Congressional Quarterly has completed a detailed profile of Obama, looking at his voting record over the past two years, in their traditional studiously nonpartisan and evenhanded fashion. A couple of highlights:
Obama’s voting record doesn’t reflect that nonpartisan streak. In his first two years, he sided with his party on 97 percent of the votes that pitted most of his caucus against most Republicans — a party unity score higher than all but five other Senate Democrats in the 109th Congress, and higher than those of any of the other likely Democratic presidential candidates now in the Senate, including Clinton.
In his legislative work, however, Obama has formed partnerships with Republicans — including Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, one of the Senate’s most conservative members — that have led to legislative successes. And he made a notable break with his party two weeks ago, when he was one of nine Democrats who voted against a leadership effort to kill a proposal by Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina, another of Obama’s occasional legislative partners, for broader disclosure of federal funding earmarks…
In a way, then, Obama the presidential candidate could face the best of all possible worlds: just enough Senate work to show potential as a legislator, but not enough to have his ideas or his effectiveness truly tested in a way that could provide ammunition for his opponents.
“Potential can be more useful than a record,” said Samuel L. Popkin, a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego and an expert on presidential campaigns. “Records nail you to messy details that get in the way of looking forward and building coalitions.” Beyond Ideology
So far, Obama has spent much of his Senate energy on non-ideological issues, reflecting his view that most Americans don’t sort themselves into the same sorts of polarized ideological camps that Washington does. “I imagine they are waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point,” he writes in his new book.
What that means in practice, though, is that many of his signature issues either have no powerful enemies or, if they do, are shielded by a solid base of support in both parties. They include “good government” bills such as his ethics proposals and last year’s laws, both cosponsored with Coburn, to create a database of federal spending and crack down on no-bid contracts in rebuilding the Gulf Coast.
It’s a positive profile, but you can start to see the outlines of a critique forming here, in the vein of Walter Mondale’s jab at Gary Hart in 1984: “Where’s the beef?” Who is Obama willing to make angry? Pledging to be nonpartisan and cooperative and polite and respectful and all of that is great, but where is Obama’s line in the sand? What issue is he willing to play hardball on?
I’m reminded of the frustrated question of Clinton speechwriter Andrei Cherny to John Kerry, after the Massachusetts senator had torpedoed an idea to make the central theme of his presidential campaign ‘national service’:
“You know you’re going to have to step out and take a risk at some point, right?”