Feature

Obama: The audacity of political pragmatism

Last week, Barack Obama announced that he was backing out of his commitment to take limited public financing to underwrite his campaign.

So much for Barack Obama’s pledge to bring about a “new politics,” said Steve Kornacki in The New York Observer. In a blatant flip-flop, Obama announced last week that he was backing out of his commitment to take limited public financing to underwrite his campaign. Obama, the first presidential candidate ever to refuse Treasury funds for the general election, had previously said he supported public financing, even promising in February to “aggressively pursue” an agreement on spending limits with the eventual GOP nominee. But that was before he raked in nearly $290 million on his own. That’s far more than the $85 million in public funds to which he would have been restricted, and to which his Republican opponent, John McCain, has pledged himself. A few weeks ago, the rap on Obama was that he was a “naïve sapling.” Now critics are portraying him as a “cunning opportunist.”

Not to mention a hypocrite, said Geoffrey Norman in National Review Online. Obama has famously touted himself as the candidate of change. “Turns out, it was a sham. Obama is all about the money.” You can hardly blame him for choosing $290 million over $85 million, said The Washington Post in an editorial. But did he have to wrap his decision to opt out of public financing “in the smug mantle of selfless dedication to the public good”? Obama claims that his fund-raising is so broad-based—coming from 1.5 million contributors, with half giving $200 or less—that it constitutes “a new kind of politics” and “ordinary people coming together.” How sanctimonious can you get?

That’s just smart politics, said Kirsten Powers in the New York Post. “Obama didn’t come out of nowhere to defeat the Clintons because he’s a goody-goody.” Behind his pleasant smile lies a very strategic and ambitious man. Now, with far more money in his war chest than McCain, he can effectively compete in red states that previous Democratic presidential candidates had written off. By showing his practical side, said Dick Polman in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Obama also helps demolish the charge that he’s “too much of a dreamer” to run the country or negotiate with foreign leaders. “Obama is simply doing what it takes to win—as Republicans have long been known to do.”

Still, he’s now walking a fine line, said Jay Newton-Small in Time.com. Obama skyrocketed to the nomination by casting himself as a principled outsider. Lately, though, the Democratic nominee has been acting like everyone else in Washington. “Worried about his patriotism? He now wears a flag pin daily. Worried about his church? He left it.” To win the votes of independents and centrist Republicans, Obama is now risking “the fervent grass-roots enthusiasm that has gotten him this far.”

Obama, of course, is not the only flip-flopper in this race, said Richard Cohen in The Washington Post. But McCain can get away with changing some of his policy positions because he’s “a known commodity.” Whether refusing to cooperate with his North Vietnamese captors or taking stands that have angered his fellow Republicans, McCain long ago proved he’s a man of character and integrity. By contrast, it’s hard to recall a time when Obama ever alienated his liberal base or took a real political risk. True, said David Brooks in The New York Times, but when Obama somehow made his “cutthroat political calculation” to reject public financing “seem like Mother Teresa’s final steps to sainthood,” I couldn’t help but feel a little awe. This guy is good. “Even Bill Clinton wasn’t smart enough to succeed in politics by pretending to renounce politics.”

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