Obama’s Republican Clout Rises
by Dax-Devlon Ross
Don’t look now but Barack Obama is gaining steam in the Republican camp. With defectors and donors alike coming over from the other side of the American political divide, both The Times and this week’s installment of the New Yorker have published articles tracing and tracking Obama’s rising stock with conservatives. The reasons defectors are offering range from the obvious – disillusion with the Bush administration – to the not so obvious – Obama, despite his ultra-liberal voting history in the Senate, isn’t necessarily on a crusade to “change” or “fix” the systems (healthcare, tax, education, foreign policy). Even though his reluctance to become the next Democratic ‘champion of change’ is really grounded in a sense that history can not be wiped away over night and not a fundamental belief in maintaining the status quo, the very fact that he isn’t running on a typically Democratic platform has some conservatives interested, willing to listen, signing over substantial checks, and even calling him the black Ronald Reagan.
Obama’s conservative appeal can be broken down into three categories: 1) presence 2) praxis (meaning his customary conduct and 3) politics
Contrary to what people tend to believe about Obama, which is based largely on the black church tradition, he does not rely on charismatic oratorical verbosity, nor on the larger than life demagoguery of the black politician a la Harold Washington. Obama is routinely referred to by observers as “professorial” to the point that those who knew him prior to the publication of Dreams of My Father were stunned to discover an angry, confused young man. Writes Larissa MacFarquhar in the New Yorker article, “The Conciliator,” “…Obama’s detachment, his calm in such small venues, is…like that of a doctor who, by listening to a patient’s story without emotional reaction, reassures the patient that the symptoms are familiar to him.”
Republicans have consistently griped with Democrats about their resolve, their capacity to stand firm when necessary, to, in short, be strong. The question that haunted Kerry’s campaign in ‘04 was how would he deal with the war. Labeling him a “flip-flopper” and worrying that he would bungle the Iraq situation was just a politically correct way of questioning his – and by extension the party’s – backbone. That Obama comes off to most as a man who is “grounded” and “comfortable in his own skin” wins him instant credibility in the eyes of conservatives who’ve grown accustomed to ignoring ‘wimpy’ Democrats.
Another aspect of Obama’s personality that plays well across partisan lines is his capacity to relate to regular people without appearing condescending. As MacFarquhar points out, “He tends to underplay his knowledge, acting less informed than he is.” Whether he is ‘acting’ or simply being, the point remains: Republicans have always resented the arrogance of Blue state Democrats, and Barack Obama has managed to transcend that gap.
Presence is one factor in Obama’s widening appeal; a second factor bears on his conduct or, more concretely, how he lives his life. Obama is hopeful about America and yet he is not idealistic. The American ethos colored and in certain ways defined the lives of his parents. He saw first hand the pitfalls of our national obsession with freedom, how it ultimately leaves one craving the new frontiers of experience without satiating the need for community, and without respecting the need for tradition. In this way, the Obamas are a beacon of nuclear family values that conservatives valorize as a matter of course. Indeed, his criticism of the Iraq War was fundamentally grounded in our nation’s naive delusion that freedom and democracy are easily and even desirably exportable commodities. “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed and way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative…He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections…he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values changed for the good.”
In Obama’s world, the alternative to buying into quick fixes or so-called revolutions is the willinness to listen to all sides of a debate without becoming emotionally invested in any one single viewpoint in order to discover “areas of convergence.” It is a trait his law school classmates and teachers recall and one that Republican voters find attractive, particularly since the band of Republican hopefuls is currently considered less than desirable by voters. At a moment when the times seem to be swinging back in favor of Democrats, smart Republicans would do well to find respite in a leader who believes the President’s job is lead all of the people, not just those who vote for him/her. Cass Sunstein, one of Obama’s colleagues quoted in the New Yorker said, “…he might agree with [conservatives] on some issues and…even if he comes down on a different side, he knows he might be wrong.” While on the campaign trail in New Hampshire Obama even went so far as to say, “I’m considered a progressive Democrat. But if a Republican or a Conservative or a libertarian or a free-marketer has a better idea, I am happy to steal ideas from anybody and in that sense I’m agnostic.”
Barack Obama’s political campaign slogan could easily be ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.’ He consistently links himself to the tradition of Abraham Lincoln despite Lincoln’s veritable ambivalence on the slavery issue because he sees in the Republican Lincoln an overriding impulse to unify the nation, to hold it together by any means—even if doing so meant the abolition of slavery. But that is just the beginning with the Republican draw. Obama’s speech before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs two weeks ago drew approval from the likes of neocon foreign policy insider Robert Kagan. In the speech Obama announced his plan to increase defense spending and an extra 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 marines to the war against terrorism and to ensure America had “the strongest, best-equipped military in the world”. With regard to healthcare reform, Obama has expressed discontent with the present plan but has yet to offer a definitive solution because he is wary of the creating a bigger problem than that which already exists. “We’ve got all of these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off,” Obama said recently. His solution to the problems associated with No Child Left Behind are equally “conservative” in that he is hesitant to throw more money at the problem without taking a serious look at the effects of poverty on the family.
Which brings us to what might be the biggest domestic drawing card for Republicans: Obama’s growing critique of Black folks. Whether it is Cousin Pookie, the black middle class, or Hip-Hop, Obama has shown that he is willing to publically chide black America for its shortcomings. This has to be appealing to Republicans who are forever dancing around the dicey fires of political correctness when it comes to black America and its pathological behavior. Now, finally, a black man with the temerity to say what they and many, many others believe has stepped forward.
More and more pundits are putting forth the idea that Barack Obama is right for these times. In a sense it is a back-handed compliment. It may suggest the nation is ready for a black President, but it also insinuates that this is only because at this particular moment the nation needs someone with the type of skills that Obama happens to possess. The implicit message, as well, is that four years from now, eight years from now, Obama may not be the man for the job. To borrow a popular idiom from urban culture: he isn’t Mr. Right; he is Mr. Right Now. The more this idea is espoused and spread, the more defectors will wind up in Obama’s camp. They will arrive not as followers so much as fellow travelers whose paths happen to converge for a period as they wage battle against a common enemy, in this case the Bush administration. Right now, according to most, America is in a vulnerable and precarious state. The Union might not be at stake, but global hegemony certainly is, and that might be more than enough incentive to switch allegiances for the sake of a larger cause. One would like to believe this is a good thing.