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Obama’s Tent Widens After Early Wins

Sen. Barack Obama has staked his claim to the Democratic presidential nomination with support from a widening coalition of political leaders and ordinary voters. There are whites and African-Americans, Northern liberals and red-state Democrats, young activists and older elites.

Fueled by his strong showing in early primaries, Obama’s tent became even bigger in recent weeks as he drew in voters from groups that had been strong supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton — including women, white men and blue-collar workers.

Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was a domestic policy advisor to former President Bill Clinton, put it plainly: “The more Obama’s coalition expands, the more diverse it gets,” Galston said. “The more diverse it gets, the harder it is once in office to forge a program that gives enough to all the members of the coalition.”

“It’s not impossible,” said Galston. “But it’s something that any leader of a coalition has to think about night and day, especially if you’ve aroused the hopes of the coalition.”

What Obama is probably thinking about now, night and day, is winning the Democratic primary. The true breadth of his support will be further tested in what have become must-win contests for Clinton on March 4 in Texas – where Latinos, who have been among her strongest backers, could make up more than 40 percent of the primary electorate – and Ohio, where working-class voters are struggling with an eroding manufacturing base.

So far, Obama has used his promise of change and his experience as a community organizer – enhanced by the networking power of the internet – to build a national coalition of supporters and volunteers. His campaign is on the verge of announcing that 1 million people had donated money to the cause. “They want their government back and that’s what I intend to provide them,” Obama declared in Thursday night’s debate with Clinton.

Obama was endorsed Thursday by Frank Jackson, the Democratic mayor of Cleveland, who praised Obama’s commitment to “revitalizing the urban core of America,” and by Change to Win, a coalition of seven unions that includes the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers. A mariachi band posted ¡Viva Obama!, a YouTube video , on his behalf. On Tuesday he won the backing of Chet Edwards, a nine-term Democratic congressman from Waco, Tex. Edwards’s district – which includes President Geroge W Bush’s Crawford ranch – is the most Republican district in the country represented by a Democrat in Congress, according to the political analyst Charlie Cook.

The range of Obama’s support is on display at his campaign rallies and in the list of party leaders who have backed him. It can be seen most easily by looking at two senators who support him: Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Kennedy, the legendary liberal, brings with him a powerful family history and his own devoted followers, especially among labor activists and urban ethnics. By contrast, “The Almanac of American Politics” calls Nelson “the Senate Democrat most likely to support Bush and to differ from most Democrats.” Nelson supported the Bush tax cuts – the same ones that Obama vows to upend – and earned an 85 (out of 100) in the latest annual ranking from the conservative Family Research Council. (They gave Kennedy a 14.)

Ron Brownstein, author of "The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America,” says the unlikely array of forces around Obama shows that “different elements of his party are focusing on different elements of his message.”

In a February 15 column in National Journal, Brownstein wrote,

Liberals are attracted to Obama’s views on foreign policy, where he stands to Clinton’s left; centrists like his domestic policy, where he has challenged liberal conventions more than Clinton has on issues such as merit pay for teachers. The wider divide is over Obama’s governing strategy. Most attractive to moderates is Obama’s potential as a mediator — his promise to "reach across party lines … and to bring people together," as [Kansas Gov. Kathleen] Sebelius says. Most attractive to liberals is Obama’s potential as a mobilizer — his ability to excite and activate voters. "Our members really believe to make change, you don’t just need a president, you need a movement," says Eli Pariser, MoveOn’s executive director.

These contrasting motivations could easily collide if Obama wins the presidency. In theory, his red-state supporters like his mobilizing effect (in their endorsements, Sebelius and [Missouri Sen. Claire] McCaskill cited Obama’s impact on their children.) In practice, an energized grassroots progressive movement might push a President Obama toward liberal positions that red-staters could not easily adopt.

Conversely, many liberals consider Obama’s promise to bridge the partisan divide naive or even misguided. Pariser warns that if Obama concedes too much to Republicans in his search for unity, "I’m not sure the movement that he is building will let him do it." Put another way, Pariser expects Obama the mobilizer to constrain Obama the mediator.

Alan Wolfe, a political science professor at Boston College and author of “Does American Democracy Still Work?” agrees that if Obama makes it to the White House, the spectrum of support that got him there would quickly be tested. “There will obviously be problems down the road with too broad a coalition.”

Galston, who is supporting Clinton in the Democratic primary, said one of his worries about Obama is, “Can he possibly fulfill the hopes that he is arousing and, if not, what will the consequences be?”

“That, in part, relates to the diversity of his coalition,” Galston said. “The fact of the matter is, there are differences of outlook and interest.”

Galston recalled the debate within Bill Clinton’s inner circle in the transition period, between the November 1992 election and the inauguration in January 1993. “Clinton had to make some very fundamental choices on economic policy,” Galston said, between advisors like Robert Reich, later secretary of labor, and other liberals, who favored public investment to rejuvenate the economy, and Robert Rubin, of Goldman Sachs, who was later secretary of the treasury, and other fiscal conservatives, who argued for deficit reduction. (Rubin won.)

A President Obama would face tough economic conditions, like Clinton did, Galston warned. “Of all these promissory notes, which are going to be redeemed? He is going to have some hard choices to make.”

In November’s general election, Democrats are widely expected to expand their majorities in the House and Senate. (More than two dozen House Republicans have announced that they don’t plan to run again.) While such dominance would be good news for Democrats, unified party control could at some level complicate things for a new Democratic president. “At that point you’re out of excuses,” Galston said.

Of course, Obama cannot yet begin to write his Inaugural Address. As the primary season has gone on, he has tried to sharpen his populist appeal – hoping to attract voters who had supported John Edwards, and to chip away at Clinton’s strength among blue-collar workers.

Amy Walter, editor of The Hotline, a Washington politics newsletter, warns that such a move toward the left could complicate a general election campaign. “The more you go on this populist track in the primary,” Walter said, “You also risk having to come back to the middle,” to run against John McCain, the likely Republican nominee.

Obama has drawn strong support from the kinds of independent and moderate voters who might also be attracted to McCain, Walter said. While polls have shown that Obama would do better than Clinton in the general election against McCain, he could still face a fight with McCain for independent voters. For example, to lure them to his side, McCain could start with a simple question about Obama’s campaign pledges, Walter said. “He says, ‘Let’s go over how much this is all going to cost.’”

Wolfe, who is supporting Obama in the race, said that, if he wins, his coalition would lend him important support. “He’s got a big job,” Wolfe said. “He’ll need as much capital as he can have.”

While Karl Rove, Bush’s top strategists, and others have in recent years focused on key segments of the electorate – like waitress moms and Nascar dads – that they think hold the power to decide elections, Wolfe said broad coalitions have played an important role in U.S. politics in the past. He pointed to the mid-20th century Democratic Party, which was home to racist senators from the South, northern liberals, African-Americans and white ethnics, and to a Republican Party that was home to Northeastern liberal aristocrats like Nelson A. Rockefeller and sunbelt libertarians like Barry M. Goldwater.

Clinton has criticized Obama for what she says is his fondness for speeches over substance. “I do think words are important and words matter,” Clinton said in Thursday’s debate. “But actions speak louder than words.” But Wolfe said as president, Obama would benefit from using strong speeches, “to appeal to the rest of the country, over the heads of Washington,” and to set out his vision for the country.

“He definitely will have to articulate some view of human purpose, some sense of why we are here and why we come together,” Wolfe said, recalling way Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman used their speeches to rally the country. “It would set the stage for the direction Obama takes.”

Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive strategy group, said the next president could purse an aggressive set of policies and still maintain broad support. “You can imagine a very bold reform agenda – I’m not sure Obama will do it – that would be exciting to people across class, regional and race lines, appealing to labor, greens and others.”

Borosage said it makes sense to start with energy policy – using green jobs to make the US energy independent and boost the economy – and providing healthcare to children, the first step on the path to reforming healthcare. “All of that stuff is really popular,” he said.

All that may seem far away for Obama as he campaigns next week in Texas and Ohio, trying to make his tent even bigger. And, Galston says, his supporters will be patient if he makes it to the White House. “Not everybody expects to be rewarded in the first week,” Galston said. “They’ll give him at least a month before they start complaining.”

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