Senator Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president today at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, where, symbolically, Abraham Lincoln once declared that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
I was moved, as I always am, by his soaring words, his intelligence, his integrity, and his eloquence. But aside from reinforcing in me that Obama is someone I want to and think I can believe in, the speech also reinforced for me that I need substance. Beyond the sweeping rhetoric, Obama’s speech left me feeling flat.
Unfortunately, Obama’s campaign seems to eschew the substance in favor of vague notions of hope and generational responsibility. Those are powerful notions, but I can’t think of a presidential candidate in recent history who hasn’t invoked them. Even worse is that Obama explicitly suggests that people who want to hear plans and specifics somehow “don’t believe in talking about hope“:
“There are those who don’t believe in talking about hope,” Obama told the crowd. “They say, ‘Well, we want specifics, we want details, and we want white papers, and we want plans.’ We’ve had a lot of plans, Democrats. What we’ve had is a shortage of hope.”
Honestly, this kind of rhetoric can start to sound a little Bushy. How can you even engage in a debate with a man who tells you that offering an argument is a sign that you’re not hopeful enough? I don’t get it.
And yet “talking about hope” seems to be his entire campaign theme so far. A recent article in the Post describes a campaign that is attempting to not be “identical to everyone else’s” and to exemplify his “next-generation message.” So, apparently, the “next generation” of politicians are those who speak so vaguely that their campaign messages could basically be my horoscope reading for February. “You will find yourself feeling more hopeful in February as a result of the speech of a major candidate for the 2008 presidential election.”
“If he tries to run a traditional campaign — that is run, staffed, managed and operated in a traditional way — he is playing to his opponents’ strengths, both in terms of going head-to-head where they’re going to be really strong, but also in terms of undermining a good chunk of his message,” said Chris Lehane, a former spokesman for Al Gore who is not currently on the payroll of any presidential campaign.
Basically, what “if he tries to run a traditional campaign … he is playing to his opponents’ strengths” means is that he’s going to lose. The article notes that Clinton has been building her campaign infrastructure for over ten years. Ten years, folks. And I kinda like her.
It remains to be seen how the kind of nontraditional campaign Lehane envisions would work in a round-the-clock news environment. Would Obama decline to respond to attacks? Or to skewer his rivals? Or to answer activists’ questionnaires? Or to give detailed answers about his views on policy? … For now, the answer is yes.
“I think he is very focused on the fact that he doesn’t want to lose his essential self in this process, and if he does — and if what he projects and delivers is just more of the kind of politics people have become accustomed to — it would be a disappointment to him, and to them,” Axelrod [his chief media strategist] said.
I think this kind of thinking is dangerous. Unless Obama can rhetorically box his opponents up and ship them away, there will be naysayers. We still have an entire primary campaign ahead of us — and it’s got traditions. Can you imagine this kind of rhetoric in a debate?
The man screams integrity. And yet, when his rhetoric comes down to discussing specifically the challenges we face, he just feels generic. In the interests of full disclosure, I have in fact donated to his campaign. But I donated because of what I feel could be, not because of what I think the likely disappointments will be.
Dig the Logo
Obama’s campaign may be completely fluffy at this point, but they’re doing the fluff really well. Look at the logo. While it retains the red-white-and-blue, it’s clearly different. It’s an “O,” Oprah style, but it’s also a sun rising over a landscape. It’s a powerful symbol and, well, something that clearly looks good on t-shirts.