Thursday, January 10, 2008

Obama is a man of substance

In the comments to my last post, Allison (a good friend who lives in NH) shared her thoughts on why she thinks Hillary won:

1) I think Obama overplayed his hand. Sorry Rick, but we’re not big on vague here, and he wasn’t selling anything specific. Yes, people want change, and they want hope, but they want details and he was woefully short on ‘em. He is very inspirational, but towards the end much of the talk centered on the perception that he has not actually done anything but talk. It wasn’t enough. He also seemed to get a little bit of a swelled head after Iowa. (emphasis mine)

I’ve heard variations on this theme over much of the last couple weeks. Democrats on the fence about supporting Obama see him as an empty vessel. Over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog (where some of the most eloquent discussion about Obama’s campaign is happening, IMO), a writer had this to say:
But Hillary is doing a better job of conveying substance, and that resonates with people for whom her policies will have an impact on their everyday lives. For the most part, these are people who don’t spend their time on their laptops all day —- they’re busying holding down one or two jobs, taking their kids to school, maybe trying to get a college degree at night —— and they certainly don’t have time to Google a bunch of white papers, or read blogs. They get their info from speeches, ads, magazines, debates, and the mass media generally.

This seems to be a big challenge for Barack. The irony is that the knock on him in Illinois when he ran for Senate in 2004 was that he was a policy wonk, too enmeshed in the minutiae of the legislative process to really appeal to much more than a sliver of the Illinois electorate. We know how that turned out.

Late in 2006, I ran across a remarkable post at Obsidian Wings, which to this day holds up as the best summary of Obama’s legislative abilities. Written  by someone who (at the time, at least) was not an Obama supporter, it simply goes through his brief tenure in the Senate to show his approach to legislation, his ability to dive into details, and his often creative efforts to strike a balance that stands a chance of actually getting passed. I can’t recommend the post highly enough; you should read the whole thing.

Andrew is right: if you want detail from Barack, there’s plenty of it to be found. That said, it’s clear that he needs a better way of communicating those details without sacrificing the sweeping rhetoric that has so inspired millions around the country. Here’s hoping he finds a way to thread that needle before 2/5.

Update: Big thanks to Gabe Wachob, who pointed to this article by Daniel Koffler in The Guardian, talking about the substantive differences between Obama and Clinton (and Edwards for that matter). It’s a fascinating article, and well worth your time if you really want to know whether Barack’s all sizzle or not. Here’s a good excerpt:

In other words and in short, Obama’s slogan, “stand for change”, is not a vacuous message of uplift, but a content-laden token of dissent from the old-style liberal orthodoxy on which Clinton and Edwards have been campaigning. At the same time, Obama is not offering a retread of (Bill) Clintonism, Liebermanism, triangulation, neoliberalism, the Third Way or whatever we might wish to call the business-friendly centrism of the 1990s. For all its lofty talk of new paradigms and boundary shifting, the Third Way in practice amounted to taking a little of column A, a little of column B, and marketing the result as something new and innovative. Obama and Goolsbee propose something entirely different – not a triangulation, but a basis for crafting public policy orthogonal to the traditional liberal-conservative axis.


  1. I can't argue politics very well, but I can say that for the first time I'm excited about the primary here in IL. I'm actually looking forward to going to the polls and voting for Obama.

    I see him as the "new breed" and feel he represents the younger generation which for the first time is excited about the elections.

  2. There is no question he has substance. The question in my mind is whether his substance matches his message. The best summary of my doubts was recently penned here:

    He pledges to bring us together - yet has done nothing of the sort in his history. I was strongly considering voting for him, but find that now I can't.

  3. You said: "He pledges to bring us together – yet has done nothing of the sort in his history." Did you read the Obsidian Wings post I pointed to? If not, here it is again:

    Also, go read Larry's post over at ArchPundit, recounting Barack's efforts in Illinois to get a bill passed mandating videotaping of confessions. (It's here.) It's just one of many, many examples of Barack working hard to bridge a partisan divide to actually get important work done.

    But don't take my word for it. Take Republican State Senator Kirk Dillard's words for it regarding Barack's seven years in IL state government.

    You can say you don't like his policies, you can even say that he's not focused on the right priorities. But to claim that he's done nothing in his history to work collaboratively with Republicans is just not credible.

  4. Yes, I read the articles. In my opinion, there is a difference between overcoming opposition to get legislation through and tackling the truly partisan and subsequently quintessential issues of our time - namely health care, the economy, and social security where his plans and positions fall squarely in the liberal camp. Not that there is anything wrong with that per se, but he has had opportunities to show up as a bridge on major issues - and has not. Can we really expect that to change as President?

  5. The competitors in this race for President are constantly trying to highlight the experience they feel Obama does not possess. I guess it depends on how one defines experience. Are we talking about experience in drama, division and manipulation? Or are we talking about experience in true leadership ability? The ability to organize a team of brilliant minds, to know your areas of weakness and to be humble and wise enough to bring people on your team that are true assets are the qualities of a good leader. The excellent organization of his campaign sends a message to the people that he is a competent and experienced leader; the contributions that are being made to his campaign in record numbers sends a message to the people that he has the creativity to bring dollars into our economy; and the character he possesses sends a message that he is someone, we the people can trust to do what is right. Not that he is perfect, but he is sincere and real and a true inspiration equipped and capable of mobilizing a nation to help him make real change happen. I am glad to be a supporter of Barack Obama for President.