Sunday :: Feb 3, 2008

The Politics of Rhetoric v. Reality

by eriposte

[This post has been updated with a third article]

One of the points I have made repeatedly in my analysis of Sen. Obama's record is that he has a tendency to say and promise lofty things when he runs for election but act in a way that is quite different or much more conventional - when the reality of politics overwhelms the promise of rhetoric. I have provided a few examples in the past - Iraq, Patriot Act, Lobbyists and Special Interests, Death Penalty, Healthcare and Taking Tough Stands in general. None of this makes Sen. Obama a bad candidate - but to me, this is one of the reasons why his rhetoric is unimpressive, especially given his frequent appeals to bipartisanship and civility, because his actions often render the rhetoric moot.

Three articles have been published recently which indicate additional areas where Sen. Obama has done the exact same thing - campaign on a very progressive platform claiming he would do X (or wants to do X) and then when the rubber hit the road, do something different, less progressive than X. When confronted with the dichotomy between his rhetoric and his actions, his campaign has put out the expected spin about how "The American people want a president who is going to be honest with them and talk about how we can tackle the challenges we face". Yes, the American people do want honesty but the problem is that it is very hard to get that from the Obama campaign on matters like this.

Let's start with yesterday's story (h/t Taylor) in the New York Times - Nuclear Leaks and Response Tested Obama in Senate. This story is a pretty blatant example of Sen. Obama saying something obviously untrue on the campaign trail and doing something else in the Senate. Here are the main passages (emphasis mine):

When residents in Illinois voiced outrage two years ago upon learning that the Exelon Corporation had not disclosed radioactive leaks at one of its nuclear plants, the state’s freshman senator, Barack Obama, took up their cause.

Mr. Obama scolded Exelon and federal regulators for inaction and introduced a bill to require all plant owners to notify state and local authorities immediately of even small leaks. He has boasted of it on the campaign trail, telling a crowd in Iowa in December that it was “the only nuclear legislation that I’ve passed.”

“I just did that last year,” he said, to murmurs of approval.

A close look at the path his legislation took tells a very different story. While he initially fought to advance his bill, even holding up a presidential nomination to try to force a hearing on it, Mr. Obama eventually rewrote it to reflect changes sought by Senate Republicans, Exelon and nuclear regulators. The new bill removed language mandating prompt reporting and simply offered guidance to regulators, whom it charged with addressing the issue of unreported leaks.

Those revisions propelled the bill through a crucial committee. But, contrary to Mr. Obama’s comments in Iowa, it ultimately died amid parliamentary wrangling in the full Senate.

“Senator Obama’s staff was sending us copies of the bill to review, and we could see it weakening with each successive draft,” said Joe Cosgrove, a park district director in Will County, Ill., where low-level radioactive runoff had turned up in groundwater. “The teeth were just taken out of it.”

The history of the bill shows Mr. Obama navigating a home-state controversy that pitted two important constituencies against each other and tested his skills as a legislative infighter. On one side were neighbors of several nuclear plants upset that low-level radioactive leaks had gone unreported for years; on the other was Exelon, the country’s largest nuclear plant operator and one of Mr. Obama’s largest sources of campaign money.

Continued below the fold.

Since 2003, executives and employees of Exelon, which is based in Illinois, have contributed at least $227,000 to Mr. Obama’s campaigns for the United States Senate and for president. Two top Exelon officials, Frank M. Clark, executive vice president, and John W. Rogers Jr., a director, are among his largest fund-raisers.

Another Obama donor, John W. Rowe, chairman of Exelon, is also chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear power industry’s lobbying group, based in Washington. Exelon’s support for Mr. Obama far exceeds its support for any other presidential candidate.

In addition, Mr. Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod, has worked as a consultant to Exelon. A spokeswoman for Exelon said Mr. Axelrod’s company had helped an Exelon subsidiary, Commonwealth Edison, with communications strategy periodically since 2002, but had no involvement in the leak controversy or other nuclear issues.

The Obama campaign said in written responses to questions that Mr. Obama “never discussed this issue or this bill” with Mr. Axelrod. The campaign acknowledged that Exelon executives had met with Mr. Obama’s staff about the bill, as had concerned residents, environmentalists and regulators. It said the revisions resulted not from any influence by Exelon, but as a necessary response to a legislative roadblock put up by Republicans, who controlled the Senate at the time.

“If Senator Obama had listened to industry demands, he wouldn’t have repeatedly criticized Exelon in the press, introduced the bill and then fought for months to get action on it,” the campaign said. “Since he has over a decade of legislative experience, Senator Obama knows that it’s very difficult to pass a perfect bill.”

Asked why Mr. Obama had cited it as an accomplishment while campaigning for president, the campaign noted that after the senator introduced his bill, nuclear plants started making such reports on a voluntary basis. The campaign did not directly address the question of why Mr. Obama had told Iowa voters that the legislation had passed.

This is exactly what I mean when I say I simply don't trust Sen. Obama's rhetoric. He repeatedly claims that he has strongly progressive positions and that his vaunted bipartisanship and appeals to unity will allow him to get progressive legislation through Congress. But time and again, his strong desire for bipartisanship has led to one thing only - Bills that Senate Republicans were comfortable with. As I pointed out yesterday, this is why many in the Democratic Establishment are embracing Sen. Obama because he makes it possible for them to continue their ruinous strategy of being accommodative to the Republicans without being fighting Democrats or being challenged for not fighting. (Sen. Clinton is not perfect either but she doesn't have a habit of making promises that she can't keep and her voting record is much more consistent with her past rhetoric. With her, I have a much better sense that I will get what I hear - that she is not misleading voters by just saying things that will get her elected. Add to that her willingness to be a fighting Democrat - which scares the GOP no end - which makes it a lot more likely that she will deliver to her election promises).

The second article is one that I would normally not refer to since it is published in the usually unreliable right-wing paper The Washington Times (via Hillaryis44). I am making an exception because the article also has actual videos posted of Sen. Obama making statements in the past - when he was running for the Senate - that conflict with his claims now thereby providing an independent check on the assertions made in the article. According to the article:

  • Sen. Obama claimed in an Oct 07 Presidential debate that he opposed decriminalizing marijuana possession/use. This was the opposite of what he said in Oct 2004 as he was running for the Senate. As the Times article says: "When confronted with the statements on the video, Obama's campaign offered two explanations to The Times in less than 24 hours. At first, Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said the candidate had "always" supported decriminalizing marijuana, suggesting that his 2004 statement was correct. Then after The Times posted copies of the video on its Web site,, yesterday, his campaign reversed course and declared he does not support eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana possession and use."
  • Sen. Obama's current position is that undocumented workers will not be covered in his healthcare plan. Back in Oct 2003, when he was running for the U.S. Senate, he said that the children of undocumented workers should get healthcare benefits that citizens get.
  • Sen. Obama's current position is that we should not lift the embargo against Cuba as it stands today (without Cuba making some changes towards democracy and so on). In 2004, when he was campaigning for the U.S. Senate he called for an end to the embargo against Cuba.
  • Sen. Obama's position on mandatory minimum sentences also appears to have changed.

The third article is from the Chicago Tribune:

Maytag workers whose jobs were shipped to Mexico serve as consistent characters in Barack Obama's stump speech. He employs their stories in railing against corporations that use trade pacts to replace well-paid union workers with low-cost foreign ones.

It is a ready applause line for the Illinois presidential hopeful, one that he has been reciting almost verbatim since he was a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2004, when appliance giant Maytag was in the process of shutting a refrigerator plant here, putting 1,600 people out of work.

But the union that represented most of those Galesburg workers isn't impressed with Obama's advocacy. It has endorsed his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Its leaders say they wish he had done more about their members' plight.

What rankles some is what Obama didn't do even as he expressed solidarity four years ago with workers mounting a desperate fight to save their jobs.

Obama had a special connection to Maytag: Lester Crown, one of the company's directors and biggest investors whose family, records show, has raised tens of thousands of dollars for Obama's campaigns since 2003. But Crown says Obama never raised the fate of the Galesburg plant with him, and the billionaire industrialist insists any jawboning would have been futile.


The Obama campaign said the Maytag workers' union never asked him to intervene with Crown [Eriposte note: Hilarious, they have to ask him to intervene!] and that he would have done so if they had. Union officials said they were unaware of the Crowns' ties to Maytag or to Obama.

The point in all of this is not that politicians aren't allowed to water down or change their positions. If there are legitimate reasons, they certainly are allowed to do so. What bothers me is that Sen. Obama has shown a persistent tendency to pander and say what he needs to say to get elected. The reality of his record - giving in to Republicans in the Senate time and again - is substantially different on a number of areas compared to his pandering prior to joining the U.S. Senate. When you combine this with the fact that he seems to bend over backwards to talk about bipartisanship and has a hard time criticizing Republicans, I have little faith that he will really be able to drive a strongly progressive agenda if he is President, especially given his relative lack of experience in comparison to Sen. Clinton.

eriposte :: 11:32 AM :: Comments (35) :: Digg It!