Why Barack Obama Should Run for President
by Matt Stoller, Sun Oct 22, 2006 at 01:55:46 PM EDT
Though you probably know me as someone who's not a fan of Barack Obama, I do want the Senator to run for President in 2008. I think it would be good for him, good for the party, and good for the country. I'm big on process, on public debate, on public deliberation, and we need his voice in the fray. We need to hear from him, what's his vision? What are his principles? What kind of America does he support? How will he stand up to pressure when he is debating other Democrats? In other words, what, exactly is his voice? Is he the Barack Obama who criticizes our political system for its smallness, its lack of vision, as he puts it in his stump speech? Or is he the Barack Obama who praises George Bush, and goes along and gets along in the Senate, ruffling no feathers and making sure that the smallness of our system is what he embraces? Or is the Barack Obama that thinks that this country is not ready for the sacrifices he knows are coming, and so will revel in his symbolic emptiness?
I think there are two keys to understanding Barack. The first is to look at his formative political experience, the seering loss to machine politician Bobby Rush in the Democratic primary in 2000. Before Brand Obama emerged, the Senator got destroyed by bucking the system. Losing to a machine, as Cory Booker also did, does strange things to idealistic-appearing hyperambitious politicians. It makes them a lot more wary of picking fights and making enemies, and it makes them a lot more inclined to cultivate chits and work within a system they know isn't working.
And Obama knows America is broken. He knows it, he gets it, and that's why he is so aggressively dismissive of progressives. He feels that he is one of us, and so we should understand why he has to have contempt for us. Here is, for instance, what he wrote on Daily Kos:
Unless we are open to new ideas, and not just new packaging, we won't change enough hearts and minds to initiate a serious energy or fiscal policy that calls for serious sacrifice.
Barack Obama knows we must change, but he also knows the penalty for fighting for change. This internal contradiction comes out in his sickening praise of Bush, whom he praised today on Meet the Press, or in his embrace of bipartisanship for him and his Senate buddies. It comes out in a strong disdain for progressives, be it random sneering insults towards liberals or pandering to an authoritarian pagan right-wing evangelical tribalism. He doesn't like that we make him revisit his loss to Bobby Rush, because the last thing he wants to think of himself as is a loser, and because we make him make choices. You know, like the choice he made to not go to Connecticut to campaign for Ned Lamont, which we will remember as the unprincipled betrayal of the Democratic Party that it is. We want to hold him accountable for the dreams that are invested in his persona, and he doesn't want to be responsible for the hope of millions, though he does want to sell a book called The Audacity of Hope.
So why, after all of this, do I think he should run for President? It would be good for everyone if he did. For the Democratic Party, we would be able to engage our hero in a debate over policies and ideas, and we'd be able to take him down off a pedestal and actually grapple together with common challenges. That would make us as a party stronger. For the country, all Americans would be able to move beyond the rock star persona, and get to the substance, and that would be good. Public debate is better than rock star adulation.
And for Obama? Well, Obama is scared. He hasn't had to make choices for a long time, and he knows he has a limited timeframe in which to capitalize on the brand he has out there. His brand has a shelf-life, and running for President would force him to clarify what he wants to mean beyond gorgeous ambitiion. That would be good for him as a politician, and as a man. We haven't yet seen what a Barack Obama would fight for in a public debate, and it's something I'd like to see. I'd like to see him enter the contest, and in all likelihood get crushed for being a go-along-get-along politician. Only then can he become a great Senator or President, after he realizes that it's not about being liked by everyone, it's about being a principled human being.
And I guess I'd finally say that I know it doesn't seem like it, but he's running out of time. Sooner or later, he's going to run smackdab into another brand, say, an Eliot Spitzer, who is good at fighting for his principles. And in that choice, when Obama has to face his first round of negative ads, and his first real negative campaign on a state or national level, does he really want to face the charge that he's a pretty face and an empty suit? Is that what he wants to be known as? I hope not. That's not what I want for this incredibly talented and brilliant man, and that's not what I hope for our Democratic Party. That's not what we need as a country, and we're going to get something more than that in the next twenty years.
Or at least, I'm audacious enough to hope that we will.