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Barack Obama, a constitutional law professor and state senator from the south side of Chicago, is a leading candidate for the US Senate in the March 2004 Illinois Democratic primary. It's an open seat with no incumbent. In a crowded field that includes three well-known and better-funded opponents, Obama is definitely a contender. But who is Barack Obama?
A former community organizer not long out of Harvard Law School, Obama was tapped in 1992 to head up Project VOTE Illinois, where he was responsible for registering 120,000 new Democratic voters, mostly minorities, and chasing the greater part of them out to the polls that November. Barack and his team made a significant contribution toward Bill Clinton carrying Illinois that year and enabled Carol Moseley Braun to squeak by a Republican opponent to become the first and only black woman ever to sit in the US Senate. In 1996 Obama was elected to the Illinois state senate. At the midpoint of a four-year term in 2000, Obama challenged incumbent congressman Bobby Rush and was trounced in the Democratic primary by almost 2 to 1. He is the sponsor of a bill in the Illinois legislature requiring local police departments in Illinois to record the race of anyone stopped for questioning so that the data can be used to track the occurrence of racial profiling.
Energizing the base
To win the Democratic primary election in Illinois, where African Americans cast at least a quarter of the ballots, Obama needs to capture the great majority of a large black turnout, and pick up a significant slice of white votes as well. To secure a general election victory in a presidential election year Obama will have to fire up an expanded Democratic base and turn the election into a crusade against the incumbent president and his party. Can he do it?
At an antiwar meeting last October Obama was certainly pitching to that Democratic base in the progressive and African American community:
Somebody else's brand
of politics appears to have intruded on Obama's campaign. For a while
the whole speech could be found on Obama's
campaign web site, a key statement of principle for a serious US Senate
candidate in an election season when the President's party threatens the
world with permanent war and pre-emptive invasion, and cows US citizens
with fear mongering, color coded alerts, secret detentions and the abrogation
of constitutional liberties. Although Obama may have appeared at meetings
of other citizens opposed to the war or let them use his name, no further
public statements from the candidate on these important issues have appeared.
Then, a few weeks
ago, Barack Obama's heartfelt statement of principled opposition to lawless
militarism and the rule of fear was stricken without explanation from
his campaign web site, and replaced
with mild expressions of "anxiety":
His passion evaporated,
a leading black candidate for the US Senate mouths bland generalities
on war, peace and the US role in the world. Barack Obama, professor of
constitutional law, is mum on the Patriot Act, silent about increased
surveillance of US citizens, secret searches, and detentions without trial.
His campaign literature and speeches ignore Patriot Act 2, which would
detain US citizens without trial, strip them of their nationality and
deport them to - wherever, citizens of no nation.
For a black candidate who is utterly reliant upon a fired up base among African American and progressive voters, who must distinguish himself from a crowded Democratic field, this is strange behavior, indeed. Polls show Blacks have consistently opposed administration war policies by at least two to one, as does the white progressive "base" of the party. Yet Obama appears determined to contain, rather than amplify, these voices.
No win without a fight
Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Chicago), perhaps Obama's most prominent supporter among local elected officials, knows well the power of passion in the political process. Jackson has taken pains to state and restate his opposition to the Bush party's doctrine of "preventive war," both on constitutional and moral grounds, and wastes no opportunity to denounce it as utterly unjustified. Rep. Jackson also has some salient thoughts on the flavor that African American progressive candidates representing the views of their base bring to general elections nationally, or in big states like Illinois.
On p. 460 of his recent book "A More Perfect Union," Rep. Jackson spells out the possible benefits to the Democratic Party of nominating a black candidate for vice-president. The presence of a progressive black candidate, said Jackson, automatically turns the conversation to the left, and gets the base's juices flowing.
But you don't spark a crusade by running away from your base. So how should we understand Obama's sudden reticence to express and represent the views of his base in the black and progressive communities of Illinois?
It is the mission of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) to make it financially attractive to Democratic candidates and office holders to take stands diametrically opposed to the interests of their constituents, to sound and vote more like corporate friendly Republicans. In an excellent American Prospect article two years ago, Robert Dreyfuss detailed how the DLC/New Democrats flipped black Rep. Greg Meeks, from Queens, New York, on a key trade vote.
Barack Obama is listed in the DLC/New Democrats directory of local elected officials, and was featured in its 100 Democratic Leaders to Watch in 2003. It would be a shame if he is in the process of becoming "ideologically freed" from the opinions of the African American and other Democrats whose votes he needs to win.
The DLC/New Democrat
position is identical to that of the White House, "free" and
scornful of all opposition voices. Here we have it the words of DLC founder
There are definitely multiple voices in Obama's ear right now. On the one hand, there are the DLC/New Democrats, the right wing corporate funded arm of the Democratic Party. Their consistent advice is to shut up and support the president's war at home and abroad, to get away from the concerns of "special interests" like minorities, working Americans, environmentalists and the uninsured, and peel off some not-too-conservative Republican swing votes. Their champion is Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, the most rightwing of the Democratic candidates for President.
On the other hand, there is Barack Obama's Democratic base - African Americans, who don't support the war, and other Democratic voters who don't support President Bush. In fact, according to the Gallup and Zogby polls the most strongly held common issue among those opposed to the president is opposition to the war. Should Obama fail to vigorously attack the party of war and corporate plunder he will lose the opportunity to energize and expand his base. The crusade will be smothered in its crib - the DLC's proven formula for failure.
Who is wooing whom?
Obama's web site features a praiseful article from the March 6 - 12 issue of N'Digo Magazine - a piece that could have been written by Obama's own hand, last October: "Shunning the allure of huge corporate dollars and the recognition that would accompany them, Obama's philosophy is grounded in altruism," said the magazine. How, then, does one explain his association with the DLC, the corporate money apparatus of the Democratic Party?
This is not the Barack Obama that Illinois progressives would like to support. It is not the Barack Obama who can win a primary or general election in a season where the President kicks off his campaign from the deck of an aircraft carrier impersonating Top Gun. It's not the Barack Obama who can win in the year that Republicans will wind up their convention at Ground Zero NYC, the second week of September 2004, screaming "Terror!" at the top of their lungs. Unless Barack Obama recovers his lost voice, he will have no answer.
Instead, Obama seems to be listening to the voice of DLC founder and CEO Al From, who in February declared to so-called New Democrats, "Your most formidable opponent isn't Bush or your fellow contestants for the nomination. Your real enemy is the ghost of Democrats past." Those "ghosts" are the "activists" and "special interests" of the Democratic Party - the very same code words that Republicans use for Blacks, unions and advocates of Obama's own, cherished "altruism."
Will Barack Obama
renew the challenge he made in his now vanished speech last October?
Barack Obama's web site proudly features this quote from the candidate: "Anybody who knows the U.S Senate, knows (that) to be the only African American in that body is a tremendous responsibility."
Obama's campaign to date leaves a question hanging, heavily. Responsible to whom?
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