Obama knows the words, but can he learn the music?

I’ve suggested before that the real “Clinton” is this campaign is not Hillary, but Obama. Both came from fairly humble origins and from the intellectual and social periphery. Both had major father figure issues. Both, by virtue of their great intelligence, were admitted into America’s elite educational institutions. There, both were exposed to, and profoundly influenced by, strong strains of radicalism. Both, in seeking the nation’s highest office, understood the threat their radicalism posed to their quest. Thus, like Clinton before him, Obama has sought to develop a message that departs from, or at least masks, his underlying radicalism.

Clinton, however, had two major advantages over Obama, neither of which, by the way, is his race per se. First, Clinton was able to hone his non-radical message for almost two decades in conservative Arkansas before he auditioned for the presidency. Clinton took great advantage of that time, becoming a leading “new Democrat” whose “moderate” credentials included a central role in the Democratic Leadership Council. Just as important, Clinton’s constant interaction with the citizens and politicos of Arkansas ensured that he knew not only the words to, but also the music of, reasonable-sounding down-home centrism. It was, moreover, what he had heard growing up.

Obama has not had that opportunity. He chose to set up shop on the south side of Chicago. Influential figures in that milieu included Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers. Though it’s unlikely that Obama ever adopted the extreme radicalism of these figures, neither did he have many incentives or opportunities to temper his pre-existing Ivy League/African American radicalism. As he contemplated running for president, Obama was intelligent enough to figure out the words that could propel him from the far left into the mainstream, but remained poorly positioned to learn the music.

It’s also the case, I think, that Obama is far more ambivalent than Bill Clinton about completely abandoning his radical roots. For Clinton the presidency was unambiguously “worth a mass.” Thus, adapting his persona was a seamless exercise, not much more difficult than breathing.

By contrast, Obama seems to take his persona seriously (and here race probably does factor in). Unlike in Clinton’s case, Obama’s persona seems to be the result of some very serious personal choices and psychological forces. He even wrote a book about them.

These days, we see the product of these two differences between Obama and Clinton — the former’s lack of past encounters with moderating constraints plus his conscience and/or conflicting psychological forces — on a regular basis. When Obama departs from his “we are the change” and “let’s get beyond what divides us” script, the results sometimes aren’t pretty. To the contrary, he may default to the radicalism that taught him to demean non-elite white voters, something I don’t think Clinton ever did.

Similarly, when Obama is called upon to explain his association with Wright or Ayers, he fails to understand how far beyond the pale these figures are. Given the sea in which Obama has been swimming, Wright strikes him merely “controversial,” while Ayers’ terrorist past only puts him on a par with Senator Coburn.

And even to the extent that Obama hears the problem, he’s unwilling or unable to say the words that are expected of him. Recall how hard Hillary Clinton had to work to extract a full denunciation of Farrakhan out of Obama. And even when she succeeded in getting him to say the words, Obama maintained his resistance by acting as if the words didn’t matter. Recall too how Obama ditched his America pin, and held out for some time before reinstating it.

This year’s election environment is sufficiently favorable to the Dems that Obama may be granted a few more months to learn the music of mainstream politics. If so, he needs to embrace that opportunity with Clintonesque vigor, and stop dreaming about his father once and for all.

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