Obama Needs to Learn the Dog Whistle

I guess the thing that’s bothered me about Obama is that I can’t get a read on him. Clinton I get, and she has a track record. Ditto Edwards (his record is why I’m only leaning towards him, and not endorsing him). But Obama is a complete cipher.

I’ve argued before that a good politician acts as foil: that is, people project their goals onto the candidate, whether or not the candidate himself shares those goals. Obama is certainly doing that. The problem is that there is such distrust between rank-and-file Democrats and, well, virtually all Democratic politicians such that some reassurances have to be made, particularly since Obama has been making rightwing noises about Social Security, the signature program of the Democratic party.
Lance Mannion has suggested that this is Obama’s attempt to woo what he calls “Obama Republicans“:

The trick to winning over these Republicans isn’t adopting their values or prejudices; it’s talking them around their values and prejudices in order to get them to a point where they can see where their real interests lie.
The trick then is getting them to listen.
And maybe Obama has hit upon the trick.
My Obama problem then is that I’m still not sure which he’s up to. If he’s trying to make himself over into a Reagan-lite, forget him.
But what if what he’s doing is a kind of reverse Reaganism…
Reagan talked people around their interests to vote their prejudices and “values” and created a lot of Reagan Democrats.
Perhaps what we’re seeing from the junior Senator from Illinois is the beginning of the creation of a whole lot of Obama Republicans.

That may be, but I, and many rank-and-file Democrats, need to hear our dog whistle (that is, language that we get and others don’t that reassures us[link]), because chattering on about hope isn’t enough–we’ve been burned too many times. Take for instance, healthcare. At this point, inviting the health insurance companies into the process is like working with the cigarette companies: fundamentally, their business model is the problem–this is not a problem of individual ‘bad actors.’ Yet Obama cites doing exactly this as a legislative success. We don’t need more tepid, centrist, ‘pragmatism’ that doesn’t solve any problems, we need concrete Democratic solutions, and until I hear my dog whistle, I’m not convinced.
Related post: Armando lays out another problem with the absence of a dog whistle:

“FDR changed our philosophy of government and the FDR liberal philosophy remains that which we follow today…. How did FDR do it and can Democrats defend FDR liberalism today? The most prominent of these instances was the fight to save Social Security. Faced with Media hostility, Republican demagogy and flat out lies, Democrats rallied to the FDR liberalism banner and crushed the Republican attempts to roll back the clock. FDR would have been proud of Democrats in that fight. No triangulation. Good old fashioned political populism won the day.
“And that is FDR’s lesson for Obama. Politics is not a battle for the middle. It is a battle for defining the terms of the political debate. It is a battle to be able to say what is the middle. FDR governed as a liberal but politicked like a populist…. The lesson of [Richard] Hofstadter is to embrace liberal governance and understand populist politics. It may sound cynical, but you must get through the door to govern. Lincoln knew this. FDR knew this. Hofstadter knew this. I hope Obama can learn this.”
He is unlikely to learn this from Iowa. Indeed, Obama’s worst instincts will be reinforced after tonight. I expect much worse from Obama now.

Another related post: Amanda discusses how Obama’s favorite TV show might indicate that he is willing to ask hard questions (or not). Of course, that doesn’t say anything about the quality of the answers….

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5 Responses to Obama Needs to Learn the Dog Whistle

  1. Coturnix says:

    Interesting, the last post by Amanda Marcotte is talking about a subtle reverse-dog-whitle by Obama. Check it out over on Pandagon.

  2. Edward says:

    I went to the same college as Obama. When his started making news a few years ago, he looked familiar, but I just put it down to having seen him in the news before. Then I saw his bio and put 2 and 2 together – I had a class with him. I remember him as someone with a razor sharp focus, very smart, and willing to consider many points of view, but reject those he didn’t think held water. The course in question was a philosophy discussion course with about 20 people (read several hundred pages of dense philosophical text each week, then discuss in class). Even back then, I think he was a bit of a cipher, but he struck me as someone who at the same time had very strong core beliefs, but was open minded and willing to listen to others.
    Part of the trick of getting other people to listen to you is listening to others. One of the things that I think is wrong with American politics is this whole “dog whistle” mentality – we want politicians to voice particular opinions on particular issues before we will vote for them. I admit I have my own hot-button issues – people who try to claim creationism is science will never get my vote, for example. But when it comes to solving problems, like our health care crisis, or global warming, we need someone who both listens and will be listened to and is willing to consider creative and different solutions. I’m not looking for a candidate who endorses a particular solution – just one who I think will look at different solutions and try to implement the best one he or she can.
    One of the things that impresses me about Obama is that he has a very liberal voting record, yet conservatives are willing to work with him because he listens and considers what they have to say.
    I’m planning to vote for Obama in the primary, but I will gladly take any of the Democrats over any of the Republicans when it comes to the general election.

  3. Coin says:

    I guess the thing that’s bothered me about Obama is that I can’t get a read on him… Obama is a complete cipher.
    So… I don’t want to be annoying here, but seriously, have you considered reading his book? It’s unlikely to change your life or anything, but the thing is that it turns out Obama actually takes the time to explain his stances and the reasoning for them when he’s actually, you know, given more space than a television sound bite to work with.
    (And I don’t know whether you’d agree with me on this even if you did read the book, but that occasional echo of right-wing talking points in Obama’s speech that you keep complaining about– yes, I’ve noticed it too occasionally– is a lot less aggravating when instead of one statement or other being considered in perfect isolation, you get to see such comments in context of a larger argument that the Democratic party has been doing a lot of things wrong and we need to be honest with ourselves about those areas where improvement may be appropriate.)

  4. Sena says:

    The two most important issues to me are about the fact that big corporations own our government and what the heck are we going to do about the global warming crisis? No candidate has come out with a clearer more comprehensive plan of action than Edwards. Obama says he wants a more transparent government, that he wants to pass sweeping reforms on government disclosure, but no one has actually been more transparent thus far than Edwards. My problem with Obama is that I fear he is putting us on, giving us the same old – smile and try to make everybody happy – BS that almost every other candidate in recent history has dished out to us on a silver platter. I’m worried he doesn’t want to tell us how he’s really going to run the White House because it will be determined by who contributed most to his campaign fund. In contrast to your belief that the candidate’s position should be flexible to the popular opinion, I really feel right now that this next candidate’s beliefs should be aggressively held and stated for all the world to see, so we can really take a look at who they are and decide what we can live with and what we can’t. Very similar to what initially attracted people to Bush, actually. But we need a radical, a serious radical.
    BTW, Obama appears to be bought and paid for by big corporations just like Clinton, just like Bush. If you don’t believe me, visit http://www.opensecrets.org

  5. Josh Rosenau says:

    I’m inclined to think that telling the Detroit Economic Club “the auto industry is on a path that is unacceptable and unsustainable” was a pretty loud whistle, as was his decision to go to work as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side when he could have put his Harvard Law degree to use in a lot more lucrative ways. Part of the problem, of course, is that Democrats are positively skeptical of rhetoric. Reagan could use symbolism to reach out to his racist base, but the liberal /progressive base is not inclined to trust symbolism. But the Democratic base wants policy, and Obama’s calculation seems to be that those policy specifics won’t work in his favor.
    There are a few reasons he could be thinking that. First: the more detail you present in a debate, the easier it is for the opposition to attack you without offering their own detailed plans. That cuts a few different ways, not all of them favorable. It’s tactically smart, but it doesn’t necessarily build the brand.
    Second, it could be an acknowledgment that policy details are not just a product of the President. The House and Senate will amend and squabble over a lot of details, and there’s a sensible case to be made that we need to know not what details the candidates hope for, but which points they are prepared to veto over. That’s where the rhetoric becomes important, because it signals matters of priority, and where a President Obama would draw the line, and how he’d keep Congress from crossing that line.
    When I interviewed him 2 years ago, this was his argument, and I think it’s as close as we’ll come to a direct answer to your question: “Now people get frustrated, especially in the blog community, in the blogosphere, because there is a tendency to divide people in terms of they’re either hard-core left-leaning Democrats Paul Wellstone Democrats or they must be sell-out, DLC, centrist Democrats who will just split the difference. I think that’s a false dichotomy. I think what people should be looking for is: do the Democrats that they support care about the core values that are important to all of us.
    Jobs at a living wage, health care for all people, educational opportunity for all people, environmental sustainability, foreign policy that is smart and not just belligerent. And if those values are important to whoever’s running, people need to be flexible in terms of recognizing that there may more than one way of doing things. Single payer healthcare may not be the only way to provide healthcare to everybody and we should be agnostic, we should be open minded about what strategies or approaches we get to deliver those issues.”
    A side note on “right wing noises about Social Security.” Al Gore and Bill Clinton did a lot to put the issue of “saving Social Security” on the map. Partly that was a way of dealing with the budget surplus, and signaling that the money should be set aside against a rainy day. But it also made this meme that “Social Security is in trouble” more virulent. We have to deal with that legacy, a legacy which is, sadly, bipartisan. I agree that Obama shouldn’t have sent mixed signals about that, but you may be making more of that than is merited. He has said he would not cut benefits or raise the retirement age, and favors increasing the cap on payroll taxes, so that the very wealthy would pay more into the system. Rhetorically, he has used that position as a way to ensure voters that he is more committed to Social Security than (then front-runner) Hillary.

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