Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Mighty Wind? Rachman Blasts Obama's Rhetoric

Golly gosh, Gideon! The Financial Times' Gideon Rachman, one of the most acute and fact-based columnists writing in English today, has charged that Obama the Orator is an emperor wearing no clothes:
his most famous phrases are vacuous. The "audacity of hope"? It would be genuinely audacious to run for the White House on a platform of despair. Promising hope is simply good sense. "The fierce urgency of now"? It is hard to see what Mr Obama means when he says this - other than that some inner voice has told him to run for president. [snip]

...his campaign is relying on some of the most clich├ęd and least challenging slogans in the American political lexicon: unity not division; the future not the past; change not stagnation; an end to "business as usual"; lobbyists are bad, the people are good. Or as the man himself puts it: "We are choosing hope over fear. We're choosing unity over division, and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.
Respect for Rachman sent me back to Obama's speeches. I've concluded that I'm not deluded, and that Rachman has missed the gist of Obama's grist.

Leave aside that for better or worse, Obama's been packing his speeches with policy prescriptions since floating off on the ozone a bit on Super Tuesday (see Janesville WI and Virginia). More broadly, Rachman cuts Obama's exhortations out of context and ignores his intricate diagnosis of the "now" that demands such 'fierce urgency.'

That diagnosis operates on the level of both policy and politics, or dare I say metapolitics. It wraps a straightforward liberal agenda in a bid for a new consensus and a reformed political process. Obama's not left of center, but he's making a subtle but quite open pitch to move the center left.

At the heart of Obama's pitch is Democrats' 'what's the matter with Kansas?' wonderment, a conviction that Americans have been voting against their core interests - economically, as income inequality widens and risk shifts to individuals; internationally, as we groan under the burden of Bush's jump-with-both-feet imperialism; and constitutionally, as we sign away our civil liberties (and abuse those of our captives) in the name of security.Obama has defined the damage on all these fronts forcefully and concretely.

Obama's response to this frustration (on the economic front at least) grows out his life project, the first half of which is recounted out in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father. The drama at the heart of the book is Obama's rejection of identity politics and black militancy in favor of learning the slow, patient labor of organizing--helping disadvantaged people identify what they need most and helping them work the political system to get it.

That early work shaped Obama's political style, which is to avoid demonizing the opposition -- and co-opt enough of it to build a 'working majority.' The keynotes of his rhetoric - yes, we can; the audacity of hope; the fierce urgency of now; we are the change we've been seeking -- express his invitation to all of us to join this working majority.

In this regard, Obama's controversial acknowledgment of Reagan's legitimacy as a 'transformational' leader is crucial. Reagan, Obama said, "put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating." In effect, Obama is saying, the country was right to swing right in 1980 -- and it's ready to swing left now." But he doesn't call it 'left' -- he casts his economic agenda as necessary to restoring "balance" and "fairness." Edwards emphasized the present divide between two Americas; Obama, noting the same ills, keeps his focus on past, future and ideal:
But through hard times and good, great challenge and great change, the promise of Janesville has been the promise of America - that our prosperity can and must be the tide that lifts every boat; that we rise or fall as one nation; that our economy is strongest when our middle-class grows and opportunity is spread as widely as possible. And when it's not - when opportunity is uneven or unequal - it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States.
Obama's policies, as he often points out, reflect what is right now a virtual consensus Democratic agenda. His metapolitics is a critique of process: "we need to do more than turn the page on the failed Bush-Cheney policies; we have to turn the page on the politics that helped make those policies possible." That means cutting lobbyist influence; acknowledging that the opposition occasionally has an idea in its head; calling out Rovian campaign tactics and avoiding them himself (an ideal he hasn't always lived up to). His cure is part legislative fix of the process (lobbying and campaign reform) and part personal example. Obama uses his electoral success to date to argue explicitly that he can build a working majority for Democrats. He's used the Clintons' nastier attacks to argue that Bill failed and Hillary will fail to build a working majority for Democrats because of their long-established "truthiness" problems.

There's nothing vapid about this package. The policy agenda is explicit, the process diagnosis is detailed, and the pitch to build a working majority is indeed built on the urgency of this moment -- a moment in which, as David Frum recently pointed out in Rachman's FT, a generation of young voters is emerging that's likely to be voting against Bush into the 2060s.

At the heart of Obama's case that he can build a working majority is the evidence of the moment:
And we are showing America what change looks like. From the snows of Iowa to the sunshine of South Carolina, we have built a movement of young and old; rich and poor; black and white; Latino, Asian and Native American. We've reached Americans of all political stripes who are more interested in turning the page than turning up the heat on our opponents. That's how Democrats will win in November and build a majority in Congress. Not by nominating a candidate who will unite the other party against us, but by choosing one who can unite this country around a movement for change.
Many sense that unity being forged as he speaks. He strikes chords across the political spectrum (see the reaction to his speeches on foxnews.com) . And he's hiding nothing in a very detailed policy agenda.

Related posts:
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

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