Obama sounds good, but words aren’t enough

Newsday – James Klurfield – Opinion – February 15, 2008

Watch out, Barack Obama. You’ve hit the magic tipping point. After winning the Virginia, Maryland and District of Columbia primaries, you are now the front-runner. It doesn’t mean that the nomination is yours, not by a long shot in this kind of competitive race. But you’ve got more delegates than Hillary Rodham Clinton.

And now the press is going to come after you.

I admire much of what Sen. Obama has to say. And he says it so well. But the journalist in me still feels there are questions that have not been asked, let alone answered.

First and foremost, just how is Obama going to bring the country together and find common ground on the substantive issues that have so divided it for almost three decades? Just saying you want to bring people together isn’t sufficient. Where is the common ground on giving women the right to choose versus embracing the right-to-life argument? How do you pull troops out of Iraq without re-energizing al-Qaida or compromising the gains from the surge? How will you reduce the cost of health care to make it more affordable, when the medical inflation rate has been at least twice that of the general inflation rate? And how do you convince Americans that some taxes might have to be raised to pay for universal access to health care or to make Social Security and Medicare solvent for the next generation?

We here in New York have been scarred by the experience of Gov. Eliot Spitzer. He came into office as the great, new hope, vowing to change the way things were done in Albany, and he’s run into a stone wall. His surprising lack of political finesse has been a huge disappointment. Remember the crushed promise of Jimmy Carter? Good intentions aren’t enough. And, by the way, the comparison of Obama to John F. Kennedy makes me uncomfortable. JFK’s record was poor in his approximately 1,000 days.

I understand that the Spitzer analogy might not be valid. He took the steamroller approach, and Obama says he’ll be a conciliator. But you know what? Sen. Clinton has been a very effective cloakroom player in the Senate. She’s demonstrated her political touch in surprising ways, working with former political enemies to craft legislative compromises. Her reputation as a polarizing figure isn’t fair.

There’s one school of political thought that believes that if you’re really going to be a change agent, you have to be ready to go to political war, not be a compromiser. In fact, the question is whether there really is common ground on some of these big issues. According to this view, compromisers don’t get that much accomplished.

Bill Clinton pursued a triangulation strategy in the last half of his presidency: small gains, trying to work with the other side of the aisle. But that’s not the type of change Obama is talking about. He’s promising fundamental change, generational change.

I also want to know how Obama is going to react when things aren’t going well. He’s gotten some unfair comments about his religious background (he’s a Christian) and the association of his church’s leader with Louis Farrakhan, but, as the saying goes, he “ain’t seen nothing yet.” It’s obvious that he can be charming and inspirational, but reporters have also found him to be aloof, even arrogant.

How will a person with so little national political experience react to the cocoon of the White House, surrounded by sycophantic aides (regardless of what he may say now about wanting a staff that will tell him, “no”) and a cacophony of criticism from the fourth estate, which inevitably happens to every president? If he wants to get anything done, he’s going to make enemies, no matter how much he tries to rebuild the center of American politics. How will he react?

Don’t get me wrong. Obama has my attention. He might actually have momentum – whatever that is and if it even exists. But it’s been only six weeks since the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries. So far, I like what I see. But I’m still not sure what I’m getting.

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