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Obama's Terrorism Speech: Another Break With Democratic Party Orthodoxy

Barack Obama's August 1 speech outlining an aggressive anti-terrorist policy is part of the Illinois Senator's larger campaign strategy, demonstrating his willingness to break from liberal orthodoxy -- defying teachers' unions, proponents of racially based affirmative action, and Democratic constituencies wary of the use of force.

Obama, the first African American with a serious shot at winning the Democratic presidential nomination, warned in his Washington address today at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars that as president he would be willing to unilaterally attack al Qaeda targets in Pakistan.

"If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.... There must be no safe-haven for terrorists who threaten America. We cannot fail to act because action is hard."

In his speech Obama sought to affirm his credentials as a prospective Commander in Chief who would not only end the war in Iraq, but who would also aggressively mount an offensive against Islamic terrorists.

His posture provoked immediate criticism from some quarters.

Chris Bowers, a blogger who writes on Open Left, argues that Obama is mistakenly trying to win the approval of the Washington establishment:

"No Democrat running for President tells the country that he will deploy more troops to Afghanistan and conduct military strikes in Pakistan without Pakistan's approval in order to appeal to the primary electorate."

In a Wednesday interview with American Urban Radio News Networks, Hillary Clinton adopted a similar position to Obama's on unilateral attacks within Pakistan's borders, but with more cautious rhetoric.

"We have to have a much smarter relationship with Pakistan and the military of Pakistan to build credibility and support for their taking the actions that only they can take within their own country. But clearly we have to be prepared.... if we had actionable intelligence that Osama bin Laden or other high-value targets were in Pakistan I would ensure that they were targeted and killed or captured."

Although little noticed, Obama has been challenging influential Democratic primary constituencies at a rate of about once a month, building what now is a significant record of dissent from key party factions. He has taken on civil rights groups, the National Education Association, and the powerful lobby opposed to any changes in Social Security benefits.

Appearing May 13 on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Obama suggested that he is prepared to consider a major alteration of affirmative action policy to make it less racially based and more economically rooted:

"My daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged," he said. "I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed."

In the same May 13 interview, Obama said he would consider raising both the retirement age and payroll taxes as part of a package to put Social Security on a stable fiscal basis. "Everything should be on the table," Obama said, although he rules out privatization.

A month later, in a June 7 talk at a Spartanburg, South Carolina Baptist Church, Obama pointedly challenged black men who abandon their children:

"There are a lot of men out there who need to stop acting like boys; who need to realize that responsibility does not end at conception; you need to know that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one,"

And in Philadelphia, at a July 5 National Education Association meeting, Obama endorsed merit pay -- anathema to teachers' unions. "If you excel at helping your students achieve success, your success will be valued and rewarded as well," Obama said, careful to add, "I want to work with teachers. I'm not going to do it to you, I'm going to do it with you."

In some respects, Obama's controversial stands are reminiscent of the 1992 campaign. That year Bill Clinton took on Jesse Jackson, criticizing rapper ("If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?") Sister Souljah, a guest of Jackson's at a Rainbow Coalition meeting. Clinton sought to distance himself from radical currents in the African American community, and the event became known as Clinton's "Sister Souljah moment."

Obama is similarly seeking to establish his political independence from Democratic party interest groups, refuting stereotypes which might encumber his candidacy.

Obama has had unprecedented success in the campaign so far. Despite Hillary Clinton's institutional and organizational advantage, Obama has moved from running 20-plus points behind Clinton at the start of the year to a current deficit of only 12 to 13 points, compared to John Edwards' 18 points lag behind Clinton today.

If nothing else, Obama's speech Wednesday has shaped the entire Democratic presidential debate for at least one news cycle, prompting every major candidate, and some minor ones, to comment on it. Whether Obama succeeded in changing his polling numbers remains to be seen.

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