Sunday, February 10, 2008

Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia

Obama seems to have responded to warning bells that he was floating off on elevated campaign rhetoric like the Wizard of Oz in his balloon.

At the Virginia Jefferson-Jackson dinner, he led with a straight electability argument, tied to a more down-to-earth version of his change-our-politics argument, and followed by a laundry list of policy promises. None of it was new, but the proportions were changed. By word count, the policy section was approximately 40% of the speech, compared with slightly more than 10% on Super Tuesday. This speech was a business case for a candidate claiming he can win a broad mandate and use it to push through legislation less distorted by lobbying interests than any other.

Obama began by taking on the mantle of nominee presumptive, moving John McCain up from Exhibit B to Exhibit A of Honorable Policymaker Corrupted by Washington Politics. After the obligatory "good man" gesture, he hit him first on policy and then on process, i.e. flip-flopping for political gain:

Now, John McCain is a good man, an American hero, and we honor his half century of service to this nation. But in this campaign, he has made the decision to embrace the failed policies George Bush’s Washington.

He speaks of a hundred year war in Iraq and sees another on the horizon with Iran. He once opposed George Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest few who don’t need them and didn’t ask for them. He said they were too expensive and unwise. And he was absolutely right. [McCain has actually spoken of a 100 year troop presence in Iraq, along the lines of our presence in Japan and Korea, with whom we're not exactly at war, but never mind...]

But somewhere along the line, the wheels came off the Straight Talk Express because he now he supports the very same tax cuts he voted against. This is what happens when you spend too long in Washington. Politicians don’t say what they mean and they don’t mean what they say. And that is why in this election, our party cannot stand for business-as-usual in Washington. The Democratic Party must stand for change.

This time Hillary was Exhibit B of Politician Corrupted by Process -- the better to demonstrate that she was like McCain, or maybe a bit worse with regard to politics if not policy:

It’s a choice between debating John McCain about lobbying reform with a nominee who’s taken more money from lobbyists than he has, or doing it with a campaign that hasn’t taken a dime of their money because we’ve been funded by you – the American people.

That allowed a segue to the electability argument - brought home to the local audience:

And it’s a choice between taking on John McCain with Republicans and Independents already united against us, or running against him with a campaign that’s united Americans of all parties around a common purpose.

There is a reason why the last six polls in a row have shown that I’m the strongest candidate against John McCain. It’s because we’ve done better with Independents in almost every single contest we’ve had. It’s because we’ve won in more Red States and swing states that the next Democratic nominee needs to win in November.

Virginia Democrats know how important this is. That’s how Mark Warner won in this state. That’s how Tim Kaine won in this state. That’s how Jim Webb won in this state. And if I am your nominee, this is one Democrat who plans to campaign in Virginia and win in Virginia this fall.

While arguing electability would normally come across as politics-as-usual, Obama's casting his as hardheaded idealism. His appeal to independents and Republicans is not born of triangulation; his policy pronouncements are liberal straight down the line. That's the best argument for his straight-talk pitch: he's succeeding beyond his liberal base in spite of his policies, not because of them.

Next came the policy prescriptions, nicely salted with arguments as to why he'd be able to get them effected -- including past accomplishments (expanding health coverage and passing middle class tax cuts in Illinois), others' endorsements (Kennedy's statement of faith in his health care commitment), quick-draw contrast with Hillary (why mandates don't help), and promises to get things done in a timely matter (health plan passed in first term, yearly minimum wage hikes).

He ended with a deft two-step that syncs up two halves of his argument: that Democrats have the right policy prescriptions, but that Democrats have been almost as corrupted by political process (over some undetermined period of time) as Republicans have. His solution, he admits implicitly (and refreshingly), is as much a product of the historical moment as of his own abilities: because the electorate has swung left, Democrats can come out of their defensive crouch and advance an unabashedly liberal agenda. Dropping the defensiveness is itself a cure for "broken politics," first because it means being less beholden to polling, and second because reducing the power of lobbyists is a natural Democratic platform plank, since Democrats by creed defend the poor and middle class against the monied interests that wield the vast bulk of lobbying power.

Spelling all that out would make for dull speaking. Obama does it by emphasizing that 'this is our moment" and by reminding us that "hope" has been realized by Democratic leaders in other such moments:

This is our moment. This is our time for change. Our party – the Democratic Party – has always been at its best when we’ve led not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction; when we’ve called all Americans to a common purpose – a higher purpose.

We are the party of Jefferson, who wrote the words that we are still trying to heed – that all of us are created equal – that all of us deserve the chance to pursue our happiness.

We’re the party of Jackson, who took back the White House for the people of this country.

We’re the party of a man who overcame his own disability to tell us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself; who faced down fascism and liberated a continent from tyranny.

And we’re the party of a young President who asked what we could do for our country, and the challenged us to do it.

That is who we are. That is the Party that we need to be, and can be, if we cast off our doubts, and leave behind our fears, and choose the America that we know is possible. Because there is a moment in the life of every generation, if it is to make its mark on history, when its spirit has to come through, when it must choose the future over the past, when it must make its own change from the bottom up.

This is our moment. This is our message – the same message we had when we were up, and when we were down. The same message that we will carry all the way to the convention. And in seven months time we can realize this promise; we can claim this legacy; we can choose new leadership for America. Because there is nothing we cannot do if the American people decide it is time.

This time, Obama managed to make hope seem pragmatic.

Related posts:
Feb 10: Obama decries the 47% solution
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


  1. Nice post. I know a few people who are worried about the Wizard of Oz angle (I'm not one of them), so it's nice to know he's responding. Not surprising, though -- he seems to pay attention to everything in a remarkable way. I agree with your parenthetical note about McCain's position on Iraq...even Obama is guilty of misrepresenting the "100 years" statement.

  2. I was there. The place rocked. 6,000 Democrats screaming their heads off. You got it right Andrew.

  3. Obama's reference to each generation having an obligation, echoes agreat quote by Frantz Fanon, "Out of relative obscurity, each generation, must fulfill its historic mission or betray it." (The Wretched of the Earth) I wonder if Obama is knowingly echoing Fanon. Any candidate willingly referencing Frantz Fanon is a candidate worth voting for, in my book.

  4. Obama's timing throughout this entire campaign has been perfect: when/how to introduce himself, when to roll out policy proposals, when to sharpen the criticism, etc. Much like you and JMW, I've been anxiously waiting for him to get wonkish, but I'm starting to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    Virginia is a critical state this year, and Obama picked the perfect place and time to shift the ratio of his rhetoric. He might have brought the message down to earth, but I really think this could be the moment where his campaign gets wings.

    On McCain's Iraq position, Obama may indeed be misrepresenting it for the sake of Democratic voters, but he may also be saying something along the lines of, "a 100 year prescence = a 100 year war - there's no way around it; and that is what John McCain does not understand about the situation there."


    Hello from Europe:

    Hope all is well in the states. This is a blog entry you might find interesting.

    As a solid, I'll never vote for a Democrat no matter what, Republican, this Obama guy causes me to consider what I love about my country. We are the greatest country in the world. Liberty, human rights, and liberal values (historical liberal values - not the left wing U.S. derivative).

    Make no mistake about it - if the Dems are dumb enough to make Hillary and Bill the Democratic nominee for President, I will fly to Florida to vote in person in an election for the first time in my life. They will ensure that the hatred which currently pervades our politic will continue. They are SCUM.

    If the Dems do what I think they will do, which is nominate Obama, well...I'll send in my absentee ballot, same as always.

    I'll vote for McCain. No, he wasn't my first choice, but....

    No way I'm voting for Huckaby or some right wing, Christian nutjob. If the Republicans are dumb enough to nominate that yahoo from Arkansas, I'll just fill out the Florida slate and leave the national one vacant.

    Hell, I'll even understand if Favorite Daughter votes for a Democrat.

    However....and you knew there would be one....

    We have to win this war.It's a long one. Overwhelm the Islamofascists and their left wing allies (read - Archbishop of Canterbury); Iran and it's oncoming nukes; stand up to the Commies (Putin and his boys) and the Red Chinese (Olympics 2008 - Yea!). They are coming back in the Pacific and EurAsia. McCain will ensure we do what needs to be done.

    Yes, I know; healthcare, global warming; illegal immigrants; taxes; economy - all important, but....

    I'm not sure Obama the candidate is up to the challenge. Obama the President will have to be. Besides, NO Dem can afford to be seen as soft on the enemies of liberty and democracy. Remember that limpdick Carter? Maybe Obama has it. Maybe he doesn't it. The Dems have not had a leader with any courage since Kennedy/Truman/Roosevelt.

    Incidentally, for those of you who just want to attribute this to some Republican diatribe - let it be known that my favorite Presidents of the 20th Century are Truman and Roosevelt. 'Nuff said.

    The Dems have lost their way since Kennedy and Johnson. Can they ever regain it? I don't know.

    A lot to think about before November. Isn't democracy fun?

  6. On reading this blog, it strikes me that you're a good person advocating on behalf of a good candidate.

    I don't get a vote in the United States, but speaking as someone who is inevitably effected by whoever is elected in the world's greatest democracy..

    ..You're doing just fine. Keep it up.

  7. As a recent returnee to Seattle after three years in VA I read this with interest. Saw Obama here Friday and the content was similar - with plugs for WA politicians in place of Kaine and Warner. I sure hope you guys keep the momentum going for Obama. He really made his mark here with 20000 coming out to hear his speech and massive turnout at our neighborhood caucus yesterday. My precinct went 3-1 for Obama. Hope to see the same in the Commonwealth!

  8. JMW said...
    I agree with your parenthetical note about McCain's position on Iraq...even Obama is guilty of misrepresenting the "100 years" statement.

    Yes, us Obama supporters expect a strong conviction to truth and non-distortion of facts from our candidate. But Barack's characterization is nowhere near as bad as McCain's regarding Clinton's position on Iraq as being a desire to "wave the white flag of surrender" to al Qaeda.

  9. .Obama is inspiring for only the first 5 minutes of his speeches, my goodness, the more I hear , the more I get dizzy! the empty promises he makes is laughable!

    He is planning to give $4000 to each student , how is this different from Clinton's $5000 credit to each child born in America??

    I don't recognize the America that Obama is talking about. I am an immigrant and I see America where the more YOU put in the more you get out of it.

    Ayn Rand is probably turing in her grave listening to Obama's speeches...We will have the real Atlas Shrugged in America once Obama takes over and specially if Republicans lose more seats in Congress and Senate.


  10. loved your post. as a die-hard obama supporter, i am feeling really good right about now.

  11. "He is planning to give $4000 to each student , how is this different from Clinton's $5000 credit to each child born in America??"

    It's a tax credit. Basically, he's giving you a break on your taxes if you decide to go to college (which is really expensive). That doesn't sound so laughable to me.