Saturday, February 16, 2008

OBAMA: The shallowness below the soaring rhetoric


The conventional critique of Sen. Obama has held that his pitch is perfect but at some point he'll need to make the appeal more concrete. I think the potential vulnerability runs deeper. Strip away the new coat of paint from the Obama message and what you find is not only familiar. It's a downer. Up to now, the force of Sen. Obama's physical presentation has so dazzled audiences that it has been hard to focus on precisely what he is saying. "Yes, we can! Yes, we can!" Can what? Listen closely to that Tuesday night Wisconsin speech. Unhinge yourself from the mesmerizing voice. What one hears is a message that is largely negative, illustrated with anecdotes of unremitting bleakness. Heavy with class warfare, it is a speech that could have been delivered by a Democrat in 1968, or even 1928. Here is the edited version, stripped of the flying surfboard:

"Our road will not be easy . . . the cynics. . . where lobbyists write check after check and Exxon turns record profits . . . That's what happens when lobbyists set the agenda. . . It's a game where trade deals like Nafta ship jobs overseas and force parents to compete with their teenagers to work for minimum wage at Wal-Mart . . . It's a game . . . CEO bonuses . . . while another mother goes without health care for her sick child . . . We can't keep driving a wider and wider gap between the few who are rich and the rest who struggle to keep pace . . . even if they're not rich . . ."

Here's his America: "lies awake at night wondering how he's going to pay the bills . . . she works the night shift after a full day of college and still can't afford health care for a sister who's ill . . . the senior I met who lost his pension when the company he gave his life to went bankrupt . . . the teacher who works at Dunkin' Donuts after school just to make ends meet . . . I was not born into money or status . . . I've fought to bring jobs to the jobless in the shadow of a shuttered steel plant . . . to make sure people weren't denied their rights because of what they looked like or where they came from . . . Now we carry our message to farms and factories."

It ends: "We can cast off our doubts and fears and cynicism because our dream will not be deferred; our future will not be denied; and our time for change has come."

I am not saying all of this is false. But it is a depressing message to ride all the way to the White House. Presumably this is a preview of what he intends to run with against John McCain, who was mentioned several times. (Straw in the wind: This audience cheered when he called Sen. McCain an American hero.) Presidential elections now are settled by about 30% of the electorate that occupies the independent center. In late December, Gallup released a poll in which 84% of respondents said they were satisfied with their own lives. At some point in the next 10 months, people will have to square Sen. Obama's Grapes of Wrath message with the reality of their lives...

Right after the Wisconsin speech, TV broadcast another -- by victorious John McCain. The contrast with Sen. Obama's is stark. The arc of the McCain speech is upward, positive. Pointedly, he says we are not history's "victims." Barack relentlessly pushes victimology.

For Sen. Obama the military and national security is a world of catastrophe welded to Iraq and filled with maimed soldiers. Mr. McCain locates these same difficult subjects inside the whole of American military achievement. It nets out as a more positive message. Recall that Ronald Reagan's signature optimism, when it first appeared, was laughed at by political pros. Optimism won elections.

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