Can Obama Criticize and Unite?
As David Axelrod, Barack Obama's chief strategist, was musing aloud recently in response to a reporter's query, he found himself articulating what may be one of the key questions of the Democratic primary. "One hundred percent of Democrats," he said, want to get a Democrat back in the White House. "But the question is whether that's enough -- whether any Democrat will do...Or whether we have to do something more."
The question hangs in the air at Obama campaign events, where Democratic voters profess themselves pleased with his calls for "turning the page" past the deep polarization of the past 15 or so years, but then also find themselves cheering most loudly at the rare clear shots Obama takes at President Bush and the Republicans. Obama's message of national reconciliation is an inarguably appealing one, but, with national polls showing a growing gap between him and Hillary Clinton, and Obama falling slightly behind in fundraising, the question arises: is this the right moment for the message? Countless voters want a break from partisan warfare, but plenty of Democrats believe that the troubles of the past seven years were the result not of any systemic flaws in Washington, but quite specifically the result of incompetent GOP governance, and that all is needed is the restoration of capable Democratic leadership . Such voters may decide that Hillary Clinton, whose candidacy seems to promises competence rather than epochal transformation, is more than satisfactory.
Then there is the question of whether voters believe a new era of consensus as foreseen by Obama is even possible. As one questioner at a University of Iowa event asked Obama earlier this month, "I think it's important to unify the country... but how do you compromise with people who refuse to take the troops out [of Iraq]?"
Axelrod said that that the Obama campaign believed that all Democrats, no matter how angry at Bush and the Republicans, hope for a more unified country. "I don't think...most Democrats want more gridlock and stasis and disunity in Washington," he said. "They want a president who can bring the country together around a common purpose." And given that Bush himself has not unified the country, Axelrod argued, there was no conflict between Obama's being what Axelrod called an "apostle of unity" and being critical of Bush.
Axelrod also argued that Obama has "not in any way been reticent about critiquing" Bush on the trail. But there is a clear contrast between Obama's stump speech and that of Clinton and John Edwards, who rely more on standard partisan barbs. On the day earlier this month when President Bush vetoed the expansion of the S-CHIP children's health insurance program, Obama did not mention the veto in his appearance in Washington, Iowa until someone in the crowd brought it up. The day before, he reminded a large crowd in Coralville that "no matter what we think about George Bush, he's going to be gone in January 2009. He's not on the ballot." (At the same event, it took former Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen to rile up the crowd with a quip that "my eyesight is not too good but I've got more vision than this president of the United States.")
Axelrod argued that Obama's above-it-all appeal was particularly well suited to the sophisticated caucus and primary voters of Iowa and New Hampshire. Those voters, he said, would not be satisfied if Obama went with a more expedient pitch centered around the argument that his personal appeal as a candidate and lack of baggage would give him a better chance of winning the White House for Democrats than would Clinton. "Those voters involved in the early states are looking for more than that," he said.
Asked whether Obama's appeal for consensus was a repeat of the upbeat message of John Edwards in 2004 (a campaign Axelrod also advised), Axelrod demurred, saying that the heart of Edwards' 2004 campaign was his "Two Americas" theme and that that was "fundamentally different" than what Obama is now offering. "His appeal is his ability to break through this old straitjacket we're in and speak to us as a country," Axelrod said.
Asked whether the campaign's message would noticeably change in coming weeks -- either in its rhetoric toward Republicans or toward Clinton -- Axelrod said there was no reason for it to do so. The campaign was in a "dead heat" in Iowa partly because of that state's exposure to Obama, he said, and "by the time the snow is falling we'll have a dogfight in New Hampshire." Obama was already "drawing distinctions" between himself and Clinton and would continue to do so, so that "the distinctions are going to be very clear for people," Axelrod said. But the campaign's message would "fundamentally be the same" throughout. "If people want a candidate who changes his message every day, others can accommodate that, but you're not going to see that from him," he said.
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