Presidential-primary politics tends to be played like a game of connect the dots, with all the would-be nominees running from interest group to interest group, knowing and delivering precisely what each constituency is expecting to hear. Unless, that is, the would-be nominee happens to be named Barack Obama. Whereas other candidates like to throw red meat before their audiences, Obama is developing a penchant for hurling cold water at them.
It may not be all that unusual for a Democrat to castigate automakers in an environmental speech. But when Obama did the castigating, it was in front of the Detroit Economic Club. Nor did he help his chances of winning the endorsements of the city's big unions by asserting that any aid Washington gives the automakers for their soaring health-care costs should be tied to improving fuel efficiency.
"We anticipated that there weren't necessarily going to be a lot of applause lines in that speech. It was sort of an eat-your-spinach approach," Obama conceded when I asked him about the stony silence that greeted his address. "But one thing I did say to people was that I wasn't going to make an environmental speech in California and then make a different speech in Detroit."
That kind of conspicuous candor has been part of Obama's campaign since his announcement tour in February. When a questioner at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, wanted to know whether he would cut the military budget to make room for other priorities, Obama answered, "Actually, you'll probably see an initial bump in military spending in an Obama Administration" to replace the equipment that has been depleted by the Iraq war and build up the size of the active forces. When a teacher asked him about the No Child Left Behind law that is so unpopular with educators and their unions, Obama agreed that it "left the money behind." But while he endorsed higher pay for teachers, Obama also talked about "the things that were good about No Child Left Behind," including more accountability. By then, his listeners were shifting in their chairs.
Regarding Social Security, the social program enshrined like no other in the theology of the Democratic base, Obama has said he is open to such politically heretical ideas as upping the retirement age and raising payroll taxes to shore up the system. Before black audiences, Obama regularly condemns violent and misogynist rap lyrics and chastises African Americans for disenfranchising themselves by not voting. In March, Obama caused some consternation among Jewish leaders by saying, "No one is suffering more than the Palestinian people." Given the chance to disavow that comment during a debate, Obama merely clarified it, saying the fuller context included an assertion that this suffering was the result of "the failure of the Palestinian leadership."
All these statements bring to mind an emblematic moment of the 1992 campaign, when Bill Clinton, then Governor of Arkansas, went before the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition to denounce a controversial black rapper--and to prove he was not beholden to traditional Democratic interests. But Obama rejects that comparison. "I'm not interested in engaging in a bunch of Sister Souljah moments just for the sake of it," he says. "If I do that, it's not for effect but because it's what I really believe."
Nor does Obama seem to have much regard for the rites and rituals that have come to define Democratic primary politics. When the huge public-service workers' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, held one of the first major candidate forums in February, Obama skipped it. Though he appeared in front of the politically important--and early endorsing--International Association of Fire Fighters in March, he all but ignored the union's pet issues--an almost masochistic choice that, not surprisingly, none of the other Democratic candidates made. Union president Harold Schaitberger said the group found Obama "a little somber." And this weekend, unless he changes his schedule, Obama will be the only leading Democratic presidential contender not to show up for the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids.
Obama knows he is not the first to compete in a Democratic primary as the self-styled truth teller against the party's Establishment and entrenched interests. Gary Hart tried it against Walter Mondale in 1984, and in the pre--Sister Souljah months of 1992, Paul Tsongas famously branded Clinton a "pander bear." Bill Bradley and Howard Dean took their turns in 2000 and 2004. Obama says he is well aware of how the approach turned out for his predecessors in the role: "They lost."
But this time, he says, he thinks the result could be different. "The country understands we have a series of choices now that, if we put them off any longer, will be much tougher to deal with, and we may not be able to deal with them at all," he says. "So I think there's going to be greater responsiveness to people who are actually saying what they think." It helps that Obama delivers his truth telling with a heavy dollop of optimism--a politically useful distinction from those truth tellers, like Tsongas, who came across as dour and depressing. And Obama's campaign is counting on the fact that America is different now--that in 2008 the national mood for change will be so powerful that voters will reward candor more richly than they have in the past.
At the same time, Obama is beginning to put forward the sort of detail-laden policy proposals that have been lacking in a campaign that has thus far consisted largely of high-minded rhetoric about the need for a new kind of politics. This week, for instance, he announced a detailed health-care plan that he contends will provide coverage for nearly all the 47 million Americans who lack it and will trim the average family's health-care costs by as much as $2,500 a year. But it fell short of meeting the universal-health-care goal that has become the Democratic Party's rallying cry.
Obama says his political consultant David Axelrod has occasionally felt the need to admonish him and his campaign "not to sit in the middle of the town square and set ourselves on fire." And, he says, "there will be those in my party who resist" his ideas. But, he adds, "there's got to be some element of truth telling in this year's campaign because the problems we face are too tough to try to finesse. If we do that, then we may win an election, but we won't solve the problems." In other words, Obama is betting that Democratic voters will decide winning isn't enough. If he's wrong, he'll end up with his truth-telling predecessors, nursing a moral victory as someone else accepts the nomination.