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Obama More Cynical Than Bill Clinton? Brooks Says Maybe

David Brooks pronounces himself stunned by the depths of Obama's ruthlessness and cynicism in response to yesterday's public financing announcement. Brooks makes several valid points, but I think he's wrong to be so shocked (or, if he's not sincerely shocked, then to express shock) at the picture of Obama that's emerged "in recent weeks." Close observers of Obama know that his ruthless streak dates back at least to his first campaign for state senate in the mid-'90s, and probably earlier. On the other hand, I don't think it's correct to imply that Obama is far more cynical than the typical politician (and certainly not more so than Bill Clinton, as Brooks suggests).  

The key with Obama is to distinguish between his inside game (i.e., mechanical, procedural, largely behind-the-scenes maneuvering) and his outside game (i.e., the policies/positions/stands he takes on the public stage). Obama has been as ruthless as anyone at playing the inside game, but less cynical than most when it comes to the outside game.

I parsed the distinction at some length in this recent piece. As a practical matter, it means Obama is perfectly comfortable with something like the campaign finance opt-out, or stiff-arming McCain on the unmoderated forums. But much less comfortable with symbolic, Sister Souljah-style pronouncements. I can't imagine him, say, presiding over the execution of a mentally retarded man to prove he's tough on crime, as Bill Clinton did during the '92 campaign.

That distinction is why I was more surprised by Obama's recent proclamation that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel than the campaign's maneuvering on public financing or the joint forums. The Jerusalem line was much closer to the kind of crass, symbolic pander Obama has typically rejected (if hardly an egregious version of it). And I think Obama's discomfort with it became clear when he tried to walk it back a bit in the days that followed.

--Noam Scheiber