June 23rd, 2008
05:28 PM ET

Keeping a promise is one thing, flexibility is another

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/06/23/art.obama5.jpg]

David Gergen
CNN Sr. Political Analyst
Fmr. Presidential Adviser

As he heads toward a joint fundraiser with Hillary Clinton, this Thursday, Barack Obama is sure to come under more fire for his decision to reject public financing this fall. Much of it is deserved: he has clearly broken a vow on a matter of importance to many Americans.

Still, I think he showed a side of himself that voters needed to know was there. All along, there have been questions about whether he is tough enough to be President. He showed here that in the crunch he is no Bambi, that on a hard call, he has the inner will to prevail – even if he has to go back on what he has promised.

This is a longer argument, but in essence, our best Presidents have been those willing to reverse themselves and take the heat when it seemed necessary. It is not always attractive – and it isn’t attractive here – but it can be pretty darn important in the White House.

In this case, Obama could legitimately believe that his prodigious capacity to raise money can help to level the playing field with John McCain. Republicans have long shown they know how to raise money and use it effectively to bring down a Democratic candidate; while their coffers may be low now, who can guarantee that Republican oriented 527’s won’t fill them up this fall. Left unsaid so far is that Obama may also need extra funds to bolster himself as the first African-American nominee to run for President. As Washington Post poll yesterday found, 23% of respondents said that the race of a candidate was important in their decision – a sobering number.

Finally, we learned over the weekend, that with extra funds, Obama is planning a 50-state election strategy – a luxury no other Democratic could ever afford. It may not guarantee many more electoral votes, but if he does make it to the White House (and that remains a big if) it will sure help him with governing to have a grassroots organization in every state.


One other note, Cindy McCain is sometimes portrayed in the press as a Stepford wife who seems plastic and has little to say. That portrayal is actually unfair. If you want to know the real Cindy McCain, I recommend your reading the new Newsweek cover story. She emerges as a caring, independent-minded woman who has shown a great compassion for disabled children. It’s a very worthwhile read.

Filed under: David Gergen • Raw Politics
soundoff (130 Responses)
  1. Jim

    McBush and the Republicans are at it again...trying to fool the American People....If it is the American People who are financing Barack Obama's Campaign, how can it be that Barack is breaking a promise to the American People by foregoing public financing? It is clear that McBush is not so much concerned about Obama's infidelity towards the public, as he is about his own pathetic inability to convince the public that he is worthy to be president.....I am still waiting for McBush to explain what his "experience" is that qualifies him to be president.

    June 24, 2008 at 9:10 am |
  2. Ron Smith

    There are economy flip flops and social flip flops and environmental flip flops and then there is the trading-$84-million-for-$300-million flip flop. Most flip flops are designed to sway votes but this one is designed to buy votes. It is evil and nasty and republican.

    I like it.

    June 24, 2008 at 9:06 am |
  3. a.j.joe

    That Obama chose not to take public financing is great news for the American taxpayers – that McCain *says* he cares so much about.

    June 24, 2008 at 8:46 am |
  4. John

    I agree with Gergen: Obama needed to do this "flip-flop," given the situation. When Obama agreed to take public funds, he did not yet know that he would have this amazing money-making machine that his campaign has produced. It's been clear the last couple of months that he has been leaning toward foregoing public funds, and he's been trying to find a way to justify this switch.

    What bothers me–as an Obama supporter–is that his explanation has been so dishonest. He should have just plain admitted that he changed his mind given the situation, instead of trying to make a pragmatic decision sound grand and noble. And he should have (as he said he would do) "come out" to the McCain campaign before announcing this on his website. I was drawn to Obama the idealist; I don't much like Obama the Machiavellian. (When I believed in Obama the idealist, though, I was pretty sure that he would lose, and I was sad about that. Now I think he will win–and I'm a little sad about that too.)

    June 24, 2008 at 8:38 am |
  5. Hd

    ...Oh, and way back on '01, Bush promises us that he would catch the 'terrorists'...and he hasn't caught a single ONE.

    June 24, 2008 at 8:28 am |
  6. Hd

    Look folks...BREAKING NEWS...OBAMA IS NO DUMMY. We can sit and whine about how 'HE LIED' or how 'HE BROKE HIS WORD', we can also commend him in January for keeping his word when HE'S BACK IN THE SENATE. The fact is (is) that Obama's campaign is more publicly funded than the gov version (only like 10% participate in the Income Tax checkoff system) Leave it to the Republicans (or highjackers of the Party) to whine so disingenuously (as Lindsay Graham did on Meet the Press, last Sunday) about how Obama's being dishonest for breaking his (nuanced promised) You think someone kicked his dog. So in the end, this is about S-T-R-A-T-E-G-Y for the win in November.

    June 24, 2008 at 8:24 am |
  7. Tim

    Correct me if I am worng, but Obama never said we would accept public financing. He said he would accept public financing if a deal could be reached with his republican counterpart. Since a deal was obviously not reached, did he go back on his word?

    It would be nice if the media actually looked at what he said rather than regurgitating what they believe to be common knowledge. Afterall, because of the media, it was "common knowledge" that Iraq was behind 9/11, and look where that got us!

    June 24, 2008 at 8:20 am |
  8. Dave

    I just read someone say "Sticking to a promise is a true test of character" ... are you serious? Do people honestly say to themselves this is true? Does nobody see that Obama is right? There are to many loopholes in the public financing as it stands now? Loopholes that the Republican party has perfected. It needs to be repaired before it should be used and of course it is not going to be fixed before November. Nothing will be fixed before then. Besides hasn't sticking to a "promise" gotten us into a big enough hole? A hole with 4,106 dead.. thousands without homes/jobs.. a failing dollar.. bush tax cuts and now the idea that drilling offshore might solve our oil dependency... sigh.. The thought that this is happening and might continue scares me.. read the facts people. And on the subject of changing ones mind... maybe you should read what McCain has said himself...

    June 24, 2008 at 7:56 am |
  9. LMS

    Did the Newsweek article mention that she is a felon who stole money from her own humanitarian organization? She IS a Stepford wife. Mr. Gergen, I am disappointed that you are flaunting her.

    June 24, 2008 at 7:53 am |
  10. Sean from Orlando


    A bigot is someone who attends an all black racist church for 20 years, I would get your facts straight!

    June 24, 2008 at 7:41 am |
  11. dwmulenex

    shouldn't we, just for the novelty, try electing the smartest person in the room instead of the most doggedly obvious? Things do happen in politics and in the presidency. The ability to look for the best solution to the problem at hand, within the U.S. Constitution and U.S. law, may be a good thing. The coherence of Obama's policy views is still open to close examination, and ought to be. But the decision to save taxpayers an involuntary contribution of $84 million to his campaign is a decision more respectable on principle than McCain's willingness to take $84 million and use it to pay his small army of lobbyists to think about more corporate giveaways and paths to Charlie Black's wars.

    June 24, 2008 at 7:31 am |
  12. Mary,Kansas City

    What a good article David, just a small bone to pick. "If he makes it to the white house(and that remain a big if)." I know this country has never elected a black President and knew about it, "A Big If" come on, the American people are smart and most of us aren't as bone headed as others. It is time for "Change".
    People that think that Obama is inexperienced voted for GW Bush not once but twice, and they have the nerve to complain about Obama. McCain will fail this nation miserably. I hope people think hard and Long before giving so much power to an old , senile angry man. "No, He won't Ever Surrender". And Cindy will always be proud of her country as long as they keep buying her beer. He'll make it.

    June 24, 2008 at 7:29 am |
  13. Celeste

    Who knew Cindy McCain was a convicted drug addict who stole drugs from her own charity that had to be shut down because she was using it to feed her addiction!

    Could you imagine how they would hype that in the media if that was Michelle Obama's story?!

    June 24, 2008 at 7:23 am |
  14. buba

    Money is important in U.S politics.I am sure John would have done the same, if he had the abilitty or potential to raise money like Barack. Haven't we seen so far John reverse his stance on off-shore oil drilling ?

    June 24, 2008 at 7:06 am |
  15. Edward

    In politics there's always a reason why a sudden shift of position is made. Obama clearly seems a genuine person. Time will show why he made the decision. Politics is also a game of strategy!

    June 24, 2008 at 6:10 am |
  16. Mary


    My problem with Obama changing his position on this is that he was a major proponent for campaign finance reform. Now that he is in a position to follow his "reform" message, he backs away from it. That is the true material point. (And, the comparison made of McCain changing his mind on oil drilling is not the same. We are in need of a break and these politicians need to institute change now.)

    He wants to be an "agent" for change, yet his decision to break his commitment to this makes him the same as all the others.

    Frankly, I'm not happy with either candidate.

    June 24, 2008 at 5:56 am |
  17. Bewa

    Hello to al. Well, Obama decided not to accept public funding. I think this is not an important matter. THe reason why at first he said candidates should go along with public fundings is to be less dependant on the big corporate and lobbying interests. They re the ones who gives the money and they are the ones who will get favors back while the rest of us are left with leftovers. Well, in this case, Obama got the money from the people, through his internet fundings and so on. He s not as dependant on the corporate interests as McCain is depsites the fact he might accept public fundings. He still relies on fat donners (meaning at least three 0's on every donation)while Obama is getting a few dollars from a lot of people. He's right when taking the decision to refuse public fundings. If he was relying on lobbyists and corporates donnors, it d be another matter and I d be the first to throw him a big fat stone. But in this case, Go Obama and teach those republicans some good politics (they ve played unfair for years now, it s not appropriate for them to complain now anyway....)

    June 24, 2008 at 5:53 am |
  18. Billy Kid Cox

    Have you not figured it out yet? Thisn is the Obama station and it doesnt matter what he does or says. CNN will always find a way to make what ever Osama says to be, the new light of the world.

    He is the new press baby, and they will contiue to play to his hand, for fear that they will be considered racisit. Think what you want, But we all know it to be true.

    June 24, 2008 at 5:52 am |
  19. Renato

    Regardless of what anybody says if they were in the position as Obama they would have done the same thing. There's an extreme amount of "perfect " people saying they would have never changed their mind and stayed the course. Basically you're asking Obama to bring a knife to a gun fight, but instead he chose to bring a bigger gun thats pretty American to me. lol

    June 24, 2008 at 5:49 am |
  20. Chris

    This is a strategic maneuver to clinch the white house, nothing more. Honestly, there have been so many "independent" conservative organizations shilling for the republicans this doesn't bother me at all. I want Obama to win the election, and given the cost in lives and damage to the united states (and it's reputation) under the republican banner in the last 7 years, I really don't care if he flip flops on an issue of campaign funding.

    It's not like McCain hasn't pulled a 180 yet in his campaign yet. Hell, McCain practically has his own news station shilling for him in the form of Fox News and the tons of other associated faux conservative promises. Obama in '08.

    June 24, 2008 at 5:37 am |
  21. Artur de Freitas - Johannesburg, South Africa

    Presidents can’t stick to every campaign promise in a world that changes everyday. Everyday new events call for new strategies and Obama is already showing to be such a man. The USA needs a President in the White House who can reach Americans and the rest of the world and not a white or a colored person. Hopefully Mrs. Clinton’s supporters will not abstain from voting.

    June 24, 2008 at 4:52 am |
  22. Brian in Seattle

    I always love your commentary, Mr. Gergen. Relevant and well thought out.

    I'm not sure if records are kept for flip flopping in the general election, but this race certainly looks to shatter any previous ones. 🙂 Senator Obama made a political decision to disavow public financing and to go with with his individual donors. John McCain in the primaries said he would go with public financing-took out a loan in anticipation of that revenue, then changed his mind. Let's face it, both candidates have changed their minds on issues and will keep doing so. John McCain said read my lips, no new taxes earlier this campaign season. Will he keep that promise?

    June 24, 2008 at 4:50 am |
  23. David

    I think it was smart for him to refuse public funding. He would probably be outshined by the republicans due to their superior coffers if he had accepted the public financing. If his current fund raising trend stands Obama will most likely have more funds to spend in the fall campaign than the republicans – this is the real cause of the pain and concern to them.

    The current fuse by the republicans is an indication that their shallow trap did not work. They have been outsmart and soon they will be outspend by the Obama wheel of change.

    Let us be objective. Who among us have never changed a our postition on critical issues? None. So let this hypocricy stop. If it suites us to change our mind, why then do we withdraw the same priveledges to Obama.

    June 24, 2008 at 3:19 am |
  24. Darin

    If anyone seriously thinks McCain has not flip-flopped then go back and read what he said about taxes during war time. That is a complete flip-flop and a more substantive issue for the american people than Barack forgoing public funding. McCain has changed his stance on so many issues that he believed in during the 2000 campaign, including drilling in ANWR, that he's a shell ofhis former self. McCain has pandered so hard to the right in order to get support from the G. Bush conservatives he will beholden to them if he is President.

    Americans – be aware of what the Bush neocons are planning for Iran and McCain in securing their support if going to go along with their desires.

    June 24, 2008 at 3:17 am |
  25. Ira Laufer

    While Obama has incredible numbers of supporters, the Republicans have the kind that can write out a 5 figure check in a minute to any 527 looking to spead dirt. It will happen the closer we get to November.

    Obama has to take the hit for not taking public financing but he would be doomed if he did take it. It will take a ton of money to combat the filth that the right wing 527's have learned how to throw. Ask Kerry.

    Campaign reform isn't really reform if 527"s can toss momney around at will.

    I don't think he had a choice. You can bet McCain would grab at it if he had that many willing contributors.

    June 24, 2008 at 2:57 am |
  26. Carl from MI

    Do any of you people even do your research? The entire 'vow' to only use public funds comes from an answer to a question from the original questionnaire from the Midwest Democracy Project.

    The quote from Obama is, "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."

    Exactly WHEN did McCain agree to a fundraising truce and return excess money from donors? He didn't. He ran his entire primary campaign WITHOUT using the public financing system and STILL hadn't publically decided to use public financing for his general election campaign until AFTER Obama made his announcement to forgo public financing.

    I wish you people would do your homework before you shoot off your mouths about lies from Obama. The only person who's truly LIED about accepting public campaign funding is McCain when he said he'd take it during the primary campaigning so he could use that as leverage to acquire a loan and THEN he opted out of the public funding after securing the loan.

    Do your homework people!!! Please put your brain in gear before blogging....

    June 24, 2008 at 2:48 am |
  27. Lucy Sells

    Mr. Gergen:

    I'm a 76 year old retired sociologist in Berkeley, CA.

    We've had seven years of an administration unwilling to change positions, based on new information! It changes false information for the same positions!

    Thank you for your many years of astute political analysis.

    You're "spot on" on this issue!

    A previous poster cited the issue of "Promise". Did filling out a questionnaire constitute a promise?"

    GoBama, Go, Go, Go!
    Write on, David Gergen! Write on, and on, and on!

    June 24, 2008 at 2:26 am |
  28. Lyndon-CA

    Obama is a very savvy and shrewd dude. I am sure when he made the pledge not to accept public financing, he in no way thought he would be his party's nominee. He knows that he does not stand a chance in November if he were to play the game the way the opposition has come to expect the democratic nominee to play the game. He fully understands that he already has two strikes against him, his skin tone and his time in the political jungle. Now if he could just pick the right running mate, he would still be alive at the plate.

    June 24, 2008 at 2:12 am |
  29. rod

    Obama is doing what he needs to do to win. He denounced his avuncular Reverend when he had to win, not before. He stated that he was caught up in the moment in his reversal of the anti-NAFTA zealotry which he displayed during the primaries. He openly dismisses millions of American Muslims in the name of political favor with the public. As long as he keeps claiming to be the candidate of change who will reverse typical Washington politics, he will dig his grave deeper and deeper. All politicians lie and flip-flop. None has done so with such duplicity as this hypocrite.

    June 24, 2008 at 2:08 am |
  30. Joe Anna

    David, maybe you or someone with CNN need to explain to the public as to what is "public spending" and the caps on this money. If I was the nominee and had to select the $85 mils or fund my own campaign, guess what? I would keep my own funding machine which Obama has done quite well. Don't you think so?

    June 24, 2008 at 2:03 am |
1 2 3