I know that to some liberals, Barack Obama’s rhetorical style bespeaks a lack of commitment to progressive values. I don’t see it that way. I’ve always seen it as a pretty transparent trick. He says he’s not one of those liberals, he doesn’t call people “wingnuts,” he understands the conservative point of view, blah blah blah, and then here comes his agenda of tax hikes, tons of new spending, ambitious carbon emissions curbs, less invading of other countries for no reason, gay equality, etc. And, remarkably, you keep seeing conservatives eat it up, discerning something incredibly “new” and “exciting” in a combination of conventional liberal policy views with vaguely conciliatory rhetoric. ~Matt Yglesias
This seems right, and I have thought that this was a trademark of Obama’s political style for some time now. Last year I said:
All of this is supposed to show us that Obama is thoughtful, rather than callous, profound rather than predictable, but it does not. It is the tactic of the man who says, “I appreciate your point of view,” when in fact he does not appreciate it and wants to neutralise your criticism by deflecting the question in an entirely different direction. President Bush uses this same kind of tactic when he says, “Good and patriotic people hold this view, but I just strongly disagree. I believe freedom transforms regions, burble, burble.” He then concocts a straw man position, “Those who say that Iraq would be better off as a fetid wasteland filled with suicide bombers are simply wrong,” and declares victory.
As I should have added at the time, Obama’s gift is to make what is otherwise obviously an aggressive rhetorical move seem completely inoffensive and almost boring. It doesn’t sound like the sort of “red meat” denunciations that partisans want to hear, but it is all the more politically dangerous for conservatives because of that. With perfunctory nods to the importance of family and personal responsibility, his God-talk and his rhetoric of American unity, Obama smuggles his very progressive record past those sentries who are always on the lookout for the next big left-winger. People who somehow found the eminently centrist Howard Dean to be a scary and unhinged zealot find the genuinely left-wing Obama charming and amiable and (here’s the key word) unthreatening. Thus, in the bizarre estimations of many Republicans, Hillary Clinton, the embodiment of DLC centrism and cynical difference-splitting, supposedly represents the radical left who will tear the country apart even more, while Obama represents a less polarising and more broadly appealing kind of politics, yet he is objectively to the left of everyone in the Democratic field (except on the war) aside from Dennis Kucinich and perhaps the current, latest incarnation of John Edwards. Conservatives said of Dean, “Please nominate this man,” because they assumed a landslide victory for their side would follow. Now, strangely, conservatives seem to be getting concerned that the Republican nominee will have to face Obama, even though this would probably represent the GOP’s best chance at political salvation.
Obama also loves the device of invoking the line, “There are those who say…,” setting up the nameless, faceless opposition that he can characterise as he pleases, and now he has Oprah uttering the same kinds of remarks on his behalf. Both men (i.e., Obama and Bush) have a habit of putting words in the mouths of their critics, and they enjoy evading criticism by ridiculing the credibility of the critic without addressing the merits of the criticism. (You might say that a lot of people do this, but these two do it with a regularity that is noteworthy.) For instance, when faced with criticism about his “half-baked” ideas on Pakistan policy, he used the critics’ mistakes on Iraq as his defense. He is saying, ”You can’t believe what these people say about foreign policy, so by default I win.”
Progressives are annoyed with Obama over his Social Security position, and some probably take this as evidence that he is insufficiently progressive. The short version is that they see Obama’s call to “save” Social Security from a coming crisis as a regurgitation of GOP talking points, and more than a few progressives have been pushing back, claiming that Social Security is not in danger. This misunderstands why Obama is talking about Social Security in the way that he does. Part of it is tactical–he needs to persuade many older voters to support him, especially in Iowa–but another part of it is his stated goal of “transforming” our politics. Since Social Security is supposed to be too politically dangerous to touch, he wants to touch it to show that he is not bound by “conventional” wisdom or Beltway assumptions. He makes similar arguments in defense of his foreign policy views, which he frames as very unconventional (which they are not), even in those cases (e.g., Iran, Pakistan) where his views are much more hawkish and aggressive–and much more in line with the worst elements of the foreign policy establishment–than his supporters’ views.