05/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Walking The Walk On Change

The chimera of a summer gas tax holiday for American consumers has amply demonstrated, in the way small things can do, how hard it is to break away from politics as usual and why Barack Obama, who certainly doesn't have a pander-free card, nevertheless breaks so much better than anybody else.

It is a conundrum how Senator Clinton, policy devotee, fell in with a dubious McCain proposal and thereby enlivened the Obama stump rhetoric that links McCain and Clinton to more than just shared vodka shots in Estonia. Her judgment waxes and wanes like the FM signal on a long-distance drive. She already has the working class vote--why is she toiling overtime to abase herself before it?

A minor player only now entering the stage in the fourth (?) fifth (?) act of this human comedy is Hoosier Joe Andrew, the former DNC chair who switched allegiance from Clinton to Obama--impelled to do so by Obama's "refusal to pander" on the gas tax holiday. In a keeper of an Obama Campaign media conference call (surpassed only by the Pennsylvania Sportsmen for Obama call of several weeks ago), Andrew struggled but failed to master that old-school addiction to politics as usual.

Andrew said he'd made a hard decision between two good candidates. Fine. This is the classic spring 2008 official Democratic posture. But then Andrew elaborated. "You can be for someone without being against someone else." From fatuous to lofty, Andrew moves on to praising "the tone and temperature" Obama brings to the nomination battle before he sticks in the shiv, explaining his shift in loyalty "because of the actions of one candidate against the other."

After complaining (?) bragging (?) about the problems his change of heart have caused him on Wikipedia, Andrew confessed that he too has been guilty of politicking but is now repentant. When a reporter from the Boston Globe asked if he had given advance warning to Evan Bayh (campaigning for Clinton in Indiana) and Clinton herself about his change of heart, Andrew replied, "That is the same old political theater we've been part of." So, sticking it to courtesy is what now--agit prop?

If the gas tax brouhaha has spotlighted small-minded political thinking, it's also lit up that Obamic "tone and temperature" Andrew appreciates. Many in the mainstream media have praised Senator Obama's refusal to gas pander. What is equally significant is the way Obama brings a group of listeners around to his way of thinking. Even though campaign audiences now are more than mostly supporters, the interaction reveals, in small, how, in large, Barack Obama would lead.

The overarching difference between the Senators is that Clinton talks about what she'll do for you and Obama talks about what he can do with you. It's the old Democrat way versus the new Democrat way, last century versus this one. Inherent in Clinton's perspective is condescension (people need me to do it for them); inherent in Obama's is respect, if sometimes misplaced, for the American people's basic intelligence.

This leadership style carried Obama through his case to Hickory, NC, for no gas-tax holiday. Senator Obama often says that part of his motivation to run for the presidency was the idea of "placing a bet on the American people." In Hickory, talking about his refusal to plead for gas tax relief, Obama was betting that his audience had what it took to follow his argument.

"We've also got to have some truth-telling from our leaders," he begins. "I'm gonna use an example we can talk about which is gas prices. As John McCain came up with his plan, which is to suspend the federal gas tax for three months--now that will save five percent on your gas bill for three months which has been calculated for every person will be about twenty-eight dollars. So this is John McCain's scene. His gimmick. Twenty-eight dollars over three months. Nine dollars a month. All right? This is in answer to the energy problems. And Senator Clinton, you know, she wants to re-impose--she said 'me too! I'm gonna do that, too.'"

Talking about McCain and Clinton elicits laughter, and in laughter is shared complicity. The mention of the gas tax first elicits a couple of boos. The small size of the initial response is significant for it shows that, unlike in most everything else Obama says now to a group of supporters, people aren't so sure about this. But they trust him, and from trust comes a willingness to listen.

Next Senator Obama takes time and words to show that he feels the average person's gas pain. "We were in Winston-Salem, and a woman said that she was part of a group, a charitable group, that is giving mostly women who have minimum wage jobs twenty dollars to fill the gas tank just so they can get to work. All right? . . . You have ten miles to drive, fifteen miles to drive, twenty miles to drive to your job if you're lucky enough to have a car because public transportation doesn't get you there--that is a real problem." Some in the audience know all too well about the local buses and murmur "yeah." Senator Obama has them a little bit more.

Now, in typical Obama fashion, he suddenly switches to an overview. "So we got to do something both immediately and later on. And, you know, what we're looking at is how we can get a serious rebate to folks who really need it--put a little more money in their pockets potentially by taking a windfall profits tax from the oil companies to help provide people some relief. But I'll be honest with you. Suspending the gas tax for three months to give you nine dollars each--that is not the answer! No. Keep in mind first of all, if you do that you don't know that the oil companies won't just jack up the prices five percent. So. You don't know. That's number one."

Buried in that quick elision from rebates to oil companies are two qualifiers: "to folks who really need it" and "potentially." Some in the Hickory audience are well-off. (High tech medical has moved into Catawba County as manufacturing has moved out.) Likely these folks won't be getting the rebates. And the "potentially" means that Obama is making no promises because, after all, this whole discussion about the gas tax holiday is a hypothetical since neither Obama nor Clinton nor McCain is the President summer 2008. Making such a qualified argument is the professorial bent of the Obama mind at work.

"Number two. That is the Highway Trust Fund that finances rebuilding our roads and our bridges. And it's estimated that North Carolina, for example, loses as many as 7000 jobs this summer in construction because suddenly you don't have money for the Federal Highway Fund." Obama organizes his argument, orders his talking points and directs them locally. North Carolina. You.

"Part of the reason I know this is because when I was in the state legislature, there was a bill on highways, and I voted for it. And six months later we decided not to renew it because it wasn't making any difference in people's lives. It wasn't helping. So--instead of these kinds of fixes, here's what I said. I said, first of all, the problem is not just gas--it's buying eggs and buying a loaf of bread and paying the electricity bill." The latter gets huge applause (air conditioning season coming up in the South). People may not know much about the Highway Trust fund, but they do know eggs and bread. And although air conditioning will have to be addressed as part of any clean-green energy future, Obama knows better than to introduce too much change at once. He's getting to change--serious change--but before the stick he offers the carrot.

"So what I said is--let's replace the thousand dollars of the average family's costs with a tax cut for middle income families--offsetting the payroll tax so they get an extra thousand dollars a year to deal with these rising prices. . . ." Then the stick. "But here's the last point. Long-term, the only way we're gonna bring down oil prices and gas prices . . . is we start using less of it."

After moving through prescriptions for alternative fuels and more fuel-efficient cars, Obama ends with inspiration: a new Apollo program for energy. This is the same shaping rhetoric that Clinton uses--she, too, always ends with Apollonian inspiration--but Obama, unlike Clinton, has gone to great length to suggest the parameters of the problem. Of course, he has barely introduced the subject---much less talked about it in a nuanced way--but he has done his audience the courtesy of a lengthy explanation. It's a start. He's taken the time to forge a bond. We're in this together. In almost every stump speech, Senator Obama says, "I'll always tell you the truth." Well, sometimes more than others. He no longer says quite frankly, as he once did, that gas prices are not coming back down. He no longer says, as he once did, that part of our energy solution is all of us having to put up with higher energy costs. But if not the whole truth, Obama's position on the gas tax holiday is a beginning. It's breaking away from politics as usual. It's a start.

Note: If you regularly read my work, I updated my last piece in response to your questions and comments.