Cheat-Seeking Missles

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Obama's Speech: Soaring Rhetoric, Sorely Missing Substance

I've got some problems with Barack Obama's candidacy speech, but let's dispense with the obvious first: This man is ... articulate. For his audience, it was a good speech, well constructed and sufficiently tone-setting to launch a serious campaign.

Of course, I'm going to focus on the weaknesses, but it would be unfair not to give an example of how well it was written. Here, then, is his close:

As Lincoln organized the forces arrayed against slavery, he was heard to say: "Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought to battle through."

That is our purpose here today.

That's why I'm in this race.

Not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation.

I want to win that next battle - for justice and opportunity.

I want to win that next battle - for better schools, and better jobs, and health care for all.

I want us to take up the unfinished business of perfecting our union, and building a better America.

And if you will join me in this improbable quest, if you feel destiny calling, and see as I see, a future of endless possibility stretching before us; if you sense, as I sense, that the time is now to shake off our slumber, and slough off our fear, and make good on the debt we owe past and future generations, then I'm ready to take up the cause, and march with you, and work with you. Together, starting today, let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth.

I like that he called his quest improbable; I like the rhythm and the broader view of the campaign: "I want to win the next battle." It's much better than Hil's "I'm in and I'm in to win." Obama's drawn himself to the people, while Hil tried to draw the people to her. He made his primary theme about them; she made it about her.

Obama dodged a lot in this speech, perhaps most significantly his childhood, some of it spent overseas in Islamic countries, at an Islamic school. I thought he was going to get into it when he said at the outset, "But let me tell you how I came to be here." Unfortunately, he apparently was born a young man, not a baby:
As most of you know, I am not a native of this great state. I moved to Illinois over two decades ago. I was a young man then, just a year out of college; I knew no one in Chicago, was without money or family connections.
Obama is going to have to begin talking about his childhood and finding the context with which to deal with his highly unusual roots, or they will trail him throughout the campaign. He won't be alone: Hil talks as if she was raised by a steel mill worker and a school teacher; she refuses to deal with her Republican roots.

Like all Dems, Obama talked tough on terror:

Most of all, let's be the generation that never forgets what happened on that September day and confront the terrorists with everything we've got. Politics doesn't have to divide us on this anymore - we can work together to keep our country safe. I've worked with Republican Senator Dick Lugar to pass a law that will secure and destroy some of the world's deadliest, unguarded weapons. We can work together to track terrorists down with a stronger military, we can tighten the net around their finances, and we can improve our intelligence capabilities. But let us also understand that ultimate victory against our enemies will come only by rebuilding our alliances and exporting those ideals that bring hope and opportunity to millions around the globe.

But also like all Dems, he proved that talk is talk and action is action. He's all for a powerful military and strong intelligence, he's just against actually using them:

But [victory against our enemies] cannot come to pass until we bring an end to this war in Iraq. Most of you know I opposed this war from the start. I thought it was a tragic mistake. Today we grieve for the families who have lost loved ones, the hearts that have been broken, and the young lives that could have been. America, it's time to start bringing our troops home. It's time to admit that no amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreement that lies at the heart of someone else's civil war. That's why I have a plan that will bring our combat troops home by March of 2008. Letting the Iraqis know that we will not be there forever is our last, best hope to pressure the Sunni and Shia to come to the table and find peace.

If, as Obama feels, it's time to admit failure in Iraq (yes, he puts it "time to admit that no amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreement," but it means admitting failure), he'd better come up with a plan for dealing with that failure. To steal the thunder of his closing rhetoric:

Do you want to lose the battle for a secure oil zone?

Do you want to lose the battle that's holding back bloodshed of an unfathomable scale, should Sunnis and Shia really go at each other?

Do you want to lose the battle that could bring down Islamic dictatorships around the world and replace them with free democracies?

Do you want to lose the battle that's keeping the terrorists over there instead of over here?

Those are not battles Obama mentioned in his campaign speech. Rhetorically, the speech was better without them, but these questions must be addressed by all candidates, because where they stand on the war in Iraq doesn't matter nearly as much as where they stand on our future.

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