A socialist’s good advice to Obama?

EJ Dionne tells Obama to take electoral advice from Bernie Sanders — who, Dionne points out, “actually is a socialist and believes devoutly in grass-roots, class-based politics” — and detects encouraging signs that Obama, finally, is doing just that. Rallying progressives is indeed the right strategy, says Dionne, and the polls suggest that Obama’s campaigning shift to the left is working.

His base-rousing speech to a “boisterous” rally at the University of Wisconsin, says Dionne, “reflected the White House’s realisation that Sanders is right…”

The president was not reluctant to draw class lines or ideological distinctions. He cast Republican support for a $700 billion tax reduction for the wealthy against the cuts it could force in Head Start and student loans. He criticized his opponents’ “blind faith in the market” and the idea of letting “corporations play by their own rules.”

Thus the irony: A president who largely disdained a mobilizing strategy for his first year and a half in office has returned to his community-organizer roots to try to salvage an election. Here’s the further irony: He has a real chance of pulling it off, which leads to a question. If Obama succeeds, will he continue to keep his supporters engaged and “fired up”, as Sanders suggests he should? Or will he go back to an insider strategy that helped bring him to the brink of this precipice?

The idea that Obama should let Sanders plot his campaign strategy is nothing if not bold. But, aside from the facts that Obama is not a socialist and would never have become president if the US had suspected he was, I have a few problems with the argument. Most important, Obama’s superbly successful campaign in 2008 was not based on his community-organizer roots; his Madison mode is not a “boffo revival” of his 2008 persona. In the presidential race, he was reluctant to draw class lines and hard ideological distinctions: that very reluctance was the campaign’s salient characteristic. He offered himself to the country as an ideological healer, as a centrist, as a bridge between factions. It worked. That was what the country wanted, and I don’t think this has changed.

As for mid-term tactics, disappointed centrists and independents easily outnumber disappointed progressives. Admittedly, it might still make sense to focus your campaign on the smaller number of disappointed progressives rather than the larger number of disappointed centrists, if you liked your chances of changing their minds and getting them to vote better than your chances of undisillusioning the moderates who feel let down. But that would not be my view. Obama has a good case to make to moderates. It would not be difficult to offer them the reassurance they want about the limits of his ambitions. The disappointment of progressives is much harder to deal with, because they are never satisfied.

As Dionne says, Obama is aiming to re-energise the base — telling it, in so many words, that he too is disappointed with the slow pace of change, and just needs more time to get the job of transforming the US done. Is that what the anxious middle of the electorate wants to hear? I doubt it will work, but we’ll see.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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