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Advice For Obama


Thursday, October 25, 2007.


By Keith Boykin


He is riding high. He's raised more money than any other candidate -- black or white -- has raised at this stage in a presidential contest. He's capable of drawing huge crowds on the campaign trail, including an amazing turnout at a rally last week in New York City in Hillary Clinton's backyard.


And he's even pulled ahead in one poll in the crucial state of Iowa. But the one thing he hasn't done is to convince the majority of Democrats to vote for him.


That's the dilemma for Barack Obama. How do you translate money, crowds and enthusiasm into votes?


Normally this wouldn't be a challenge for someone in his position. But Obama is up against a formidable competitor in Hillary Clinton, who by most accounts is the presumptive frontrunner in the race. So if I were giving advice to Barack Obama, I would tell him one thing. He needs to fully distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton and the other candidates.


Change v. Experience


Much of the political discussion in Washington these days has focused on the choice between Clinton and Obama, which has been framed as a choice between experience and change. Clinton supposedly has the experience and Obama supposedly is the candidate of change. If you can just figure out which the people want the most, then you can figure out who is most likely to win, according to this logic.


This is really a false choice. Democratic voters want change, but they also want someone with the experience to get elected and make that change happen. So in a sense, the party wants both. And in that sense, Clinton has a slight advantage over Obama. She's perceived to be the candidate with experience, but because she's a Democrat she also gets some benefit of the doubt as an agent of change from the policies of the Bush



That wasn't always the case for Hillary Clinton. When the race first started in January, many observers weren't sure that Clinton, who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, could fend off the concerns from the anti-war left who wanted an end to the failed Iraq War. But through a series of deft moves on her part, Clinton has crafted an anti-war position that mollifies the left and co-opts the views of her Democratic opponents.


That's a big problem for Obama. Barack Obama was supposed to be the agent of change in this race, but as Clinton has moved closer to the left on the war and health care and other issues, she hasn't allowed much daylight to exist between herself and Obama. That means Obama hasn't been able to distinguish himself substantively from Clinton.


In the most famous policy difference between Clinton and Obama, the Illinois senator said during a debate that he would be willing to talk directly with leaders of countries considered to be American enemies like North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Venezuela.


That comment was quickly challenged by Clinton, who said she would not be exploited by these leaders. But at the end of a two-week public debate there really wasn't much difference between the opinions of the two candidates. Both would talk to enemies, but they differed over the mechanics of how it would happen.


Is There A Difference Between Barack And Hillary?


Here's a quick test. Aside from the decision to go to war, name one major issue where Clinton and Obama disagree? I'm not sure what that issue is. They both agree on raising the minimum wage. They both want to expand health care to the 47 million Americans without insurance. They both want to end the war in Iraq. They both support affirmative action. They both support a woman's right to choose. And they both support civil unions over same-sex marriage.


Even on the issue of the war, Clinton has caught up with Obama. That's because neither one of the candidates demonstrated much leadership in cutting off funding for the war earlier this year. Both candidates refused to disclose how they would vote on the funding bill until the last moment when they cast their ballots in the Senate.


At the very end of the voting period, Barack Obama quietly walked into the Senate chamber and cast his ballot to cut off funding for the war. A few seconds later, Hillary Clinton walked in and also voted to cut off funding for the war.


That was it. There was no fanfare, no advance press releases or press conferences. It was just a quiet vote, and suddenly Obama and Clinton didn't seem much different from one another.


The same problem arose with gay and lesbian issues. When General Peter Pace, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that he felt homosexuality was immoral, it took Hillary Clinton a full day to disagree with him. That was a golden opportunity for Obama to distinguish himself from Clinton. But he did the same dodge and weave as Clinton. Finally, after criticism of both camps, they each denounced Pace's comments.


Similarly, the LOGO presidential forum exposed another weakness for Obama on LGBT issues. On the one hand, Obama is running as the candidate of change, but on the other hand he's adopted a position against marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.


How can you say that you're the candidate of change when you're not willing to fight to change the laws that allow discrimination against a key constituency group in your party, asked one panelist at the debate.


Here's the rub. Obama is not really running as the candidate of change. He's positioning himself as an electable candidate of change. After all, if the Democrats really wanted change they would vote for Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel. But those guys aren't considered to be electable. So Obama has to prove that he's electable and that he's an agent of change.


But how can you prove that you're the candidate of change if the frontrunner keeps stealing your thunder?


It's happened over and over again. Obama announced his campaign online. Then Clinton announced her campaign online. Obama spoke at a black church in Selma. Then Clinton spoke at a black church in Selma. Obama voted to cut off war funding. Then Clinton voted to cut off war funding. Obama held a fundraiser with Oprah Winfrey. Then Clinton held a fundraiser with Magic Johnson.


Now is the time for the Obama campaign to make the case for change. If Barack Obama wants the party to take him seriously as the candidate of change, he has to offer something more than the fact that he's not Hillary Clinton.


We get that, and for some voters that's enough. But for many other left-leaning Democrats, they will be waiting to see at least one major policy area where Obama is willing to say that he's not the same as Hillary Clinton.


Keith Boykin is a writer, broadcaster, journalist and political commentator. He blogs at Keithboykin.com


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