Friday, June 20, 2008

Barack Obama reversed himself yesterday and announced that he will not accept public financing for his campaign. In November 2007, Mr. Obama wrote in response to questions posed by Common Cause, a nonprofit citizen’s lobbying organization, that he had a novel plan — “My plan requires both major party candidates to agree on a fundraising truce, return excess money from donors and stay within the public financing system for the general election.” This was part of Mr. Obama’s vision for a “new politics” that would be transparent and free of special interests. Yet this was before Mr. Obama began a fund-raising path that continues to set records. Thus, by opting out of public financing, Mr. Obama can take advantage of the vast sums that are filling his coffers - sums that will surpass the $84 million that is given to each candidate in the public system.

It is certainly within Mr. Obama’s prerogative to opt out of the public system. However, by changing course on a matter that he initiated and championed as a centerpiece of his reform agenda, he is vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. His “new politics” is similar to the behavior of other politicians. Mr. Obama is breaking his word and is altering his principles according to what is expedient. Is this “change we can believe in”? This is not “change.” Nor, in the future, can we “believe” that Mr. Obama will stand by his pledges when it is not in his self-interest.

The most pernicious part of Mr. Obama’s reversal is the lame excuse he provided - it is Mr. McCain’s fault, he declared. In a Web video to his supporters, Mr. Obama stated that “we face opponents who’ve become masters at gaming the system.” He blamed Mr. McCain for taking money from Washington lobbyists and for failing to curtail the political action committees that will launch “smears and attacks” with “millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations.” This argument, too, bespeaks of the “old politics”: It is common when politicians break their word to deflect attention by going on the offensive. Isn’t this precisely the kind of cheap “partisanship” Mr. Obama has been campaigning against?

Instead of blaming others for his reversal, Mr. Obama should simply acknowledge his previous miscalculation and take responsibility for his decision to renege on his pledge. However, this bespeaks another problem the senator has: He appears increasingly as a well-meaning, but inexperienced politician who is acquiring on-the-job training for the presidency. The sophomoric way he has handled this issue - even more than the decision itself - signals to voters that this is a candidate who is not quite sure how to translate his noble dreams into reality.

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