June 9, 2010


Democrat in Chief? (MATT BAI, 6/07/10, NY Times Magazine)

Unlike his predecessor and some of his own political allies, however, Obama has never betrayed much interest in building political empires. Obama ran on the notion of transcending partisan distinctions, rather than making them permanent, and the political identity that enabled him to draw millions of new voters into the process two years ago is both intensely personal and self-contained. It’s not clear that Obama can translate his appeal among disaffected voters into support for a party and its aging Washington establishment. Nor is it clear, as he looks ahead to 2012, how hard he’s going to try. [...]

Of the five living Americans who have served as president, Obama is the only one who never worked as some kind of party strategist. George H. W. Bush oversaw the Republican National Committee for a time, and his son, George W. Bush, played a pivotal role in the headquarters of his father’s failed re-election bid in 1992. Bill Clinton got his start in politics helping to run George McGovern’s campaign in Texas. Even Jimmy Carter, who was thought to disdain tactical politics, was the chairman of the Democratic Party’s national midterm campaign in 1974. These men rose through their party organizations (in Bush’s case, this was more about a famous name than it was about holding a series of jobs), and they were intimate with the relatively cozy world of organizers, donors and local power brokers, the few thousand activists who control the workings of a political party.

Obama did his door-to-door campaigning as a community organizer, but he never worked in party politics until he ran for office, and as a presidential aspirant he never bothered with trying to remake his party or modernize its message in the same way that Reagan (a spokesman for the conservative movement) or Clinton (a leader of the centrist New Democrats) did. Other than to assert (dubiously, perhaps) that he wasn’t a “triangulator” like the Clintons, Obama did not run against the party establishment, as other candidates had before, but with indifference toward it.

In this way, as in many others, Obama is emblematic of the generation that found its political consciousness in the years after Vietnam and Watergate, when the ruling classes of both parties lost their credibility. Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush were presidents rooted in their parties who went out of their way to cultivate outsider pedigrees. Obama, a good 15 years younger than our last two boomer presidents, is the opposite; he is a genuine outsider who spends a fair amount of energy reassuring Democrats that he really does care about the organization.

“Fundamentally, I just think he wants to be bigger than that,” says Cornell Belcher, who was one of Obama’s pollsters during the 2008 campaign. “It gets back to being a transformational leader. A party leader isn’t about transformation.”

Obama’s advisers have spoken of his brand, which is a stand-in for the party identity that defined other presidencies. Obama’s brand is about inclusivity, transcendence, a generational break from stale dogmas. Inevitably, Obama’s brand management runs up against the culture of his party. State activists are sometimes told their requests for the president to appear at a typical political event, in some ballroom with room dividers or at the local labor hall, aren’t going to fly. Aides know that if they bring that kind of thing to Obama, he’ll ask, “Can’t we do any better than that?” As a rule, Obama no longer speaks at the traditional Jefferson-Jackson dinners where state Democratic parties gather to raise money from the faithful. “For what?” a senior aide responded when I asked why. “To talk to the same people he already has?” Obama prefers venues, preferably outdoors or in large theaters, where he can reach voters who aren’t party regulars. He generally refuses to do “robo-calls,” those ubiquitous, recorded messages in which a politician asks you to go out and vote for the party. “He’s got a practical objection to them, which is that they’re irritating,” Axelrod explained to me.

He's so vested in being sui generis that he isn't anything.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 9, 2010 1:32 PM
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