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That Promising Young Fellow, Barack Obama

From Obama’s debate intro Thursday night

Senator Clinton mentioned Barbara Jordan, somebody who … said that what the American people want is very simple: They want an America that is as good as its promise. I’m running for president because I want to help America be as good as its promise.

And I marvel at this, because I’d been thinking a lot lately about Obama’s promises, and a former Hooters waitress from Panama City Beach, Florida.

Waitress wins You may remember Jodee Berry, who was led to believe that the winner of her employer’s regional sales contest would be awarded a brand new Toyota! After hustling her hot-pants’d buns off and winning the contest, a breathless Ms. Berry was blindfolded, escorted to the parking lot, and presented with her brand new toy Yoda!

The disappointed waitress brought suit for breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentation, eventually settling for an undisclosed sum, but one clearly sufficient to cover the price of any Toyota on the lot.

In this context, we review a curious set of instances in which Sen. Obama’s counterparties came to believe that something had been promised, but when those promises stood to be fulfilled the Senator’s position became … something else again.

In our most recent case, Sen. Obama’s fellow campaign finance reform advocate Sen. McCain thought they had agreed to abide by public financing restrictions in the 2008 general election, should they become their respective parties’ nominees.

An earlier case involves the same Sen. McCain, who believed he had secured a promise by the rookie Sen. Obama to work jointly on bipartisan lobbying/ethics reform legislation.

A third and most serious instance involves Sen. Obama’s answer to a question posed at the July 2007 YouTube Debate, and his subsequent increasingly nuanced interpretations of that answer.

Taken together, these cases suggest that Barack Obama may not recognize a promise when it passes his lips.

Or are the misunderstandings on the other foot, and are his argumentative defenses sufficient? Toyota or toy Yoda? You decide.

In the case of public financing, per this March 1, 2007 NYT lede:

Senator John McCain joined Senator Barack Obama on Thursday in promising to accept a novel fund-raising truce if each man wins his party’s presidential nomination.

… [Obama spokesman] Burton added that if nominated Mr. Obama would “aggressively pursue an agreement” with whoever was his opponent.

Now that the hypothesized predicate “if each man wins his party’s presidential nomination” seems within reach, and Obama’s fundraising prowess has grown legendary, and Sen. McCain seeks to enforce the agreement — Sen. Obama seems engaged in evasive maneuvers rather than aggressive pursuit.

Obama’s prospective “out” in this case is to pull an ancillary condition out of the hat. He’ll consider the pledge null and void unless McCain can guarantee a “a publicly financed general election” — meaning no 527 expenditures by independent supporters of either party. This, of course, McCain cannot guarantee. (Nor can Obama. Nobody can. It’s the law.)

Thus, from Obama’s nuanced perspective, Obama’s March 1 pledge is unenforceable — now, and in any foreseeable sequel. Likewise, it was unenforceable when it was made.

This, then, was an empty promise. It advantaged Obama at the time (in media visibility and good-government credits), but didn’t bind his future conduct in any way that might conceivably disadvantage him.

Consider next Obama and McCain’s infamous public exchange of letters from February 2006. McCain:

I would like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate in our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere.

Obama:

I confess that I have no idea what has prompted your response.

Obama had accepted McCain’s invitation to the formative session of a bipartisan working group, and left the group with the impression he was on board. A press stand-up with Sen. Feingold seemed to confirm this commitment, and he sang from the hymnal of bipartisan reform at other public forums (in addition to which, Republicans still controlled Congress).

Nevertheless he signed on to a Democratic draft, a move that effectively pulled the legislative rug out from under McCain’s efforts. Obama made this known to McCain in a letter released to the press.

One writer who used to play hoop with Barack says he has a wicked cross-over dribble. I’ll bet McCain felt like he’d been faked out of his socks.

There are times in politics when you can’t help crossing up one ally or another … but the times a few and far between when you can’t let them know where you’re going, and why, face-to-face. Obama’s letters seem clotted with mistakes and misunderstandings that might have been avoided in such an encounter. In the end, though, the central problem was that he did not realize what he had promised, and to whom.

Our third instance is of much greater portent. In the famed YouTube Debate, Obama was asked a very precise question:

In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since.

In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?

[Note for accuracy: Sadat visited Israel in 1977, not 1982, and was assassinated in 1981.]

Obama answered without hesitation:

I would.

In subsequent discussion, this commitment becomes serially more nuanced.

  • As a diplomatic term of art, “without precondition” does not mean “unconditionally” or “without prerequisite agreements” … more like “without predetermined substantive outcomes or limits to outcomes”. [As a rule, BTW, it’s the weaker of the two parties who will seek preconditions, and the stronger who resists them. And divergent perspectives as to what’s a precondition and what’s not can delay substantive contacts interminably.]
  • “You” doesn’t necessarily refer to “President Obama”. It could refer to lower-echelon emissaries or even third party intermediaries.
  • “Meet” doesn’t necessarily imply “meet”, i.e., encounter in person. It could simply mean “communicate”, though channels.
  • And “I would” doesn’t necessarily mean “I would”. It has been whittled down to “I’m willing” … with the clear proviso that “I’m willing” doesn’t necessarily mean “I will”.

Most of these qualifiers merely nullify boundaries between Obama’s diplomacy and Clinton’s — or for that matter, Bush’s. But the last item is a bombshell. How will President Obama receive the enthusiastic acceptance of a Chavez, (Raul) Castro or Ahmadinejad who gushes:

You’re willing? Listen, Barry, you’re not gonna believe this, but guess what? I’m willing, too! Isn’t that a kick in the head? Hey, I’ll be in New York next month at the U.N., I know a great little place across the river where we can meet separately, without precondition. Plus, the appetizers are out of this world, and you gotta see their regular bartender … guy named Rico .. you name it, he can do it. Whaddya say Barry? … Barry? … Hello. … Hello! … Oh, hell.

Candidate Obama’s answer will be perceived as extending a promise to other heads of state, conditional on his election. If that condition is satisfied, and it turns out that “I would” can mean “I’m willing, but I won’t”, President Obama will be perceived as having broken a promise. Misunderstanding could arise, leading to harshly worded letters … perhaps even worse.

By the Laws of Politics, breaking a promise is a civil infraction … but not keeping track of your promises is a felony. In all three instances, Obama does not seem to realize what he had promised.

And that’s not counting Obama’s BIG promise, the one his followers are iching to elect him for … a promise so big, no serious aspirant to high office has made one like it, anywhere, ever.

We’ll get to that one another day. Meanwhile, what’s in your future? A new Toyota? Or a new toy Yoda?

21 Responses

  1. It takes a village.. a vision, a sense of urgency, a guiding coalition, communication, creation of short term wins, and inculcating the message… compassion, a calming of the nation… Hillary

  2. […] — even his Social Security guy is pro-privatization. This installation is called “That Promising Young Fellow Barack Obama“: From Obama’s debate intro Thursday […]

  3. There is a raging game that you may have heard of:

    W.O.R.M. (What Obama Really Meant), from Corrente:

    http://www.correntewire.com/what_obama_really_meant

  4. What about Obama not yet being the nominee don’t you understand? If you don’t understand simple conditional sentences, I apologize for even this sentence. He “pledged” to discuss public financing if he becomes the nominee. The last time I checked, he is still many delegates short of that. Can’t you wait until he’s actually nominated before flinging partisan talking points our way? Sheesh.

  5. Hi RonK! Great to find you again!

    I noticed immediately that Obama had totally botched the Cuba question in the debate and was waffling from his previous statements. I thought it was pretty damaging.

  6. I have posted 194 specific positions Obama takes drawn from his issues pages. He has a much more visionary program than most have yet realized. Given McCain’s ongoing problems with election officials, and the Republican’s clear inability to match the Democrats in enthusiasm and commitment, I think Obama is both wise and justified in reiterating his willingness to arrive at a solution at the proper time. As a previous poster here implies, all this brouhaha is a trifle premature. The best place to determine the actual waffling of candidates is factcheck.org — everyone waffles to a degree. Best, S

  7. TheQuotient: — Obama did NOT pledge to discuss public financing with McCain. He pledged — unequivocally — to adhere to public financing if McCain would do the same (which McCain said he would do.

    He later pledged to “discuss” (“aggressively pursue”) a similar agreement with Republican nominees other than McCain.

    Stephen C Rose — Nonresponsive. Please stay on-topic.

    Don’t play the Bush game where everything is either a hypothetical or ancient history.

  8. Stephen: That enthusiasm and committment you referred to may be in short supply come the general in the fall. Many of us Democrats are ready to resign from the party and become independents over the horrible way Hillary was treated this year by hooligans from our own side. The rampant nastiness and sexism unleashed on her from *our own side* has left a very bitter taste in the mouths of many Democrats. I can’t predict what is going to happen this fall but the fact that Obama has ridden this wave, capitalized on it and split his own party for his own benefit makes him a very ugly candidate to many of us.
    If I were him, I wouldn’t count on him getting much help from us in the fall. He will have to undergo his own trial by fire, the one he was not subjected to during the primaries. He might get our votes but don’t expect many of us to come to his defense while the $250 million GOP attack machine is going after him. All you will hear is crickets. He will have to prove himself. And DFA canvassers are going to be as popular as Jehovah’s Witnesses this fall. As far as I’m concerned, they can take a fucking hike.

  9. Hi Ga6!

    Obama’s posture raises interesting wrinkles in the VP selection. The problem for the VP candidate, 24×7, will be staying on message (or as I’ve capsuled it elsewhere, “staying non message”).

    I’d hate to be in those shoes.

  10. When you think you’re the bee’s knees, or the second coming, or just something pretty damn special (you know, compared to other would-be presidents past and present), you pick up this relaxed attitude towards your own words.

    As Riverdaughter says above, if Obama is the nominee he’ll get our votes and nothing more. We’ll take as much pleasure in seeing him pummelled as is compatible with eking out a victory in November–yep, right up to the line. I’m sure this is just sour grapes to some extent, but it’s also something of a stand on principle: Obama and his campaign don’t just want my vote, they want my soul or the secular equivalent thereof. Hillary Clinton, who would be so much the better president that Obama, doesn’t have my soul, but it speaks to her superiority as a candidate and as a person that she doesn’t want it.

  11. Riverdaughter….
    I love reading your posts and wholeheartedly agree with everything you just said…

    I have lived thru many campaigns and I too, have never whitnessed the divisiveness of our party as is taking place in this primary. Many of the comments made by Obama’s foot soldiers are hateful, and have stirred the blood of many within the party. It is one thing to have an alligence to your candidate and I am proud of your efforts to back your man, but to turn around and belittle and name call Hillary with some of the most vicious comments I’ve ever heard will stick in the claw of many of us…
    So don’t for one minute think that we will turn the other cheek and pretend none of this ever took place because I, for one, will not work or campaign for this man and that is a given…

  12. Hey, Rich, you nailed. That was fine!

  13. thank you so much Riverdaughter, I have been appalled by the damage being done to the party by the divisive campaign Obama is running

  14. Sour grapes grow on scorched earth, but it’s a little early for that.

    Our duty is the same whether Obama’s bubble bursts before the convention, or in the general election, or during transition, or after inauguration.

    We do the best we can for the Party, and for the People, whatever the circumstances.

    Most of us who held on through 12 years of Reagan/Bush can hold on through whatever is coming next.

    Still, there are a lot of ways to serve beyond politics, and if we’re in for an endless winter I may take up a different selection of practical arts and crafts.

  15. ronk: I know what you’re saying but it is not sour grapes. This could be a severe set back for women not because she might not win but because but the exposure of the dark, ugly side of the progressive movement and the party in general. It is not *our* party if we the powers that be feel they can destroy the social progress we have made with impunity.
    If Obama had won honorably without making more than half of his party irrelevant human beings and benefitting from the Republican hammering on Clinton every day, if he had just once said to his base to cut out the sexist crap, if he hadn’t demonized Hillary with the African-American community, I’d feel a lot better about working for him. But by allowing this crap to go on unchecked, he empowers men to do it from now on, taking out women whenever they feel it is expedient, whether in politics or business or any other place. He seems to think it’s OK to damage my future and that of my daughters in his reckless pursuit of a win and I can’t get behind him for that. He’ll get my vote, very, VERY reluctantly. But he won’t get my help unless John McCain starts seriously taking him out. Which I fully expect.

  16. Obama went for Hillary’s kneecaps starting in mid-summer, and went all scorched earth in the fall.

    The progressive coalition is shattered now, win or lose . . . and later, things get worse. The Biggest disillusionment that follows the Biggest Promise Ever will slam the door to progressive upswings for a generation and a half.

    And you’re right. After what Hillary got for her best-of-breed efforts, in a rare electoral context that gave Democrats margin to take risks on breaking barriers, it’ll be a very long time before a woman gets serious consideration for the top of a national ticket.

  17. I’d rethink supporting Obama at all. It may be better to have a republican in office where the democratic congress can feel free to oppose McCain at will. I think we’ve got to get Obama nailed down on some very serious issues such as privatizing social security, universal health care, etc. before we can even consider voting for him. Just because he has a D by his name doesn’t mean he wants to pursue a liberal agenda. Right now I am confused as hell at what he wants to get accomplished because he uses GOP talking points and has flip flopped on many issues.

  18. I don’ t know what will happen.. but.. can we get a diary on specifics re: scorched earth against Hillary? I would like to know what they were.

    Not that I didn’t see it happening, but it all seemed to go by day after day with the media participating, and now I find myself in a lot of arguments with “progressive” friends over why I can’t support Obama. And I would like to point by point be able to tell them what exactly it was that did this. My memory isn’t serving at this point I’m afraid..

  19. daria-g: One of the first places to start regarding the scorched earth tactics against hillary would have to start with the repetitions throughout the media and the blogosphere that Hillary’s supporters were older women, specifically older *uneducated* women. Obama’s supporters are always characterized as young, educated and creative class.
    There is nothing so insignificant in our country as an older woman. Tack on a working class background and you’ve got the ultimate in powerlessness and undesirability. That’s where the scorched earth started from what I can see.
    I am Obama’s age. You can decide if that makes me older but from where I sit. older would be 65. so, who set the bar for me being older and if I’m older, why isn’t Obama considered older? is it because he’s a guy? Isn’t that reinforcing a gender stereotype?
    Now, let’s talk about education level. I’m pretty well educated. And so are my asian colleagues, all Clinton supporters. In fact, if you ever called an asian person uneducated, my sense is that they would take it very personally. Obama sure hasn’t made any friends there. But the thing is, those older women that get lumped in as Clintonistas were sometimes uneducated not thru any fault of their own. They came of age slightly before the age of Pell grants and student loans and didn’t have the chance to go to college. There are plenty of very smart women who became housewives. They can read circles around you. It’s just insulting to write these women off because they don’t have degrees.
    Creative Class? Please. I work in the creative class. The real creative class consists of scientists, engineers, computer application designers, internet jockeys. We are innovators. We put our minds to work on creating new things. We are also artists, architects and writers. But the last thing creative class people are are MBA’s, marketers, and salespeople. In fact, those people are by and large Republicans but they steal whatever nice moniker that’s out there. Just because you live in a creative class zone doesn’t make you creative class. Those of us who are in it know who we are and who we aren’t. Obamaphiles are by and large NOT creative class. If they were, they’d be smart enough to see through the Obama advertising campaign.
    But the scorched earth is also the purging of dissenting voices that is going on at the Big Blog Stores. The young, aggressive male Obamaphiles directly targetted women on those boards in order to shut up opposing voices. It was no accident. And I blame both Democrats and Republicans for indulging in it. But most of the blame falls on Democrats for letting it happen, passively or aggressively. That’s just the tip of the iceberg but it’s a good place to start.

  20. daria-g — Excellent topic.

    When I say “scorched earth, I refer specifically to campaign tactics that either

    A) damage Hillary’s chances of winning the general election, should she be the nominee, or

    B) do enduring harm to either the Democratic brand or the progressive coalition.

    An example of the first would be

    Obama: “I’m Barack Obama, running for president and I approve this message.”

    Announcer: “It’s what’s wrong with politics today. Hillary Clinton will say anything to get elected.

    (This is also specifically Rovian — accusing your opponent of doing what you are in fact doing.)

    Examples of the second would be the brilliantly orchestrated campaign to make racial villains of the Clintons, or to disparage the accomplishments of the Clinton administration, or to disparage seniors, women and blue-collar voters, or adherence to the fundamental conservative theme that politics (and by implication, government) is a cesspool of corruption, or the Nader-like dismissal of differences between Hillary Clinton and Geroge W Bush (both and equally “status quo”)

    In most cases these build on the foundation of generation-long massively-invested Republican character attacks. People who fight these attacks til the last dog dies are Democrats; people who throw their lot in with the attacking side are not.

  21. Heh.

    I seem to remember Lord Kos going postal on Edwards for accepting Federal financing because that would limit the amount he could raise. So, I’m sure this move disqualifies Obama for him. Oh, wait…

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