A President Barack Obama will be the most scrutinized president since Abraham Lincoln. Ironically, the reason for this has less to do with race, though that will loom large in the lens of many, as it has to do with him. He's lifted public passions and expectations to the clouds with his soaring rhetoric about hope and change; the man who can repair the shambles of Bush's domestic and foreign policies.
That's quite a cross for a senator half way through his first term, with a wafer thin voting record, little experience with foreign policy matters, and whose still fuzzy, or to put it more charitably, with a still work-in-progress program on affordable health care, education, criminal justice system reform, tax policy, and the housing crisis. This is a crushing burden for a man who needs to pound consistency into his pronouncements that at times seem at odds with the other pronouncements he's made on winding down the Iraq war and the terrorism fight.
The jury is still way out on just how many of those inflated expectations that he can fulfill. But there are glaring clues as to how much change he can or will even try to make. One is his record in the Illinois state legislature. At first glance, his votes and views during his days in the Illinois Senate on taxes, abortion, civil liberties, civil rights, law enforcement and on capital punishment give much comfort to those who crave for him to make the change he hints at. His stance on tax hikes marked him with some business and taxpayer interest groups as another tax-and-spend Democrat, and his views on social issues, marked him as an unabashed liberal.
He's anything but that, and that's another clue as to what to expect from an Obama White House. He's a centrist Democrat who is fast replacing the Clinton's with the Democratic Party's shot-callers as the consummate party insider, their new go-to guy. Corporate donors, Hollywood moguls, and through the back door with him, fat-cat lobbyists with the quiet nod of Democratic Party insiders have dumped millions into his campaign. They don't shower money, favors, and promotional praise on a candidate unless they are comfortable that the candidate will not stray to far off the beaten political path and abandon the moderate, respectable approach to policy making.
In the White House, Obama will move cautiously and do everything he can to ensure that the tag "liberal" won't be slapped on him. The majority of Congressional Democrats and Republicans are centrist to conservative to even ultra-conservative. They would instantly draw their line in the sand against him if he makes a quick push for big tax hikes for education and health care to a push for a quick withdrawal from Iraq which Obama does not favor.
He will do everything he can to escape the fate that befell Bill Clinton the instant he touched a toe in the White House. Republicans waged a gutter-wallowing personal and political stealth, and at times, open war against him and his policies, and Clinton made no pretense of being a liberal Democrat. Their attack arsenal included everything from personal slander to stonewalling his judicial appointments and his stab at health care reform. That forced Clinton to tip toe even further to the right on the death penalty, beefing up police power, gay rights, welfare reform, and reining in bloated military spending, while assuring that the Democratic Party would not pander to minorities and the poor.
Obama's pro choice and abortion rights defense in the Illinois legislature earned him a perfect rating from the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council. And he was a major backer of legislation limiting police interrogations and requiring police to keep racial stats on unwarranted traffic stops, and he supported strict gun control. These are three hyper-sensitive issues for conservatives. If Obama puts White House muscle into big reform fights on these issues, he will draw instant fire from right to life groups nationally, police unions, and the NRA.
It's not likely he'll risk that, it's not his style anyway. He got high marks from Illinois Senate Republicans precisely for his willingness to horse-trade, deal-make, and compromise on the touchiest of issues for conservatives. They praised him as a flexible politician and consensus builder who listened to the views of his Republican opponents.
American politics demands that, especially of moderate Democrats. With Obama, corporations and lobbyists will be even more hawk like in guarding the legislative door to protect their interests, conservatives will tighter their perennial gate keeping against any effort to push abortion rights, and the defense industry will be even more vigilant against any effort at deep military slashes.
Any president that bucks these dominant special interests risks being branded anti-police, anti-business, pro abortion, pro labor, pro-gun control, and a dreaded tax-and-spend liberal Democrat. That fear more often than not translates into even the best intentioned president caving in when the battle is on for crucial political and social reforms. That will include even one who has made hope and change his ticket to the White House.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February, 2008).