If you want to know why Barack Obama sometimes comes across as a candidate who doesn't like to talk about policy details, look no further than his speech on economic competitiveness yesterday. It's got a lot of details, but like Obama's other more detail-oriented speeches, it lacks the awesome rhetorical flair of the candidate's great speeches.
That said, as a policy speech it's pretty awesome, one of the best efforts to chart a truly progressive, forward-looking approach to the big picture questions that I've seen from a practical politician. Rather than a world in which we try to whether economic storms by slashing taxes and cutting services to the bone, or by sealing our borders to trade and immigration, Obama is outlining a vision in which government plays a crucial positive role in providing human capital (i.e., education), physical infrastructure, basic R&D, and in putting our energy policy on a sustainable basis.
This is the clearest example I've seen of Obama as education reformer, talking about universal preschool and investing more resources in the most challenging classrooms, but also noting that "resources alone won't create the schools that we need to help our children succeed" and we "need to encourage innovation – by adopting curricula and the school calendar to the needs of the 21st century; by updating the schools of education that produce most of our teachers; by welcoming charter schools within the public schools system, and streamlining the certification process for engineers or businesspeople who want to shift careers and teach."
On energy and infrastructure there aren't really any ideas that he hasn't advanced previously in the campaign, but the National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank concept gets a more substantial pitch than I'd heard since the day it was first mooted. Then come the criticisms of McCain and at the end some more lyrical moments:
We have a choice. We can continue the Bush status quo – as Senator McCain wants to do – and we will become a country in which few reap the benefits of the global economy, while a growing number work harder for less and depend upon an overburdened public sector. An America in which we run up deficits and expose ourselves to the whims of oil-rich dictators while the opportunities for our children and grandchildren shrink. That is one course we could take.
Or, we can rise together. If we choose to change, just imagine what we can do. The great manufacturers of the 20th century can turn out cars that run on renewable energy in the 21st. Biotechnology labs can find new cures; new rail lines and roadways can connect our communities; goods made here in Michigan can be exported around the world. Our children can get a world-class education, and their dreams of tomorrow can eclipse even our greatest hopes of today.
I pick the second one!