"Change You Can Believe In" -- Or "Change You Just Won't Believe"?

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Jun 16, 2008 12:00 AM
"Change You Can Believe In" -- Or "Change You Just Won't Believe"?

Barack Obama may be lacking in judgment and experience – most recently demonstrated by the selection of former Fannie Mae CEO Jim Johnson to vet his veeps (along with Eric Holder, who signed off on Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich). But he’s a quick study, and he knows there’s a lot he doesn’t know. Because revealing the gaps in his understanding could be devastating to Obama's presidential hopes, understandably he's doing everything he can to conceal them. That involves not only stiff-arming the same Democrat and media establishment that has rushed to embrace him. It also undermines the reformist overtones of his slogan of “change you can believe in.”

Just this week, Obama announced plans to move key elements of the Democratic National Committee operation to his own home turf of Chicago, where presumably he’ll have more mastery over it. The decision is revealing. As Politico put it, “Then and now, [Chicago is] a city whose central political feature – top-down machine control – is one legacy Obama has taken from his allies in the reigning Daley family.”

In relocating key elements of the committee from D.C. to his own home turf, the Democrat nominee has reshaped the DNC to fit his own emerging “machine.” He’s also made it clear that its independent functions are secondary to what he apparently sees as its primary mission: To serve him.

The move offers Obama other advantages. He may be a novice to the world of Washington, but he understands Chicago politics. What’s more, he plays them well – as demonstrated by his use of legal technicalities to disqualify three of his challengers in his first political race, thereby ensuring that he ran unopposed. But Chicago hardball tactics are more easily employed by a candidate promising an uplifting vision of “change” when he’s away from the hub of the national press establishment.

And when it comes to the national press, Obama has already made it clear that he intends to keep his distance. In contrast with John McCain – a man who clearly relishes give-and-take with the media – Obama has been considerably less forthcoming. Back in February, another Politico piece headlined “Barack Obama stiffs, stifles national press,” noted that “as [Obama] moves closer to clinching the Democratic nomination he is establishing himself as the candidate who keeps the most distance from the national media.” Handling the first press tempest of his candidacy, a push for information about his ties to convicted political fundraiser Tony Rezko, Obama memorably walked out after taking only eight questions.

His discomfort with the D.C. press corps is notable, given how almost universally positive the coverage of him has been. But it’s perhaps predictable for a candidate who never received a thorough vetting either in his three elections to the Illinois state Senate or his single U.S. Senate campaign – and who was memorably described as a “one-man gaffe machine” in a rare negative press assessment. Even minor mistakes and missteps can be poison to a candidate whose experience is open to question.

Certainly a little geographic and psychic distance from D.C. can be a big plus, if it’s prompted by knowledge of Washington’s ways rather than ignorance of them. But whatever his objections to D.C. are, Obama’s recent statement to Philadelphia voters – “If [Republicans] bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun” – indicates that the capitol’s bitter partisanship isn’t among them. And the “changes” he’s made since clinching the nomination suggest that he’s less driven by the desire to reform Beltway culture than to gain political advantage by circumventing it.

Machine politics, evasion of the accountability press scrutiny brings, more of the ugly partisan rhetoric: Is this “change you can believe in,” or “change you just won’t believe”?