefs on many issues. Voting liberal most of the time merely places him in his party’s mainstream. His record as a Senate leader on anything of substance is negligible.

Last year Mr. Obama said something suggestive. Campaigning in Florida, he asserted that Democrats were still trying to decide what their core values are.

I think he’s got it backwards. People don’t join a political movement or party and then decide what they believe in. They lend their support to a party because it already embodies the principles and values that they hold.

The Democratic Party is over 200 years old. And it’s now trying to figure out what its core values are?

The one thing I know is that it has strayed mighty far from Thomas Jefferson, who Democrats claim as their own. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson spoke of:

“A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”

That’s about as far away as one can get from today’s Democratic Party. Or the Democratic Party of the last 70 years for that matter.

Maybe Mr. Obama can run under the radar and avoid taking a stand on anything controversial. Perhaps he can persuade voters of his Democratic bona fides while remaining vague, superficial and indefinite. It’s been done before.

And that’s what makes him dangerous to Republican aspirations of staying in power.

This column by Michael M. Bates appeared in the June 22, 2006 Oak Lawn Reporter.

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