Gravity Takes Bite Out of “Obama Wind”


John Kerry Wind Surfing.jpg
On This Week with George Stephanopoulos, conservative commentator George Will can generally be counted on to offer a stoic, offshore perspective of the internecine Democratic battles. Today, he made the point that Barack Obama has not won a single ‘major’ political contest against Hillary Clinton since Wisconsin on February 19th. He noted what many other observers have: Barack Obama’s campaign is losing steam.
All hats off to those who correctly say that ‘mathematically’, it’s very hard to see how Hillary Clinton shifts enough superdelegates to win — but there is something afoot really trying to make this happen. As Maureen Dowd just said on Stephanopoulos’ show, “Hillary Clinton has successfully repainted Obama from being incandescent to ineffectual.”
In my own view, Hillary Clinton has run a sometimes terrible campaign and has lost a dramatic lead over her opponent, but what is beginning to happen very late in the process is that “gravity” is finally taking hold on the former gravity-defying campaign of Barack Obama.

Obama is juggling a number of challenges simultaneously, and to be honest with my readers, I don’t understand why all of these issues of religious patronage and friendships with people on non-profit boards (even if they were one-time radicals) are issues at all. I realize that they are to some and that these candidates need to somehow try and show that they are the most American of all Americans — and that radicalism is somehow something to avoid. I have a different view and think that radicalism should be heard, often celebrated (with care), sometimes embraced. I don’t believe in the infallibility of a president and don’t want spotless pasts. But in public policy at this time, I care more about the future of the country’s national security position and its conduct as a principled globally-engaged nation that does more good than harm in the world than these other social squabbles.
My dilemma in supporting either of them is that Barack Obama for the most part articulates a vision of American engagement in global problems that jumps out of the dangerous incrementalism that Bush, McCain, and even Hillary Clinton seem driven by. But my enthusiasm wanes for Obama when I note that when one scratches the surface, his proposals are far less inspiring in detail than rhetorically.
One case in point is Obama garnering credit from The Washington Note and later by notables like Fareed Zakaria for his then seemingly courageous willingness to recraft some of America’s self-damaging foreign policy tangles — like US-Cuba relations. Cuba through its embargo stifled relations with the U.S. seems to be the only place on the planet where the Cold War actually got colder in the last decade. Obama had proposed opening up family-related travel between Cuban-Americans and relatives in Cuba and increasing the financial amount that these relatives could send into Cuba.
The problem with this gesture by Obama is that it lacks the principles he himself speaks to so frequently. First of all, his proposal does not go back to the status quo that existed during the first three years of the George W. Bush administration. Even Bush before 2004 permitted non-tourist people to people exchanges and travel. This kind of engagement would seem a natural for Obama’s foreign policy template — and yet, when I asked senior foreign policy advisor, Susan Rice, about Obama moving to this pre-2004 status quo, I was told on an official Obama campaign conference call that he would not move there until certain conditions were met inside Cuba.
Since this exchange, I have heard through friends and acquaintances that Susan Rice felt I misquoted her. I have my exact notes and don’t feel that was the case at all. In fact, I have a great deal of respect for Rice and listened to her views as expressed on behalf of her candidate very, very closely. The campaign has never told me formally that I misquoted her. However, I did hear from one of the other top foreign policy advisers to the Obama campaign — on par with Rice but who we will leave unnamed — that he has looked at the transcript and feels that “the truth lies somewhere between what she said and I said.” I have asked the campaign for the transcript of that discussion, or the recording, which they keep on file — but have not received it.
This kind of triangulation is frustrating to many — because it plants doubts with people like me as to the seriousness and depth of Obama’s positions on many issues. I still believe that Barack Obama is far ahead of Clinton in imagining a different set of institutional arrangements between America and the rest of the world, and I largely support these — but I want to know details.
And frankly, while I disagreed with and was disappointed by Obama’s timidity in going back to the Bush administration 2001-2003 status quo on Cuba, for tactical political reasons, I could understand why his campaign held the posture it did. That’s politics — and I have to keep playing my civil society role of trying to argue about the need for Obama to move further, and he needs to do what he can do.
But for the Obama camp to say one thing and then to whisper another — one formally and another through informal assertions that a campaign principal was misquoted — is not something that inspires trust and confidence.
In my view, US-Cuba relations are important because the way in which the next US president deals with Cuba could telegraph to a waiting, pensive world what the general contours of American behavior will be. Will we upend and change strategy with a nation in which we have had five decades of a failed policy — or are we going to maintain the type of incrementalism that will neither win us friends globally nor fix the US-Cuba problem?
Obama’s disparagement of Jimmy Carter for reaching out to Hamas was another such point. Obama needs someone of stature to try and do what can be done at developing an “internal solution” to Palestine’s current civil war — and needs to turn this new construct into something that might be able to be negotiated with. Obama will have to confront this as President — either directly or through proxies. A senior Obama strategist told me that he didn’t really disagree with my views — but asked “If I were president, would I want Jimmy Carter to be my emissary?”
The point with Hamas is that it was not Obama’s credibility on the line. He should have wished Carter well — and should have said that if someone can pull off an arrangement that ends the killing, strife, and occupation in Israel/Palestine, then all the better.
Now the liberal netroots are frustrated with Obama as they sense him slipping away from them and towards a deference to other organs of political power, like Fox News. After Fox had run stories that lied about Obama’s past relationships and positions and distorted a number of Obama’s political stands, many in the netroots were shocked he would agree to appear. But then, much like President Clinton did two years ago with Chris Wallace, Obama’s people promised that their candidate “would take on” Fox News. Instead, he pretty much acquiesced and promised not to be “a stranger.”
None of this solves the problems with Hillary Clinton — who seems to have outstanding policy expertise, practical level federal experience, and a level of articulateness and clear vision that Obama does not have when it comes to concrete policy debates. But in foreign policy and national security, Hillary Clinton believes in a brand of ‘coercive diplomacy’ and incrementalism that I find to be recipes for the ongoing disaster we are experiencing in our national security portfolio today.
Hillary Clinton was wrong in her views about the China Olympic Games ceremony boycott, wrong to not even address Israel/Palestine in her recent major foreign policy speech, and wrong to intimate that she would “obliterate” Iran — implying the application of nuclear weapons to a conflict with Iran — given hypotheticals between Iran and Israel that we are no where near close to. She was right during the recent Philadelphia debate to talk about security throughout the entire Middle East and not just Israel — when Obama said “Israel’s security is paramount.”
Obama’s relations with Jeremiah Wright or William Ayers seem to me to be sideshows — and I don’t care much about them. Frankly, Ayers sounds like a fascinating guy, and it would be better for Obama to have such relationships and to see the good and bad in great people than to try and cover those past relationships. And as the Obama campaign has said, Obama was just 8 years old when Weatherman was doing its thing.
I don’t want an infallible president — who has done nothing wrong or lived life in a bubble only with the best in society. I do want someone with a clear-headed vision who will do his or her best to chart a proactive American strategy and not triangulate at the first sign of head wind.
Obama does lack a lot of experience — but the guy has lots of vision. His vision had me hooked for a while, and I could be hooked again.
But triangulating on principles like getting US-Cuba relations on a completely new and different course — and getting the side products of stealing from Hugo Chavez a major boasting platform in Latin America and showing the world that there is a new, more enlightened “decider” in the Oval Office — raises my concern level about Obama and his team.
I still feel Obama is going to win at the end of this race. But I have high expectations of the next presidential candidates — and this blog plans to be as tough as it can be on Obama, McCain, and Clinton. The notion that he should be supported because of rhetoric and because we can’t have four more years of a Bush-like presidency is not enough.
He must be for something real. He has had little federal level experience so needs to show us how that experience will both be requisitioned — and then reorganized — because having experience with old problems and applying old techniques is not enough in a time of significant historical discontinuity.
Obama’s politics of hope in US-Cuba relations are just one example of running short when details surface. His political approach to Israel/Palestine also comes up short — and in my view, he can talk all he wants about meeting Iran’s leaders, but unless he is able to simultaneously resolve the serious outstanding issues in achieving an Israel-Palestine deal, he can’t confront Iran with anything that Iran cares about in those discussions, which primarily is the spread of its influence and hegemonic role in the region.
Obama, at the beginning of his campaign, talked about the interconnectedness of our foreign policy challenges. Now, like Hillary Clinton (until her recent highly constructive comment on the need for a broad Middle East approach in the Philadelphia debate), John McCain, George Bush, and others — Obama is talking about foreign policy in silos — today Iraq, tomorrow Israel/Palestine, then Iran, then Syria. They are tied together — and I used to think that Obama got that. I have doubts at the moment.
America needs a new deal not only in the Middle East but with the world — a “grand bargain” to borrow my colleague Flynt Leverett’s term — and optically, at the level of veneer, Barack Obama is there more than Hillary Clinton or John McCain.
But his failure to talk through a new global grand strategy that synthesizes national security and American interests — and talks realistically about the crippled situation America is in today — leaves me disenchanted with him and at a loss with McCain and Clinton as well.
This is turning out to be a contest between least worst options for some — not the mystique of seeing campaigns run desperately against a historically-important new “wind” — with the wind as Obama as Howard Fineman termed him.
Gravity has set in on Obama — and there are six months left until November.
— Steve Clemons


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