Something Different about Obama

Washington Matters

Something Different about Obama

Observers and analysts of all persuasions generally agree that  there is something distinctly different about Barack Obama. However, they tend to focus on his compelling speaking skills and his ability to attract and mobilize new voters, especially younger people. What truly sets him apart from many other candidates for any office is an ability to use those skills and attributes to knit together a broad-based grassroots movement that many have tried but failed to form in the past.

How good he is at this will be tested severely in a couple weeks in the crucial Pennsylvania primary, where he has been closing Hillary Clinton's once double-digit lead.

Washington Post columnist Peter Beinart recently highlighted Obama's distinctive organizing skills by making an absurdly obvious point that is too often overlooked: Obama is winning because he has run a heck of a good campaign. He has outmaneuvered Clinton on virtually every front. He engineered an upset in Iowa by building a superb ground organization, effectively tapped the organizational and fund-raising powers of the Internet better than any candidate to date and built nearly insurmountable lead in pledged delegates by campaigning hard in states Clinton too long neglected. He's now using those skills and the bounty from them -- record campaign contributions -- in a bid to derail Clinton for good in Pennsylvania. Obama may not win there, but he has a good shot at doing well enough to keep Clinton from picking up a lot of momentum.

"It is this remarkable hybrid campaign, far more than Obama's thin legislative resume, that should reassure voters that he can run the government. As president, he'll need to keep his supporters mobilized: It will take a grass-roots movement, breathing down Congress's neck, to pass universal health care," Beinart writes.

I disagree sharply with Beinart on one thing. He dismisses GOP nominee-apparent John McCain's campaign because of how it blew through cash and nearly self-destructed in 2007. That overlooks another obvious point -- McCain engineered a remarkable comeback to win the backing of a party whose conservative base was, and to some degree remains, deeply skeptical of his ideological leanings.

Sure, his campaign had fizzled in many of the ways that Obama's sizzled. It was GOP conservatives splintering their forces behind different McCain opponents that ultimately allowed him to lunge forward. But McCain also  went back to the fundamentals that helped him nearly pick off George W. Bush in 2000. He focused on retail politics in New Hampshire, conducting hundreds of town hall meetings in which he excels at connecting with voters. He displayed the same kind of mix of principle and pragmatism that Obama is using to great effect.

Immigration is what nearly sank McCain, who favors a path to citizenship for illegals along with efforts to halt illegal immigration at the border. But the backlash was so strong that he ultimately backed down -- not abandoning his position -- but acknowledging that his proposal could not win approval from Congress or the public until the borders were secured first. That kind of admission is rare for politicians, and having it work for them is rarer still. In contrast, McCain has never backed down on the war in Iraq. The war and national security will be his signature issues. And the success of his general election campaign will in large part be determined on whether the can sell the war to Americans in a way that President Bush has not.

A McCain-Obama match-up would not feature just sharp differences on Iraq, the economy and a host of other issues. Both men are students of power and how to obtain and use it, but the lessons they have learned would make them distinctly different leaders. McCain is not just a creature of Congress, but of the military. He understands and believes in a chain of command and of using it to reach goals. McCain would use and leverage power and a willingness to compromise to achieve policy ends. But Obama comes from a rather unique professional background for a presidential candidate: community organizing. Organizers at that level do not see themselves as or act as leaders, but as trainers of leaders and builders of coalitions that share concerns and goals. More importantly, organizers are less interested in a specific result than they are in building an organization or movement up to the point where it wields the power necessary to get results. Obama could be counted on to try to inspire Americans to not simply vote for a change in direction, but to recognize that lasting change comes from  the political power they have collectively.

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