When John McCain and many other Republicans ask, "Who is the real Barack Obama?" there is an implication that maybe he is somehow sinister or extremist.
I don’t believe that. But I do think that there are two very different Obamas. Both are extraordinarily intelligent, serene under pressure, and driven by an admirable social conscience — albeit as willing to deploy deception as the next politician. But while the first Obama would be a well-meaning failure, the second could become a great president.
An ultraliberal in moderate garb? The first Obama has sometimes seemed eager to engineer what he called "redistribution of wealth" in a 2001 radio interview, along with the more conventional protectionism, job preferences, and other liberal Democratic dogmas featured in his campaign. I worry that he might go beyond judiciously regulating our free enterprise system’s all-too-apparent excesses and stifle it under the dead hand of government bureaucracy and lawsuits.
This redistributionist Obama has stayed in the background since he set his sights on the presidency years ago, except when he told Joe the Plumber that his tax plan would help "spread the wealth." This Obama seems largely invisible to many supporters. But he may retain some attachment to the radical-leftist sensibility in which — as his impressive 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father, explains with reflective detachment — he was marinated as a youth and young man.
Obama spent much of his teenage years searching for his black identity. He was mentored for a time by the poet Frank Marshall Davis, a black-power activist who had once been a member of the Communist Party, and who was (according to Obama’s book) "living in the same Sixties time warp" as Obama’s mother, a decidedly liberal free spirit.
While the first Obama would be a well-meaning failure, the second could become a great president.
In college, lest he be "mistaken for a sellout," Obama "chose my friends carefully," according to his book: "The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets." After college, his social conscience steered him to become a community organizer and "organize black folks" in Chicago, from 1985 to 1988.
It was then that Obama met the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who as head of Trinity United Church of Christ did many good things but had a now-famous penchant for America-hating, white-bashing, conspiracy-theorizing, Farrakhan-honoring rants. A central theme of the first Wright sermon that Obama attended — the one titled "the audacity of hope" — was that "white folks’ greed runs a world in need."
After graduating near the top of his Harvard Law School class in 1991, Obama could easily have landed a prestigious Supreme Court clerkship and gone on to a big law firm where partners make well over a $1 million a year. Instead, he followed his social conscience and political ambition back to Chicago, joining a small law firm.
Obama became more than casually acquainted with Bill Ayers, the Weather Underground bomber with whom he served on the boards of two Chicago philanthropic groups. In 1995, Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn — the same Dohrn who in a blood-curdling 1969 speech had cited the Charles Manson gang of murderers as role models for the Weather Underground — co-hosted a political fundraiser for Obama at their home. By then, the still-unrepentant Ayers had become a respected member of an academic establishment in which far-left views are fashionable.
I dwell on these much-debated associations not because I think that Obama sympathizes with what he has called Ayers’s "detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8" or identifies with Wright’s wild ravings. But I do think that Obama has understated (at best) his involvement with Wright and Ayers. And I wonder about the worldview of a man who was so comfortable with such far-left extremists and whose wife, Michelle, asserted earlier this year that America is "just downright mean" and "guided by fear" and that most Americans’ lives have "gotten progressively worse since I was a little girl."
Obama’s voting record as an Illinois and then U.S. senator is not extremist or radical. But it is not a bit bipartisan, either. He has hardly ever broken with his party, and he famously had the most liberal record of any senator in 2007 (although not in 2006 or 2005), according to National Journal‘s vote ratings.
This Obama has endorsed a long list of liberal restrictions on free enterprise that could end up hurting the people they are supposed to help, along with the rest of us: statist remedies for our broken educational system; encouraging unionization by substituting peer pressure and an undemocratic card-check process for secret ballots; raising the wages of women or lowering those of men who have dissimilar jobs that are declared by bureaucrats to be of comparable worth; renegotiating NAFTA; and more.
I wonder how far Obama wants to go down the road suggested by his lament in that 2001 radio interview that the civil-rights movement had failed to engineer "redistribution of wealth" and "economic justice." Would he be content with the moderately redistributive, Clintonesque increase in taxes on high-earning Americans that he proposes now? Or would he end up pushing for confiscatory taxes that could stifle entrepreneurship and job creation?
The best thing for the country would be for Obama to take on the interest groups and to govern from the center.
And would Obama’s declared desire to appoint judges and justices driven mainly by "empathy" for "the powerless," rather than by fidelity to the law, lead to judicially invented constitutional rights to welfare, to ever-more-rigid preferences based on race and gender, and to other novel judicial overrides of democratic governance?
A pragmatic reformer? The pragmatic, consensus-building, inspirational Obama who has been on display during the general election campaign is a prodigious listener and learner. He can see all sides of every question. He seems suffused with good judgment. His social conscience has been tempered by recognition that well-intentioned liberal prescriptions can have perverse unintended consequences. His tax and health care proposals are much less radical than Republican critics suggest.
This Obama has surrounded himself not only with liberal advisers but also with mainstream moderates such as Warren Buffett and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. He has won the support of moderate Republicans, including Colin Powell and Susan Eisenhower, and conservatives, including Kenneth Adelman and Charles Fried.
This is the Obama who said in his dazzling 2004 Democratic convention speech that "there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is a United States of America." This is the Obama who distanced himself not only from Jeremiah Wright but also — more subtly — from the rest of the racial-grievance crowd in a March 18 speech deploring as "profoundly distorted" the view that "sees white racism as endemic."
The pragmatic Obama is smart enough to know that reforms take root only if they enjoy broad public support and that self-identified conservatives vastly outnumber self-identified liberals in America. He also understands that while we need more-effective regulation, "America’s free market has been the engine of America’s great progress. It’s created a prosperity that is the envy of the world. It’s led to a standard of living unmatched in history." He has said that "we don’t want to return to marginal tax rates of 60 or 70 percent." He wants to expand the armed forces and to send more troops to Afghanistan.
The pragmatic Obama is not just a made-for-the-campaign creation. He was elected president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990 not only because he was one of the most brilliant students but also because the handful of conservatives whose votes helped tip the balance saw him as fair-minded and open to their point of view. And they were not disappointed.
Obama has dipped his toe in the water of questioning Democratic interest-group orthodoxies. He has supported charter schools (while opposing vouchers) and merit pay for teachers; he offended trial lawyers by voting in 2005 to curb unwarranted class-action lawsuits; and last year he questioned whether affluent black children such as his daughters should continue to get racial preferences over more needy whites and Asians.
To be sure, apart from these less-than-bold gestures, Obama’s down-the-line liberal voting record does not give a centrist like me much basis for hope that he would resist pressure from Democratic interest groups, ideologues, and congressional leaders to steer hard to the left.
But I do hope that if Obama wins, the enormity of the economic and international crises facing him will accelerate his intellectual evolution and convince him that simply replacing dumb Bush policies with dumb Democratic policies will only drive the country deeper into the ditch. The best thing for the country would be to take on the interest groups and govern from the center. That would also be the best way for Obama to win re-election and have a truly historic presidency.
This article appeared in the Saturday, November 1, 2008 edition of National Journal.