The Old Rules Are for White Guys; Obama Needs To Make New Ones

06/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Barack Obama tried to pander the other day. Suffering attacks on his policies toward Israel, he went before AIPAC to reinforce his commitment to our Middle East ally. In doing so, he chose the old politics. He tried to out neo-con a neo-con and declared that Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Israel.

Per the New York Times, that statement, "generated a storm of protest in the Middle East, with one Kuwaiti daily calling it 'a slap in the face' to Arabs." Obama's been forced to backtrack. His opponents have pounced. This standard-issue pandering only served as ammunition for those who claim he's a foreign policy/national security neophyte.

In the New York Times, Chris Suellentrop pointed to a trenchant note from National Journal's Ronald Brownstein:

"Obama almost certainly presents Democrats with a better chance to redraw the electoral map and expand their coalition if all goes well. In a year so tilted toward Democrats, Clinton might have represented a safer bet to accumulate the bare minimum of 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Compared with Clinton, 'Obama has a much bigger upside,' says Robert Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future. 'And a much bigger risk.'

"'For Obama to win, he probably will need to blaze new paths,' Brownstein concludes. 'That doesn't mean he can't, or won't, do exactly that. It just means that in a year that Democrats might have been tempted to play it safe, they have opted for a candidate who could transform American politics -- or leave his party second-guessing itself for ages.'"

Already, the punditocracy's concern trolls demand Obama make traditional appeals to the great "center" by whipping it out and waving it around. George Will, in full spittle-spraying Clinton-hatred mode, kindly warned him that picking Hillary as a VP would make him a pussy. (He didn't specify what taking George Will's advice would make him.) The Great White Sage of Washington, David Broder, had the same message:

"Obama still has great gifts and substantial assets. So the first imperative at this point is to stop retreating and regain the initiative -- starting with a clear assertion of his absolute right to choose his own running mate and not be pressured into a decision by the Clintons or their friends.

"As it was for Ronald Reagan at the Republican National Convention in 1980, who had the wisdom to reject the plot to install Jerry Ford as his vice presidential nominee, this is the big-time decision that could define a leader and lead to a victory."

"Be a Real Man. Be a Reagan. Talk Tough..." Obama will never fit these men's idea of a "leader." A biracial man who has adopted Afro-American culture, he is something new under the political sun. In the primary, he has used the intricate convolution of his racial and cultural backgrounds to his benefit. Now he must do the same for the general.

Yes, he will don flag pins and go bowling, but the typical pandering to this constituency and then that will not fly. That's the downside of a bi-everything background. The single-issue pander becomes a minefield; he simply isn't truly "one of us," whomever "we" happen to be.

Listening to a black American man use terminology such as "preserve Israel's identity as a Jewish state" was just...well, kinda icky. He could have used the terms "Palestinian homeland" and "Jewish homeland" without the exclusionary suggestion. 20 percent of Israel's population is Arab--not Jewish--and his language implied 'no non-Jews allowed,' partly because the guy using the language was black and American and so conjured historic images of exclusion. It rendered his plea discordant and unconvincing despite its vehemence.

The presidential political rules were written for white men. He needs to change them to suit himself. He is in a position to go far beyond serial single-issue pandering to develop a coherent, unified narrative around his theme of change that includes energy, education, healthcare, and foreign policy/national security. His face and background can be part of its embodiment.

He can start by revamping the tired-ass convention format into something other than a cheap Vegas floor show cum irrelevant anachronism. Perhaps it incorporates town hall meetings on various issues, utilizing moderators like Oprah Winfrey or Phil Donahue to up the marketing ante.

Gifted speakers become hits on YouTube and sell videos by the millions. Use their model to offer expert multi-media presentations (not speeches) from telegenic, leading thinkers on education, healthcare, the nexus between healthcare and economic development, and energy policy.

Conduct an education roundtable on how the U.S. education model compares to that of other countries. Which are more successful than ours? What aspects of other systems can we profitably co-opt?

Obama can put himself at the center of many of these gatherings, presenting himself as the CEO of a brain trust of positive, 21st century change. He can take the visionary rhetoric and expand it in the popular mind to include identifiably bold and practical ideas.

The Democrats have doubled down in nominating Obama. To pay off, his candidacy will have to be equally bold. Obeying the old boys' rules just won't cut it. In case he hasn't noticed, the likes of David Broder and George Will are not on his side.