Obama: Is there substance behind the style?

Dear Barack Obama, said Sarah Miller in the Los Angeles Times. I

Dear Barack Obama, said Sarah Miller in the Los Angeles Times. I’ve been behind you from the beginning. I begged my fellow Californians to vote for you in the state primary. I’ve even sent you money—twice. But now I have a problem. Ever since you edged in front of Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination, people have been asking me to explain how your rousing speeches about “hope” and “change” would translate into actual policy. And I don’t know what to tell them. You haven’t said whether you would rebuild New Orleans, or how you would deal with the complexities of post-surge Iraq, or how you envision the U.S. role in the Mideast and Africa. Frankly, I’m starting to “wonder if I, too, should be more skeptical of your visionary-but-vague rhetoric.” You’re not alone, said David Ignatius in The Washington Post. Obama has now successfully made the case that he can uplift and inspire people like few politicians we’ve ever seen. What he owes us now is a “clearer picture of how he would govern—not in style but in substance.”

“I find this criticism bewildering,” said Andrew Sullivan in TheAtlantic.com. Obama has been as forthcoming about his plans for the nation as anyone else in the presidential field—if not more so. He’s put together specific policy positions on taxes, health-care reform, Iraq, Afghanistan, immigration, and climate change. But to some sloppy-thinking cynics, it seems that Obama’s gift for giving beautiful speeches about a brighter tomorrow is conclusive proof that he lacks a plan to get there. In Obama’s case, “the style is indivisible from the substance,” said Niall Stanage in The New York Observer. He’s offering a presidency in which he would use his rhetorical gifts “to persuade and co-opt” Republicans and independents in the pursuit of solving the nation’s problems; politics, he’s telling voters, need not be a synonym for war. Hillary Clinton says that as president, she would battle and beat the Enemy—that is, the GOP. This is what we really mean when we talk of differences in style, and “it’s anything but a minor matter.”

I’d like Obama better if he did lack substance, said Mona Charen in National Review Online. There’s no denying the man’s talent for oratory. But “when you get past the music and really focus on the lyrics,” you find a set of very concrete and very liberal policies that were discredited back in the disco era. In foreign affairs, for instance, Obama is offering to sit down and talk to Islamic fanatics; he seems determined to dust off the “‘diplomacy only’ style last employed to such great effect by Jimmy Carter.” Obama’s vision for the economy is no less dated, said Daniel Henninger in The Wall Street Journal, and no less scary. If you can “unhinge yourself from the mesmerizing rhetoric,” you’ll hear a bleak message of class warfare, higher taxes, and anti-corporate venom “that could have been delivered by a Democrat in 1968, or even 1928.”

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That’s why “the real questioning of Mr. Obama should begin now,” said The Economist in an editorial. The senator has indeed made some substantive policy proposals, in foreign affairs as well as domestic. But “a man who has never run a public body of any note is a risk, even if his campaign has been a model of discipline.” We need to know more about how his plans would actually be implemented: how he’d pay for them, for one thing, and how far he’d be willing to compromise on his grander schemes. Voters should demand answers to these questions now, “or all kinds of brutal disappointment could follow.”

People will be disappointed if they expect Obama to be a savior, said Michael Goodwin in the New York Daily News. But the very same skills that have made him “such a phenomenon in the first place” could also make him a very effective—even transformational—president. Barack Obama appears to have a very rare ability to inspire millions of people grown embittered and jaded by decades of divisive politics. His supporters are “young and old, black and white, Democrats, independents, and some Republicans,” and he excites them with a vision of a common purpose. If President Obama could use that excitement to break the partisan stalemates that have paralyzed Washington for so long, would anyone complain that his rhetoric was too inspirational?

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