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Christopher Caldwell, honing in on What Obama owes to Reagan, has a dead-on diagnosis of the difference in approach to politics between Clinton and Obama. He hones in on a paradox: Clinton's positions are more centrist, but Obama captures more independents and Republicans. "Their biggest difference," Caldwell writes,

is in their attitude towards the US electorate. Voters sense that that is everything. They are right. The non-ideological differences between Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton are vast, possibly greater than those between either of them and the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain...

Mrs Clinton views voters as either committed friends or foes. There are good people on one side. On the other, depending on the rhetorical mood she is in, is "the vast rightwing conspiracy" or "the special interests"...

Mr Obama views the electorate's affections and affiliations as changeable - at least at certain pivotal times. He believes independents and Republicans will rally to his cause, and many have done so.

Caldwell rightly points out that Obama's bid to coopt the center and build a "working majority" owes much to Reagan: "To read Mr Obama's political autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, is to see an interest in Reagan that borders on fascination. 'I understood his appeal,' Mr Obama writes." This usefully reminds us that Obama's notorious hat-tip to Reagan in an interview with the The Reno Gazette-Journal in January did not come out of a void. Obama clearly has internalized what Reagan accomplished politically and how he accomplished it:

I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.

Caldwell points out that Obama, like Reagan, is trying to move the center rather than move to the center:

Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980 by attracting disaffected Democrats in millions. They did not jump to Reagan because Mr Carter was a particularly leftwing Democrat. Nor did Reagan appeal by watering his positions down into centrist mush. He ran as an unapologetic conservative, just as Mr Obama has run as an unapologetic man of the left. But the revolutionary coalition that Reagan formed was less ideological than he was. Reagan won because he solicited the whole nation's support at a time when lesser politicians mistook their parties' battles for the country's.

Obama is far from alone in sensing that the time is ripe now to move the center left. As David Frum memorably put it in the FT, "If they eat right, exercise and wear seatbelts, today's 20-somethings will be voting against George W. Bush deep into the 2060s." That's why Obama's invocation of "the fierce urgency of now" is no New Age mush (contra Caldwell's FT Comment cohort Gideon Rachman), but rather a very specific argument that the electorate is ready to be moved left if the case is made frankly, forcefully, and without demonizing the opposition.

One fascinating aspect of this election is the right's soft spot for Obama. Many Reagan Revolution alumni recognize the mirror image and respect what Obama is trying to accomplish. The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes, writing on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, traced the parallels earlier this week, noting that "Throughout his campaign, Reagan fought off charges that his candidacy was built more on optimism than policies," and that Obama faces the same charge, though both laid out clear and far-from-centrist agendas.

Like Reagan, Obama casts his noncentrist agenda as a corrective. That's the opportunity of the moment. Just as Obama acknowledges that in 1980 Americans felt that government had grown bloated, so now even many conservatives are hung over by the results of triple-branch Republican rule. That leaves an opening for Obama to cast his tax and spending policies as a matter of restoring "balance" and "fairness," as he did while laying out his economic agenda in Janesville, Wisconsin:

when opportunity is uneven or unequal - it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States.

More broadly, in Lorain, Ohio on Feb. 24, he cast excessive income inequality as unamerican, and unity behind an agenda of strengthening unions, taxing outsourcing and greenhouse gas emissions, and spending on infrastructure and alternative energy as fidelity to democracy:

But in the end, enacting this agenda won't just require an investment. It will require a new spirit of cooperation, innovation, and shared sacrifice. We'll have to remind ourselves that we rise and fall as one nation; that a country in which only a few prosper is antithetical to our ideals and our democracy; and that those of us who have benefited greatly from the blessings of this country have a solemn obligation to open the doors of opportunity, not just for our children, but to all of America's children. That's the kind of vision I have for this country, and that's the kind of vision I hope to make real as President of the United States.

Every candidate casts his or her policies as a fulfillment of American ideals. But to make the case that a sharp course correction left or right is a restoration of core values takes unusual political skill. So far, Obama seems to be making the case effectively, and building the "working majority" he frankly asks for.

Related posts:
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

Originally posted to Asp on Sat Mar 01, 2008 at 08:50 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  What we too often forget... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    wader, Bronx59

    Is that there are still FAR more registered Democrats than Republicans in this country, or Independents that left the Democratic Party.  They've been very disillusioned, and except for Bill Clinton (who didn't motivate as many due to his "character issues") they've either voted infrequently or for Republicans because they believe that they better represent their values and issues.  This does not mean they are all anti-abortion/ssm voters.  They have just felt disconnected with politics and the Democratic Party.  We've given them such out-of-touch candidates as Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry that can't connect to middle America.  And when we had one who could - Bill Clinton - his character was compromised from the start (in the primaries!).

    We talk about Obamacans, and they are a very real block, but what we are forgetting is that Obama allows us to dive VERY deeply into the Democratic Party, and motivate alot of people to feel that the Democratic Party connects with them once again.

  •  I think this is a great diary..... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bronx59

    and on of the more astute diaries about the real difference between Clinton and Obama.  Clinton is trying to work around the edges of a frame that Reagan built, a cage of conservative thinking and partisan battles, where is Obama is trying to blow the damn frame up and build new one.

    As was said in the diary, Obama is not trying to move to the center, he trying to get the center to move to where he is.   That's some big stuff.

  •  Surely you understand (0+ / 0-)

    that for some of us committed hardcore Dems, the more Obama resembles Reagan and takes pages from his playbook, the more he drives us away.

    •  Nothing wrong with stealing rhetorical tactics (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      wader

      ...as long as he doesn't venture near the outright criminality part of the repug agenda.

      The Republican Party is a criminal enterprise.

      by Bronx59 on Sat Mar 01, 2008 at 09:51:35 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  He's using an inclusive pride and hope (0+ / 0-)

      theme - Reagan did much the same, though from a more motherhood-and-apple-pie, we-are-all-the-same-right? set of assumptions.  It minimized the reality differences in our backgrounds, means, heritage and needs by offereing one-size-fits-all nationalistic pride.

      Obama comes from more pragmatic starting points and then reaches out to common goals, emphasizing individuals contributing as appropriate to their beliefs.  It's far more respectful and less assumptive - it actually embraces differences.

      Methods have similarities by the nature of how you communicate to wide swaths of fellow people here, but it ends there.  The results will be rather different, too.  Obama is a practical person when it comes to policy, Reagan was an idealogue figurehead.

      Democrats have pride in their country's potential, too.

      "So, please stay where you are. Don't move and don't panic. Don't take off your shoes! Jobs is on the way."

      by wader on Sat Mar 01, 2008 at 10:00:27 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Reagan stereotype (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        wader

        Reagan was far from a figurehead. He knew exactly what he wanted - lower taxes, a more aggressive stance vis-a-vis the Soviet Union -- and he got it. He navigated btwn Schultz and Weinberger and was in control of foreign policy. He lost some capacity and control in his second term.

        •  I agree and disagree (0+ / 0-)

          I didn't mean to equate Reagan's role of complicit figurehead to the same level as GWB - I should have been more clear.

          I meant to relate that Reagan spoke in terms which placed his policy far beyond the "practical" nature in which I feel Obama would speak and attempt.  For example, Reagan bent himself and the USA spirit into us all being a "contra", straining to sell his warring support against the Sandinistas.  Every policy decision was a mask over the truth, in many respects.  Attempting to sell his Administration's desires as somehow representing our best values and interests.  Always.  In that respect, I considered labelling him as an ideology-driven figurehead character.

          Maybe I used poor terminology.

          "So, please stay where you are. Don't move and don't panic. Don't take off your shoes! Jobs is on the way."

          by wader on Sat Mar 01, 2008 at 05:32:45 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

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