My Obama Problem (But Maybe Not Yours)

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Now that Sarah Palin has demonstrated that she can speak fluently on the biggest stage of her life - one hurdle down, a lot more to go! - I thought I'd turn back to Obama's speech for a moment. Here's Isaac Chotiner, echoing Jon Cohn's comment that "the agenda Obama laid out tonight is bolder than anything Democrats have seriously proposed since the 1960s":

Indeed. I was (not unpleasantly) surprised by the boldness of Obama's proposals and the degree to which his campaign--and Democrats more generally--feel that they are free to move sharply to the left on economic issues and the role of government. As the speech wore on, Obama talked more about personal responsibility, but his fundamental message on the necessary role of the state in providing for its citizens struck me as remarkably bold, and rhetorically distinct from the Clinton years...

...Which leads me to a related point: I imagine this speech was frusturating for conservatives. All of Obama's moves to the center were symbolic, while the policies he actually outlined were decidedly liberal.

Yep, that's about right. In a related vein, Rod Dreher does yeoman's work comparing lines and phrases and paragraphs in Obama's speech to Gore's 2000 address and Kerry's '04 acceptance speech - and finds, as I more or less expected, that the nuts and bolts of last night's address were roughly the same kind of Democratic talking points that we've heard many times before.

Now that's not a huge surprise - he was addressing the Democratic Convention, obviously - and it may not be a bad thing politically. This is, after all, the most favorable political climate that Democrats and liberals have enjoyed in years if not decades - and yet Barack Obama is currently running behind the generic Democrat on the ballot. Given that reality, why shouldn't he present himself as an acceptable Dem, as a Gore or a Kerry with bigger plan and more charisma, rather than trying to play the post-partisan, national-unity candidate and run the risk of being unable to even consolidate his own base? If the public wants to vote for a generic Democrat, there's definitely a case to be made for just being a generic Democrat - especially when your biggest liability is your perceived exoticism and celebrity status.

But from where I sit, to the right of the political center, Obama the generic Democrat is a big disappointment. He started this campaign with two promises: That he'd tell us what we needed to hear, rather than what we wanted to heart, and that he wouldn't be captive to the old left-right divide in American politics. But there were no tough choices presented in last night's speech, no hard truths told. There was just the promise that we can have it all: Energy independence (within ten years, no less!), universal health care, an army of new teachers, tax cuts for the middle class, the working class, and the upper-middle class, zero capital gains taxes on small business owners, a perpetually solvent safety net, plus a dose of protectionism - and all of it paid for by (unspecified) spending cuts, and tax hikes on just five percent of America. Meanwhile, the speech's concessions to conservatism were largely pro forma - an acknowledgment that fathers matter, that programs can't solve every problem, and that government "can't turn off the television and make a child do her homework" - and its proposals for common ground (reduce unwanted pregnancies, keep AK-47s out of the hands of gang members, etc.) were equally thin.

Again, if you're a liberal, none of this is going to sour you on Obama's speech, or on the candidate: Why should he concede anything to the Right, you might say, given the disasters of Bushism, and given that the political wind is finally blowing liberalism's way? Which is fair enough. But for those who aren't liberals, but who have been drawn, in varying ways, to Obama's transformational promise anyway, his claim to stand for "new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time" looks a lot more hollow today than it did a year ago.

Photo by Flickr user NewsHour used under a Creative Commons license.