Friday, July 21, 2006

Senator Barack Obama, a Liberal run for President

Revised and links added at 1:00 am on Saturday
Melissa Harris Lacewell [University of Chicago and Princeton University Professor of Political Science], Eric Zorn [Chicago Tribune Columnist and blogger] and John Cox [running somewhat early in the 2008 Republican Primary for President] bantered on Chicago Tonight last night with host Eddie Arruza about whether Senator Obama should and will run for President.

Eric Zorn recoiled at Arruza’s characterization of the opinion columnist as a cheerleader for Obama’s Presidential run, with Zorn saying he preferred the label “analyst.” Zorn then proceeded to lay out, with some passion, the case for Obama’s run, e.g., he is favored now, Obama is the “new thing now,” he has national appeal, charisma and magnetism; in 2012 or 2016, there will be another such charismatic or preferred candidate, or another new thing, so now is the time for Obama; the longer one stays in the Senate, the harder it is to run for President successfully, etc.

Melissa Harris Lacewell was a little less definitive in her statements than Zorn, but she was complimentary of Senator Obama. Harris Lacewell lamented the lack of structure and coherence of the Democratic Party and suggested it was looking for someone to substitute for that party strength—and that Obama, like Bill Clinton in the early 90s, might be just what the Democratic Party needs to give it the coherence it lacks.

John Cox, who at first blush seemed an odd choice for the show, took the conversation away from adulation of Barack Obama to an attack on Barack for never having worked in the private sector. This is not quite true in that Senator Obama previously was affiliated with a law firm [Miner, Barnhill & Galland] and taught at a private university (University of Chicago Law School). Both would seem to qualify as private sector jobs.

Cox, who has lost or dropped out of three Republican primaries [10th CD and U. S. Senate], lost in one general election [Cook County Recorder of Deeds] and lost in a late bid for State GOP Chairman, criticized Senator Obama for his “top-down government directed solutions,” to various public policy problems and issues and for “repeating the liberal line on many, many things.” Cox did a reasonably good job of contrasting his own market oriented solutions in the areas of education [School Choice-school vouchers] and healthcare [vouchers, efforts to expand the number of providers, insurers, etc.] with those of the good Senator.

This, of course, is why John Cox “is running for President,” that is, to get a platform. It worked last night: WTTW gave him a platform for his conservative, free market oriented views and Chicago Tonight got some balance to help its discussion. A win-win outcome for all.

The most notable and amusing part, however, of the program was the aversion of Harris Lacewell and Zorn to use the L word to describe Senator Obama. The good professor said:

I am a little taken aback by the notion that he [Obama] is liberal. He is certainly a Democrat. But, being a Democrat in Illinois does not necessarily make one liberal. I do think that he is generally progressive. Although, I think [he] toes more of the new Democratic Party line than the older one. And, it’s funny to hear the Democratic Party described [by fellow panelist John Cox] as a top down, Government heavy party. I think that’s actually not sort of where domestic policy with the Democrats has been over the past fifteen years…

Eric Zorn, whose columns have noted recently that Barack Obama has been straddling the fence on some issues, argued that Obama has “fairly moderate, mainstream, Democratic, progressive views.” Zorn suggested that there are other senators who are farther left in that they, unlike Obama, support same sex marriage and have stronger positions against capital punishment.

Zorn is certainly right in his argument that there are more liberal senators or senators farther to the left than Obama, but that hardly means Barack Obama is not a liberal. Even Zorn's colleague at the Tribune, Elleen Warren, noted two years ago that Barack Obama is "quite liberal". And, for a Professor of Political Science to be “taken aback by the notion that Obama is liberal,” is nothing short of astonishing. If I were Arruza, I might have at least raised my eyebrows at that one. Better yet, let's take a look at some of the Senator's positions on the issues.

Obama was an early, vocal and forceful opponent of the War in Iraq. Much more so, he would and did argue, than any of his 2004 Democratic U. S. Senate Primary opponents. Senator Obama reminds his anti-war followers from time to time that he is not a pacifist and that military force is sometimes necessary but has been hard pressed to give examples of when and where he would exercise it, and he stammered a bit when I asked him about the genocide in the Sudan, with then State Senator Obama saying two years ago at a press conference [after a Chicago Council on Foreign Relations speech] that he did not know if he would support the U. S. taking unilateral action to try to stop mass genocide in the Sudan, if the U. N. declined to do so. [This is perhaps a timely statement to keep in mind as now U. S. Senator Obama travels to Africa next month].

Senator Obama has not been receptive to answering questions about when, if ever, he might support taking military action to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability. [Watch here, Obama-Bean April 17, 2006 Press Conference]

Senator Obama is now unequivocally opposed to school vouchers, although prior to his decision to run for the Senate he said on “Public Affairs,” he would take a look at anything to try to improve the quality of education in inner city schools, of which he characterized many as being in retched condition.

He is, I believe, a supporter of a significant increase in the minimum wage. Senator Obama is a strong believer in labor unions' efforts to raise wages above the free market level.

Obama is a believer in fair trade, not free trade, wanting to see a stiffening of labor and environmental standards before he will consider supporting trade agreements.

Senator Barack Obama has been a consistent and harsh critic of the Bush tax cuts and would roll them all back, or as the Republicans would say, raise taxes. He has not been a big voice in the U. S. Senate for restraining the level of domestic spending.

Barack Obama voted against confirmation of both nominees by President Bush last year to the Supreme Court: Judge Roberts and Judge Alito. Given Obama's perspective, his Alito vote is understandable, but not his vote on Roberts [See here]. In any case, his no votes on both reflect the thinking of a liberal U. S. Senator.

Obama is 1000% pro-choice on abortion, pro gun control and pro gay rights, with the exception of same sex marriage, and even there he has implied he could support that some time in the future.

On healthcare, Senator Obama has moderated his position: stepping back before he went to the U. S. Senate from single payer to Universal health care. And, he has made clear, contrary to what John Cox suggested last night, that he wants private firms as well as government entities to be involved in health care. [See here].

Now, the above positions, depending on your perspective, could be good or bad. But, clearly they are generally the positions of a liberal.

Yes, on some big issues, Senator Obama strikes a somewhat moderate position. For example, although opposing the War in Iraq, he has always emphasized once there, the U. S. has to be careful how it exits. This is in stark contrast to the “get out last year,” positions of his very liberal colleague Cong. Jan Schakowsky [D-Evanston, 9th CD], who was a very effective and strong supporter of Obama throughout his primary campaign-- which was Obama's real U. S. Senate contest [Watch Cong. Schakowsky here, Oct. 2005 show] and of former military hawk and ex-marine Cong. Jack Murtha [D-PA]. And, on faith and the public square, he has struck a more moderate tone than liberals such as Eric Zorn would prefer.

And, in tone, Senator Obama is always civil, respectful and careful in his statements. Those traits help project a moderate image, which, as Zorn noted, Obama wants to continue to develop as he contemplates a run for President.

Oh yes, the question was: Is Senator Obama going to run and should he run for President.

Well, Barack Obama is in the fortunate position of being able to run without running-- at least for now. Senator Obama has a barebones, nationally oriented, skeletal organization set up to raise money for such things as training people in the political process, etc. Ever since his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in July, 2004, Obama has been a national figure, invited to help Democratic candidates raise money through-out the country, receiving something like three hundred, or so, invitations per week to speak.

Senator Obama is building a strong base of national support and attracting followers who continue to transcend race, geography, political party and ideology, albeit with a few, slight bumps from time to time. He is as good a speaker as you will see, and he connects with audiences, large and small.

Indeed, even before Barack Obama was a U. S. Senator and a national Barock star, his talents were easily observeable. As I wrote after covering the run-up to-- and his U. S. Senate Primary win:

Barack Obama is an unbelievably talented human being. He so overwhelms you with his articulateness that you fail to see his charm. Or, he so overwhelms you with his quick grasp of the crowd and its tone that you fail to see his substance. Or, he so overwhelms you with his substance that you fail to see his ability to connect. On and on it goes. Just when you think you know the breadth and depth of the guy, he pulls out something new. See here

So, Barack Obama is in a very good position. He oozes talent, style and charm. He has a great command of the issues. He knows the right people and the right people keep wanting to get close to him. And, most importantly, for a while, Senator Obama can do virtually all the things that a candidate for VP or President should do, without having to say he is running for President. At some point, he will have to make a decision. Knowing Barack Obama, it will be a cautious, well thought out decision.

Obama's decision will depend on the perceived strength of Hillary, Edwards, Kerry and perhaps Gov. Bill Richardson [D-NM] or someone of that type. It will also depend on how well his national organization is coming together, and perhaps on how well received he is in Iowa and New Hampshire. Unless one of the above referenced contenders becomes a prohibitive favorite or his nascent national organization fizzles in the next eight months, Senator Obama will give it a shot by March, 2007. [For a contrary view, watch CBS-2 News' Mike Flannery predict a likely no-go decision by Obama on "Chicago Week in Review," tonight on Ch. 11 at 7:00 pm, midnight, 1:30 am and 4:30 am]

Even if Senator Barack Obama falls short, and doesn't become a candidate for President, he will have a good shot at being selected as the VP candidate and thus would be on his way to the Presidency. Not bad for a skinny kid from the south side of Chicago, with a funny sounding name. Not bad at all.
Jeff Berkowitz, Show Host/Producer of "Public Affairs," and Executive Legal Recruiter doing legal search can be reached at