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Nov 09 2008

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Anatomy of Change

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Throughout the seemingly endless campaign, amid perpetual defenses of Bush policies and the clever crafting of tortured victory strategies for John McCain, I allowed myself the stray thought about Obama-centric change.

On the campaign trail, the rhetoric of change was warming, optimistic and inclusive, but the emotions it conjured did not lead directly to anything more concrete.

I mean, would my neighbors suddenly be nicer?  Would police give a pass on writing a speeding ticket if we pled ignorance? And what about those pathological DC meter maids? Would we all simply “pay it forward” in a national expression of collective responsibility; a higher plane of consciousness?

I don’t ask these questions mockingly.

It’s just that the one thing I am sure about with regard to change is that it will look different.  It would be something that I hadn’t seen before.  It would be something new and unfamiliar.

But that’s not what I see from Obama, at least upon closer examination of available data.

Take the Obama campaign for instance. It was a model of efficiency and productivity. It made a long-shot candidate with 141 days actually on the job in national office, the President of the United States. Certainly this was change if not wild-eyed chutzpah.

But look closer.

The campaign organization?  In this respect Obama’s operation looked suspiciously like the Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004, smooth, well oiled; clear lines of responsibility, a thought-out strategy, maniacal message discipline and virtually leak proof with a single minded focus. Is it an accident that both Bush and Obama never changed their collective high commands – while their opponents ran trough management with reckless abandon?

And the vice presidential selection?  Obama turned to a proven Washington insider with foreign policy experience and years of work in the intrigue and protocols of the nation’s governing elite. But the vice president elect, at 65, would be a year older than John McCain was this cycle after a two-term Obama presidency, is unlikely to have presidential aspirations in his own right.  Remind you of anyone you know?

And what about that fundraising?  Well Howard Dean started that.  The idea of using the Internet as a vehicle to raise money and awareness, and create communities of volunteers to generate excitement in 2004.  It didn’t’ work for “Yehaw Dean” but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a tool of the future, which the Obama people adopted.

Well, what about the voter outreach and new registrations?  About all the young people, minorities and change enthusiasts bursting to get to the polls? Interesting facts have come to light since November 4th that places this in context.

The Obama camp did put huge efforts into voter registration; nearly 10 million by some counts, but the effect in actual voting was negligible. The total number of Americans voting was flat or rose by less than 1%.1 And the deluge of the young?  That didn’t happen either. According to exit polls, those 18-29 were 18% of the vote, up one point from 2004.  Overall, African American voting was up two points, and Latino voting was up one point. In contrast, it was white voting that was uninspired, falling by three percent.

This is not meant to discount the Obama effort, which was formidable, but to place credit for the origins of the turn out operation where it rightly belongs. Obama turned out his base. The Obama voter turnout operation, advanced and coordinated as it was, ironically mirrored and fine tuned the efforts of Karl Rove and the Republicans to identify and turn out likely voters in key states that was tested in 2002 and perfected in 2004.  The Obama ground game was a borrowed idea from the Administration that he regularly bashed.

But even borrowed tools can create new monuments and here we have plenty of room for change.  However in his few days as President-elect, Obama has turned not to fresh faces but Washington regulars, dare I say, insiders.

His choice for Chief of Staff?  Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton administration Political Director, and lately, the House Member from Illinois whose proficiency at knocking off moderate Republicans in Democratic states, and in-your-face partisanship, is legendary.

This raises questions not only about changed faces, but Obama’s conception of post-partisanship.

At his first press conference since becoming President-elect, Obama surrounded himself with a veritable “Who’s Who” of heavy hitters. But instead of a new cast of characters, it included very familiar Washington names such as Bill Daley, former Clinton Commerce Secretary. Robert Reich, former Clinton Labor Secretary and Robert Rubin former Clinton Treasury Secretary.

There was Larry Summers, former Clinton Deputy Treasury Secretary, angling for the top job this time, John Podesta, former Clinton Chief of Staff, and Laura Tyson, former Clinton Chair of the Council of Economic advisors, and of course Emanuel.

This is change we can believe in?

For this crowd to be back in charge, Democrats should simply have picked Hillary.

It also demonstrates a consistent knack by Obama to talk big but act incrementally. To improve upon what has been tested and works.  From a member of the defeated opposition, this offers rays of hope.

I listened carefully to Obama’s remarks, looking for policies of change.

He backs a new fiscal stimulus package that is currently under development in the Congress, which in lieu of what Washington has spent since mid-September seems fairly unoriginal. Otherwise, his 20 minutes and nine questions before the cameras seemed to continue with an air of, well, specific vagueness.

Timing of the stimulus package?  “Sooner rather than later.”  Making appointments?  “I want to move with all deliberate haste.”   His tax plan? “We’re going to continue to look at the data.” Whether he would respond to a letter of congratulations from Iran’s President?  “I think we have to think that through.”

Obama even had trouble indicating what kind of dog he will secure for his daughters, talking about the need to balance the requirement for a hypoallergenic pooch with  his desire for a pound puppy.

The Bush administration never did nuance well, and perhaps this explains my inability to understand this uncertainty, and perhaps the disappointment that only days after the election, things look, well, surprisingly the same.

Having borrowed from Bush, Rove and Dean to create a stunningly successful campaign, Obama is now borrowing from the Clintons, who had the only two-term presidency since FDR.

Obama is a lot of things, but a dummy is not one of them.  Maybe using the rhetoric of ambiguity he  can mask what is old as something that is new.

In all fairness, Obama’s transition is less than a week old, with much to sort out and decide, and the simple act of getting elected represents profound change in and of itself.

Still, so far, although this may not be change you can believe in, the devil you know….


1. American University  Center for the Study of the American Electorate

 

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