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“Clear-Eyed Pragmatist”: The Obama Brand Has Come Full-Circle

Perhaps the most striking feature of Joe Biden’s speech in Springfield today was his description of Obama as a “clear-eyed pragmatist who will get the job done”. This is certainly different from the rather more abstract meaning of the Obama “CHANGE” brand as it was applied during the primary campaign. In fact, it sounds more along the lines of how Hillary Clinton was trying to present herself.

It’s also a description, of course, that could reasonably be applied to Joe Biden. The selection of Biden represented the inevitable terminus of a route that Obama had chosen in the days immediately following the conclusion of Democratic primaries, one which was signified by his choice to accept public financing, and his decision to side with Nancy Pelosi in supporting the FISA compromise bill. Along the way, there have been other milestones, ranging from Obama’s tepid endorsement of the Gang of 10 compromise to his decision to pay out so-called ‘street money’ during the general election campaign in cities like Philadelphia and Detroit.

To certain progressives, all of this has come as something of a disappointment. Obama’s brand during the primaries was essentially an anti-establishment one, and that allowed him to beat the establishment choice of Hillary Clinton. It would surely have been a lot of fun to see how everything played out had Obama not compromised on FISA, not accepted public funding, and then had picked someone like Kathleen Sebelius as his running mate.

But in other ways, “clear-eyed pragmatist” is a more accurate reflection of the ‘real’ Obama, and certainly of the ways that he made his way through the Chicago system, as Ryan Lizza’s seminal piece in the New Yorker concluded:

Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them. When he was a community organizer, he channelled his work through Chicago’s churches, because they were the main bases of power on the South Side. He was an agnostic when he started, and the work led him to become a practicing Christian. At Harvard, he won the presidency of the Law Review by appealing to the conservatives on the selection panel. In Springfield, rather than challenge the Old Guard Democratic leaders, Obama built a mutually beneficial relationship with them. “You have the power to make a United States senator,” he told Emil Jones in 2003. In his downtime, he played poker with lobbyists and Republican lawmakers. In Washington, he has been a cautious senator and, when he arrived, made a point of not defining himself as an opponent of the Iraq war.

And in other ways, the primaries version of the CHANGE brand was a poor match for the mood of the country. The most acute problem with George W. Bush is not that he’s corrupt, not that he’s the inevitable consequence of a broken system, but rather simply that his mode of thinking led him into an series of exceptionally poor decisions that left the country worse off. The problems of the Bush administration are not abstract — they are highly tangible, made more manifest still by the deterioration in the economy that occurred over the first quarter of this year. What CHANGE means now is this:

i) Not Bush, or someone who thinks like him;
ii) Working our way, by any means possible, out of the hole that Bush left us in.

This certainly isn’t what CHANGE meant during the primaries. But it’s a message that voters should have little trouble understanding. And now that the Obama campaign seems to understand it too, it should help them to provide a more focused and disciplined message.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.