Saturday, February 16, 2008

Worries about Obama

So, after the caucus in my state, a bunch of Obama stickers appeared on cars in the faculty parking lot. The students had been all over him for a long time, but we needed him to win the state by a huge margin to come out of the closet.

The other consequence is that there's been a lot in the press lately that brings up worries about an Obama presidency. Some of these have provoked thought. So, here are some thoughts.

Trouble from detractors. Paul Krugman wrote a column more than a week ago comparing the beginning of a potential Obama presidency to the beginning of the Clinton presidency in 1992, when, in Krugman's telling, attacks from Republicans over anything from the staffing of the White House travel office to the childcare arrangements of potential appointees seriously hampered the effectiveness of the new administration. Krugman's point is that Obama's apparent inablity to play hardball would make him vulnerable to similar attacks. Maybe. I feel like Obama done a pretty good job dealing with the Clintons' attacks during the campaign so far. His "aw shucks" appeal to the moral high ground has the effect of making his attackers look bad in a way that the hyper-defensive Clinton style didn't.

But Krugman's column brought up a different worry for me. My recollection of the early Clinton years is of a time when he had to struggle with not only attacking Republicans, but the Democratic leadership in Congress, which had been there a long time and which seemed to resent his "skipping over" of the party hierarchy. To my mind (and I'm not a historian or a political scientist), it was this infighting among the Democrats that opened the door for Newt Gingrich, the Republican congressional majority, and the attack machine Krugman warns of. This is the scenario that I worry might play out again in an Obama presidency, especially after the close primary contests. If he can't bring the Clinton supporters and the mainline Democratic establishment around to support him, then the broad coalition he hopes to form falls apart not becuse he can't reach across the aisle but because he's lost people who should be natural supporters. There's a lot of talk about the Democrats pulling together before the general election. I worry about them staying together afterwards.

Troble with supporters. David Brooks wrote a masterful column last Sunday about why Obama pulled in more educated, higher income people, while Clinton got lower income, more working class voters. It comes down to marketing. Obama hits the same "aspirational" place as Starbucks and Whole Foods, taking the mundane into big ideas, new ways of doing things. Clinton's supporters want the basics at an affordable price. They shop at Safeway.
I felt completely pegged by this analysis. Besides that, I felt a little worried about the depth of support. When I'm feeling poor, I make my own coffee. (Okay, so it's shade grown, fair-trade beans from the local independent version of Starbucks, but still...) What happens to Obama's support when times get rough for the majority?

Check out this (semi-serious?) piece about how he's "so last week".

Finally, there's the cult of personality thing. There's a lot that's been made of this. I'm quite sure that there's a there there. I've seen enough in his books, in his speeches before he was officially a presidential candidate, and in that old New Yorker piece to be convinced that he's a serious thinker who'd be able to take in enough information and advice to make good decisions (and who'd stay firmly rooted in the "reality-based" world). But there's something to the fretting about the rockstar like appearances, about the bizarre "Yes We Can" video, about the way that message can be misread as just "vote for me". There's part of me that worries it'll go to his head too much. I don't think so, but I'd love it if he'd just give me a little of that thoughtful, earnest, junior senator from Illinois act that I fell for in the first place every once in awhile.

Update: Here's a piece from Slate (and CNN) political analyst John Dickerson with similar concerns.

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About Me

I'm a biochemist at a small college.