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Buzzkill edition: A closer look at Barack Obama

Barack Obama in Alexandria
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Barack Obama at a rally in Alexandria, Va., Sunday. Obama remains a pleasing enigma to many Americans, but he still must survive a nine-month gantlet if he is to win the White House.

We come here not to praise Barack Obama, but not to bury him, either. By blitzing Hillary Rodham Clinton in all four weekend presidential contests, Obama has become the Democratic front-runner, at least when you look at pledged delegates. Clinton, who fired her campaign manager over the weekend, has done a crummy job of bringing her soaring opponent down to Earth, largely because of her own leaden vote for the Iraq War and general strangulation-by-triangulation.

But just because Clinton can’t redefine Obama as just another politician doesn’t mean someone won’t. While he currently wins trial heats with near-certain Republican nominee John McCain, Obama remains a pleasing enigma to many Americans. While he’s a more nimble target for the GOP war machine or media skeptics, he could fall faster if either lays a glove on him.

During the past week, several news stories — some, no doubt, inspired by Clintonistas — painted a harsher or at least more callow picture of the Illinois senator. What follows is not a plea for buyer’s remorse, if you were a Minnesotan so inclined on Super Tuesday. (After all, some flawed individual has to become president.) If nothing else, it’s a test of belief, an early stage of the nine-month gantlet Obama still must survive if he is to win the White House.

Low-income energy assistance a low priority
According to weekend news reports, there is “a greater than 50 percent chance” John Edwards will endorse Clinton or Obama. Assuming the “use by” date of that endorsement hasn’t passed, Obama’s forces may want to keep the Son of a Millworker away from certain Maine newspapers. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is an Edwards favorite; the poor have been battered by soaring energy prices amid a cold winter and assistance funds haven’t kept up in many states, including Maine.

On paper, Obama supports a $1 billion infusion into LIHEAP, but when the chance came to add the money to the recent economic stimulus bill, Obama’s top economic advisor Austan Goolsbee openly opposed the idea. Goolsbee called LIHEAP “a bureaucratic program … that would take a long time.” However, Jonathan E. Kaplan, the Washington correspondent of the Portland Press Herald, noted that “LIHEAP funding can get to those who already have qualified for the program quickly — additional funding released by the Bush administration on Jan. 17 was dispersed to Maine families by Jan. 22.”

Tax rebates — Obama’s and Goolsbee’s favored methods of stimulus — haven’t even started going out yet. Meanwhile, the best shot at hiking LIHEAP grants to match energy-price inflation may have passed.

The pitfalls of fundraising
Obama doesn’t take money from political action committees and federally registered lobbyists, a key point of differentiation with Clinton. But while he doesn’t take money from their hirelings, he does take contributions from the business people themselves. That opens him up to stories like the one in The New York Times detailing Obama’s actions toward the nuclear industry.

In 2006, after radioactive tritium was discovered in Illinois drinking water, the senator sponsored a bill requiring plant operators to disclose even small leaks from their plants, instead of just emergency levels, as existing law required. According to the Times, millions of gallons of water containing tritium had leaked from an Exelon nuclear plant years earlier but went unreported because levels did not meet the legal reporting standard.

Eventually, however, Obama rewrote the bill so that mandatory reporting became voluntary — and therefore toothless, anti-nuke activists say. Obama’s campaign blames the implacable opposition of global-warming denier and nuclear-industry stalwart Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. Still, on the stump, Obama has touted his sponsorship of the original bill — not the end result — and at least once claimed the tougher bill passed. (Even the weaker bill died at the end of the 2006 session.)

More damningly, the Times notes that Obama has accepted at least $227,000 from Exelon officials for his 2004 U.S. Senate and 2008 presidential campaign. Two plant officials are among his biggest fundraisers, and his top political consultant, David Axelrod, has been an Exelon consultant on non-nuclear matters.

The Chicago Tribune sounds a similar theme in a story headlined “Obama’s fundraising collides with rhetoric.” The piece contrasts Obama’s jeremiad on behalf of “the Maytag worker who is now competing with his own teenager for a $7-an-hour job at Wal-Mart because the factory he gave his life to shut its doors,” with one of his campaign fundraisers —  a major Maytag investor and company director.

Although the Tribune story showcases the contradictions of advocacy and fundraising, it’s nowhere near as strong as the Times effort. For example, the plant closed before Obama ascended to the U.S. Senate, and it was not in his then-legislative district. Also, the plant’s union never asked Obama for help.

Still, stories such as these are the thin edge of the wedge that could open gaps in Obama’s image in the rough campaign months to come.

David Brauer covers media, Minneapolis City Hall and Hennepin County politics. He can be reached at dbrauer [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Austan Goolsbee on 02/11/2008 - 10:53 pm.

    The view attributed to me is completely false. I have never opposed the Low Income Heating Assistance program and Obama has voted for it multiple times. The only objection I voiced in the interview and in previosu discussions is that LIHEAP cannot be used AS A $25b STIMULUS plan. It takes too long to get the money out the door when you have to go through the bureaucracy of evaluating applications.

    See the discussion in the NY Observer article on stimulus from January for further proof that I SUPPORT LIHEAP as a program. I only oppose trying to get an extra $25b out the door of a $2.5b program. This wouldn’t be a minor top-up to the existing program recipients who have already been approved. Under the Clinton plan, something like 20+ million families would have to apply for the first time.

    NY Observer:
    Goolsbee’s criticism of this component was consistent with his major beef with Clinton’s entire stimulus plan, which is that it would take way too long to enact, and therefore wouldn’t provide for any real stimulus at all.

    Here’s Goolsbee’s critique: “It is a very detailed program. It is a very good program that people are familiar with but it just isn’t a stimulus. It is for winter heat and by the time this thing gets through we’d be talking about next winter. Two, it’s a five to 10-page application process which is significantly onerous.

    He added, “After convincing the people to apply and getting them to fill out the application process, you then have an evaluation process, so this will take many months if not a year to get out the door.”

  2. Submitted by David Brauer on 02/12/2008 - 08:51 am.

    This is spin. In the CNN interview, Goolsbee speaks approvingly of jettisoning the LIHEAP money from the stimulus – not limited to the $25B Clinton plan, but the concept itself.

    I am not saying Goolsbee (or Obama) opposes LIHEAP – I believe both support it. And it’s totally fair that they could support it yet keep it out of a stimulus package.

    However, the notion that it should be out because the money doesn’t get out fast enough seems refuted by the Maine story, a fact the Obama/Goolsbee forces have not refuted.

    Remember, the LIHEAP applications are already sitting there – the program is UNDERFUNDED, not waiting to be created. That’s why the check go out so fast. This is not some big, new government program – it’s an existing one whose funding hasn’t kept up with rising costs.

    I cannot find an article in which Obama advocates for $1B in the stimulus bill to adequately fund LIHEAP. That seems like the sort of bully pulpitting a progressive presidential candidate would do. Send the source if you find one.

  3. Submitted by Daryn McBeth on 02/11/2008 - 12:18 pm.

    This story had an enticing premise and headline, and one I looked forward to reading. However I didn’t think there was much there, there. If you know what I mean. Not that I or presumably the author (as the introduction points out) are out to get Obama, it’s just that it seems like there really should be more questions and research to surface on his many stump remarks and other policy positions. The media seems to be giving him kind of a pass on substance and proven track record on the issues he brings forward. And I thought this article was going to answer some of that, but it only wet my appetite.

  4. Submitted by Brad Lundell on 02/11/2008 - 01:12 pm.

    David, I’ve been in the politics/government business for a long time (blah-blah-blah) and there is the old shopworn saying “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, and speak constructively to their employees in a manner that is appropriate considering their race, age, and gender (I cleaned up the last part for the 21st century), you don’t belong in politics.”

    I haven’t done opposition research in about a decade, but I can always remember rifling through old roll call votes thinking “I bet he never believed this vote from the 1970s regarding Dutch Elm Disease was going to haunt him so!” There’s going to be a ton of this stuff piling up on both sides, although I have yet to see a reminder to the public about the current Presidential candidate who was one of the Keating Five (Hint: It was not Mike Gravel).

    The object is to sift through it and see what, if anything, sticks and then to determine whether that rises above the “Checkers” level. What would be tragic is if the press allows McCain to do “180s” on a whole host of major issues, as ably outlined by Jonathon Chait this morning on The New Republic website (Competitor, I know.), while scouring through Obama’s contributor lists to see if that teachers’ union local in Illinois is truly infested with fellow-travellers as reported by the crack staff at Grit.

    I wonder if Norm Coleman will take the lead on exposing flip-floppers during the 2008 Republican Convention. Oh. . .wait a minute. . .never mind.

  5. Submitted by David Brauer on 02/11/2008 - 02:06 pm.

    Daryn – thanks for the comment. It is, indeed, designed as an appetite-whetter – the limitations of the 700-word Monday morning essay.

    Expect more to come, about all candidates. This was really just playing off his new front-runner status and noting the increased level of vigilance/fisking (depending on your point of view).

    Again, thanks for reading and commenting.

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