What will the liberals who criticized President Bush’s “theocracy” make of Sen. Barack Obama’s speech yesterday — which argued that the problem with Bush’s faith-based approach is that it didn’t go far enough?
In his speech, Obama said Bush’s office of faith-based aid “never fulfilled its promise” because the programs were underfunded and used for political purposes.

“Well, I still believe it’s a good idea to have a partnership between the White House and grassroots groups, both faith-based and secular. But it has to be a real partnership – not a photo-op,” Obama said.
Let’s look at Obama’s speech substantively and politically.
Politically, it operates on several levels. First, as has been much noted, Obama is making a major play for evangelicals. His faith-based plan will help that endeavor. But many forget that the main political target of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” (the centerpiece of which was his faith-based program) wasn’t evangelicals but centrist Catholics. Obama needs them, too.
Second, Obama gets the benefits of being attacked by the left. “[Bush’s] initiative has been a failure on all counts, and it ought to be shut down, not expanded,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “I am disappointed.” It provides Obama a low-cost way of showing himself not to be a standard-issue liberal (whatever that means these days).
Third, faith is Obama’s way of countering the charges of elitism. Hillary Clinton and many Republicans have cast him as culturally out of touch with the mainstream, and they had plenty to work with: low bowling scores, Ivy League education, a seemingly anti-American pastor, his preference for arugula over cheese whiz. (Obama plays basketball well but the campaign kept that under wraps until Indiana (a basketball-crazed state) out of fear it would play into racial stereotypes. )
For Obama, the ticket to middle-American trust is in part through religion. By talking about his faith and showing through this proposal that he’s faith-friendly, he casts himself as part of the mainstream. Obama may not be able to bowl, but he sure can pray. And he can’t possibly be a Harvard elitist if he’s a Man of Faith. Can he?
How does Obama’s approach differ substantively from Bush’s? Obama says Bush underfunded the programs but then offers no proposal for increasing the funds, except one summer-reading program and a general promise that it will be “central” to his administration. Obama emphasizes better coordination of federal and local faith-based agencies,fine in theory but hard to assess in the abstract.
The plan does grapple with one of the central paradoxes of the faith-based charity world: Many of the best programs are effective because they’re small; but because they’re small they don’t know how to apply for aid or administer a grant. Obama focuses on “training the trainers” — helping large national nonprofits, such as Catholic Charities, to train the small groups on how to apply for government aid. This may not be sexy, but it’s a sensible focus.
But most important element of Obama’s plan may be the one that will get the least attention. Bush had promised that programs would be funded on the basis of “results” but then did little to evaluate whether programs were working. Obama says he would change that.
All of this gives a glimpse of what kind of liberal Obama is. Much of his emphasis is better coordination, training and evaluation, not money. It’s worth remembering that the bulk of Obama’s work as a community organizer wasn’t drawing together national groups in grandiose efforts or lobbying drives. It was connecting one church to another, a dozen residents of a project here with a dozen over there. In that sense, he is more like an early 1960s liberal (the sort who focused on fight poverty through local community organizing) than he is a 1970s liberal (which emphasized large scale national programs). Or, more accurately, he’ is a hybrid of the two that we’re just beginning to understand.
Finally, one of the tragedies of the Bush approach was that he took an idea with strong bipartisan potential and crafted it in a way designed to polarize. David Kuo’s insider book about the Bush faith-based effort described how the administration chose to pick fights rather than join forces with those across the aisle. By contrast, Obama’s plan was praised by Kuo and Bush’s first faith-based chief, John DiIulio, who called it “a principled, prudent, and problem-solving vision for the future of community-serving partnerships involving religious nonprofit organizations.” By saying he would build upon rather than scrap a major Republican initiative Obama is trying to offer a model of his bipartisan impulse.
Adapted from “Political Perceptions” the Wall Street Journal Online’s center for political analysis.
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