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.