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The Politics of Cynicism

Two revelations in the past couple of weeks have raised the question of whether Barack Obama’s “politics of hope” is transmogrifying into the politics of cynicism.

First we learned that Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s chief economic adviser, was cited in a memo by a Canadian consular official in Chicago as saying in a private meeting that Obama’s vocal opposition to NAFTA doesn’t reflect his real views. Rather, according to the memo, Obama’s arguments are based on political positioning. (Goolsbee disputes the characterization of the memo.) We then we learned that Samantha Power, at the time a key Obama foreign policy adviser (she has since resigned for calling Hillary Clinton a “monster”), said on the BBC TV show Hardtalk said that Obama’s commitment to withdraw all U.S. combat troops within 16 months is simply a “best-case scenario.”

The Hardtalk host asked, “So what the American public thinks is a commitment to get combat forces out in 16 months isn’t a commitment?”

Power went on to tell the New Statesman in an interview:

You can’t make a commitment in March 2008 about what circumstances will be like in January of 2009. He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator. He will rely upon a plan–an operational plan–that he pulls together in consultation with people who are on the ground to whom he doesn’t have daily access now, as a result of not being the president.

The Obama campaign reacted by saying that his commitment to withdraw combat troops within 16 months is “rock solid.”

As it happens, I hope both Goolsbee and Power are right in what they say about Senator Obama’s true views on both NAFTA and Iraq. Their positions are certainly more responsible than the positions Senator Obama has taken on the campaign trail.

At the same time, Obama is running as a candidate who will transcend the usual politics. He’s spoken out forcefully against cynicism and fashioned himself as the candidate of “hope” and “change”–someone whom we can believe in, someone whose words and commitments can be counted on. So when two top aides are essentially saying that we shouldn’t take all that seriously what Obama is saying on two key issues, it raises question marks about his authenticity and candor. As the New York Times put it on Saturday, “[the Power controversy] is the second time in two weeks that the actions of a top aide have forced Mr. Obama to defend the idea that he means what he says–hardly the ideal situation for a candidate who asks voters to trust his judgment and integrity.”

Obama is apparently making promises that he knows will be problematic to keep if he were to win the presidency. But by putting forward the belief that he is something different, and something better, than most politicians, he’s creating problems for himself. The best thing for Obama to do is to run his campaign in an honest manner, one in which he says what he believes and qualifies what deserves qualification. Among the advantages of this approach is that it wouldn’t require him to say one thing now, for public (liberal) consumption, and plan to do something different if he were elected president.

In a powerful 1991 speech the playwright Vaclav Havel, then president of Czechoslovakia, spoke about the temptations of political power. In his remarks Havel said

I am one of those people who consider their term in political office as an expression of responsibility and duty toward the whole community, and even as a sort of sacrifice. But, observing other politicians whom I know very well and who make the same claim, I feel compelled again and again to examine my own motives and ask whether I am not beginning to deceive myself . . . Those who claim that politics is a dirty business are lying to us. Politics is work of a kind that requires especially pure people, because it is especially easy to become morally tainted. So easy, in fact, that a less vigilant spirit may not notice it happening at all.

I’ve had favorable things to say about Senator Obama, who has struck me as a fairly admirable, if left-leaning, figure. But it’s fair to ask now, in light of what we’re learning about Senator Obama, whether the Audacity of hope is gradually giving way to the audacity of politics.


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