Undoing Obama: Inside the Coming Effort to Dismantle A Candidate
By: Mike Allen
February 10, 2007 11:27 AM EST
Barack Obama’s free ride is ending.
The charismatic Illinois senator has enjoyed a lifetime of hagiography, starting with an 800-word story in The New York Times the day after his election as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.
Now, Obama’s about to endure a going-over that would make a proctologist blush. Why has he sometimes said his first name is Arabic, and other times Swahili? Why did he make up names in his first book, as the introduction acknowledges? Why did he say two years ago that he would “absolutely” serve out his Senate term, which ends in 2011, and that the idea of him running for president this cycle was “silly” and hype “that’s been a little overblown”?
In interviews, strategists in both parties pointed to four big vulnerabilities: Obama’s inexperience, the thinness of his policy record, his frank liberalism in a time when the party needs centrist voters and the wealth of targets that are provided by the personal recollections in his first book, from past drug use to conversations that cannot be documented.
Beginning with his announcement for president on Saturday, the long knives will be out for Obama from three directions: Reporters, perpetuating the boom and bust cycle of a ravenous media culture, will try to make up for fawning coverage of the past. Democratic rivals want to get him out of the way. And some top Republicans think the party would have a better chance with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., as the nominee, since she is a known quantity while Obama can try to define himself as anything he wants.
Officials at the top of both parties calculate that Obama has risen too fast to sustain his popularity in the cauldron of a presidential campaign. Democrats talk of “vapid platitudes” that could produce a “soufflé effect” – an implosion as journalists and activists begin probing for substance behind Obama’s appealing promise of “a different kind of politics” and “a new kind of politics.”
“With a couple of pinpricks here and there, the whole thing could fall apart,” said a Democratic strategist familiar with the plans of Obama’s rival campaigns.
Says another top Democrat: “Once the shooting war starts, he’s not going to be able to get away with these grand pronouncements.”
Obama’s friend Donna Brazile, who has known him since 2002 because of their work together on children’s issues, is staying neutral in the Democratic contest but says he’s ready for the onslaught, contending that his press has already become more mixed. “He’s laying a foundation and a framework,” she said. “People are responding to his message and are tuning out all the polarization.”
Even his name offers fodder for the critics. When he was growing up, his family, friends and teachers called him “Barry.” Then as a young man, he started insisting on “Barack,” explaining in a memoir published in 1995 that his grandfather was a Muslim and that it means “blessed” in Arabic. His dad, who was Kenyan, had gone by “Barry” — probably trying to fit in when he came to the States, his son figured. On the campaign trail during his 2004 Senate race, Obama told reporters that “Barack” was Swahili for “blessed by God.”
Whatever its origins, the exotic, multicultural name – so open to interpretation that some Irish folks he ran into assumed “O’Bama” must be one of theirs – is just one of the tools Obama has used to create a captivating narrative about himself as a post-partisan messiah for a nation weary of Potomac combat. The idea of Obama has created dizzying expectations for a senator who draws the largest spontaneous crowds of any American public figure since Colin Powell went on book tour. A cartoon doctor in The New Yorker even diagnoses a patient with “Obamania.”
Obama was the crowd favorite at the Democratic National Committee meeting in Washington last weekend, offering remarks so lofty that most of them could have come from either party. “Our rivals won’t be one another,” Obama said as part of the parade of presidential hopefuls who spoke to the crowd. “And I would assert it won’t even be the other party. It’s going to be cynicism that we’re fighting against.”
But that is surely wishful thinking, because his rivals are getting ready to dig into him at public debates and forums, beginning with a labor-sponsored session in Carson City, Nev., on Feb. 21. Obama has said he’ll leave Nevada three days before the event.
Obama, whose two massive books (both New York Times bestsellers) make it clear he is wise beyond his 45 years, knows what’s coming. He writes presciently in the one published last year, “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream”: “Precisely because I’ve watched the press cast me in a light that can be hard to live up to, I am mindful of how rapidly that process can work in reverse.” He recalls President Bush warning him privately during their first meeting in the White House: “When you get a lot of attention like you’ve been getting, people start gunnin’ for ya.”
Here’s a capsulized look at the opponents’ plans for undoing Obama:
It was only about two years ago, during a meeting with reporters at his Illinois campaign headquarters after his election to the U.S. Senate, that he ridiculed as “a silly question” whether he would run for president or vice president before his term ends in 2011. “I’ve never worked in Washington,” he said. “I can unequivocally say I will not be running for national office in four years, and my entire focus is making sure that I’m the best possible senator on behalf of the people of Illinois.”
As he told NBC’s Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” after his election in 2004, “I don’t know where the restrooms are in the Senate.” Then last October, on the same show, he backed away from the pledge, saying it reflected his “thinking at the time” but that he had not thought about the idea “with the seriousness and depth that I think it required.”
Asked on ABC’s “Good Morning America” last month if his lack of foreign policy experience would hurt him in his White House bid, Obama replied: “My experience in foreign policy is probably more diverse than most others in the field. I mean, I’m somebody who has actually lived overseas, somebody who has studied overseas. You know, I majored in international relations.”
Jim Wallis, the progressive theologian who founded Sojourners/Call to Renewal, says the senator has “a different kind of experience” than a typical candidate and said he has listened to Obama talk knowledgably and passionately about youth, the arts, politics, religion and business in small-group settings since he was an Illinois state senator and few people knew who he was. “There’s an intellectual depth and personal depth and moral depth,” Wallis said. “He’s didn’t say, ‘Let me try these ideas.’ He’s been talking about them since he was the least famous person in the room.”
2. Anemic Policy Record
At the DNC meeting, Obama surprised some in the audience by seeming to scoff at the intricacy of public policy. “There are those who don’t believe in talking about hope,” he said. “They say, well, we want specifics, we want details, we want white papers, we want plans. We’ve had a lot of plans, Democrats. What we’ve had is a shortage of hope.”
A former Democratic official in close touch with several of the campaigns said: “Downplaying the importance of specific plans and ideas seems like a really strange strategy from somebody who is clearly very smart, policy-wise, but hasn’t established that with the broader public yet.”
Aides to Obama say that his weekend’s three-day announcement tour in Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire – including town-hall meetings, rallies and a house party – will focus on the broad, uplifting themes that were a hit at the DNC meeting.
He has said the nation must have “the will to pass health care for all by the end of the first term of the very next president of the United States,” and that is likely to be among his early proposals. “Audacity of Hope,” named for a sermon Obama heard back when he owned only one suit, sketches a possible health care overhaul designed to save money through lower administrative and malpractice costs so that a subsidy could be offered to low-income families. Immediate coverage would be mandated for uninsured children. The senator has also talked about an energy plan to “wean ourselves off Middle Eastern oil,” which could be an early proposal.
The senator is unabashedly more liberal than the centrist path charted by President Bill Clinton. Back in 1996, a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter wrote that Obama – then the Democratic nominee from his state Senate district – sighed when asked about the fall election. “Bill Clinton?” Obama was quoted as asking. “Well, his campaign’s fascinating to a student of politics. It’s disturbing to someone who cares about certain issues. But politically, it seems to be working.”
“Audacity of Hope” advocates civil unions for gay people (a position held by most national democratics), declaring tartly that Obama is not “willing to accept a reading of the Bible that considers an obscure line in Romans to be more defining of Christianity than the Sermon on the Mount.” He says he doesn’t “believe we strengthen the family by bullying or coercing people into the relationships we think are best for them – or by punishing those who fail to meet our standards of sexual propriety.”
He writes that Bill Clinton and conservatives turned out to be “right about welfare as it was previously structured.” He adds, “But we also need to admit that work alone does not ensure that people can rise out of poverty.”
4. Disclosures in His Books
A little-noticed disclaimer at the front of his 442-page memoir of his youth, “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” says: “For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people that I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology. With the exception of my family and a handful of public figures, the names of most characters have been changed for the sake of their privacy.”
The disclosure calls into question the pages and pages of years-old dialogue that Obama recalled when he was writing the book, a frank and searching account of his effort to come to terms with issues of race in America, at age 33. Lynn Sweet, the dogged Washington reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, spotted the disclaimer in 2004 and wrote one of the few critical stories every printed about Obama. “I say in the book it is my remembrances of what happened,” he told her in an interview. “I don’t set it out as reportage … read the book for what it is worth.”
It is immensely valuable as a Rosetta stone to a man who wants to lead the free world and who wrote rawly about his shame when he had referred to a Beaver Cleaver-like, argyle-sweater-wearing black friend as an Uncle Tom in order to try to ingratiate himself to more radical friends. But Obama, who would start his career in politics as a community organizer in Chicago, wrote that he also found solace in the autobiography of Malcolm X, with his “unadorned insistence on respect.”
The book also contains the admission about his youth: “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.” He also uses a slang term to refer to casual sex, and quotes a vulgar term from a bull session about Malcolm X. His campaign says voters will appreciate the honesty and support him. The challenge for Obama will be to survive long enough for voters to have that chance.