Why Obama Struggles: Right Message, Wrong Time


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The Washington Post runs a story this morning that echoes my thoughts on why Barack Obama has been unable to gain ground on Hillary Clinton.

My thinking is this: Obama is preaching a truly admirable message of bipartisanship and a new politics, but he’s preaching it when the Democrats neither want it nor need it.

They don’t want Obama’s message because they’ve been bullied by the Bush Administration and the Republicans in Congress for almost seven years and want payback. They don’t need Obama’s message because the GOP has screwed everything up so badly the Democrats can win with a purely partisan approach. When fewer and fewer people identify with the Republican Party and more and more claim they trust the Democratic Party on important issues like the economy, the war, and health care, why reach across the aisle?

There is a perception, borne out of Hillary Clinton’s years of fighting tooth and nail with the GOP, that Clinton will kick ass when she’s in office. And there’s a perception, fostered by the Obama campaign, that Obama will eschew kicking ass in favor of bringing people together to renew America’s politics.

Every poll indicates Democrats, for the time being, prefer ass-kicking to bringing-together.

Okay. So that’s my thinking. I personally thinking that Obama’s message is appealing no matter what the circumstances, and that a Democratic agenda that seeks revenge on Republicans will only create a Republican agenda in eight years that seeks revenge on Democrats. But I don’t think a lot of Dem primary voters out there agree with me.

Here’s how the Post puts it.

…it may be that [Obama’s] summons to “turn the page” past the country’s red-blue polarization is not what many Democrats want to hear after seven years of mounting anger at Bush and the Republican-dominated government.

Obama faults a broken system in Washington for failures that many Democratic voters attribute simply to having the other side in power. By contrast, Clinton more directly exploits Democrats’ feelings of resentment. She argues that the troubles of the past seven years — the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, the widening income gap — are the result not of broken politics in Washington but of poor Republican governance.

And it seems to be working. Clinton now claims over 50 percent of Democratic primary voters. But is Clinton’s approach appetizing only to Democratic primary voters? Will she have trouble appealing to the independents that are a necessary part of a winning coalition in the general election? That’s the argument Obama’s camp would have you believe. Says David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist:

“Senator Clinton has enormous negatives, were she to go into a general [election], and the fact that Barack is a good unifier is a good harbinger for the general.”

I understand the logic. But it’s also fair to point out that (1) Republicans will attack any Democratic candidate, be it Clinton, Obama, or anyone else, thus bringing Obama’s negatives closer to Clinton’s; (2) Obama is black, and that may cost him the chance to win votes that are not traditionally Democratic; and (3) the voting public is so poisoned to Republicans right now that a Democrat could probably get elected no matter how divisive she or he is.

But while Obama’s approach may help him win the general election less than Axelrod thinks it will, it probably will help him govern. Says the candidate himself,

“We’ve become so accustomed to just assuming that 45 percent of the country is red and 45 percent is blue. . . . Even if we [eke out a victory], we can’t govern. There’s gridlock,” he told a crowd at the University of Iowa. “My belief was that I could change the political map and end gridlock.” He added: “If we could gain a 60 percent majority on any of these issues, we could actually get something done. My goal . . . is finding that 60 percent majority.”

It’s a noble cause. But is it a winning one?