Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Obama: Style AND Substance

Skeptics are afraid that Obama is all style and no substance. This is understandable given Obama's effective style and the shallowness of political reporting, but it is not a fear grounded in reality.

Obama has the gift of style -- the ability to appeal to our deeper, primitive instincts rather than just to our intellects. We should not follow these instincts without examination -- Hitler was quite charismatic and sure knew how to work a crowd, as longtime correspondent Mark has frequently pointed out -- but it is equally foolish to overcompensate. Style and substance are not mutually exclusive.

In the age of the internet, those who argue that Obama is all style and no substance are simply lazy. A fourth grader should be able to do a Google search on "obama substance." An adult should be able to sift through the results to find the nuggets.

I did this research before I decided to support Obama. I found that not only does he have substance, but that his substance aligns with his rhetoric. Skeptics love to scoff at his message of "change," for example, but a quick investigation shows that it's not empty rhetoric.

Here is Obama on "change," in his South Carolina victory speech:
We are looking for more than just a change of party in the White House. We're looking to fundamentally change the status quo in Washington.

It's a status quo that extends beyond any particular party and right now that status quo is fighting back with everything it's got, with the same old tactics that divide and distract us from solving the problems people face, whether those problems are health care that folks can't afford or a mortgage they cannot pay.

The "change" he's referring to is about getting past the "same old tactics that divide and distract." Turning to Obama's substance, we can see that he really does represent such a change. Here's Hilzoy, in 2006:
His bills tend to have the following features: they are good and thoughtful bills that try to solve real problems; they are in general not terribly flashy; and they tend to focus on achieving solutions acceptable to all concerned, not by compromising on principle, but by genuinely trying to craft a solution that everyone can get behind.

His legislation is often proposed with Republican co-sponsorship, which brings me to another point: he is bipartisan in a good way. According to me, bad bipartisanship is the kind practiced by Joe Lieberman. Bad bipartisans are so eager to establish credentials for moderation and reasonableness that they go out of their way to criticize their (supposed) ideological allies and praise their (supposed) opponents. They also compromise on principle, and when their opponents don't reciprocate, they compromise some more, until over time their positions become indistinguishable from those on the other side.

This isn't what Obama does. Obama tries to find people, both Democrats and Republicans, who actually care about a particular issue enough to try to get the policy right, and then he works with them. This does not involve compromising on principle. It does, however, involve preferring getting legislation passed to having a spectacular battle. (This is especially true when one is in the minority party, especially in this Senate: the chances that Obama's bills will actually become law increase dramatically when he has Republican co-sponsors.)

Totally on point. Obama has actually done on a small scale what he's promising to do on the large one. Rather than capitulate like Lieberman and too many other Democrats or dig in and refuse to compromise like too many Republicans, Obama has demonstrated both a willingness and an ability to find common ground and move forward without divisiveness and distraction.

So "change" is the theme of Obama's campaign, and it's clearly working. But is that all he's about? I don't think so.

On the biggest substantive issue in recent memory -- the Iraq war -- he was right, when all the other major candidates were wrong. Here he is in 2002:
I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.

It was a hell of a speech, and delivered with great style. But the substance was not only present, but prescient. When Hillary and Edwards and all the Republicans were substantively wrong, he was right.

That's all I've got today, but I encourage you to do your own research.

Interested in his legislative history? Check out the rest of Hilzoy's post. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but here's a taste:
...I do follow legislation, at least on some issues, and I have been surprised by how often Senator Obama turns up, sponsoring or co-sponsoring really good legislation on some topic that isn't wildly sexy, but does matter. His bills tend to have the following features: they are good and thoughtful bills that try to solve real problems; they are in general not terribly flashy; and they tend to focus on achieving solutions acceptable to all concerned, not by compromising on principle, but by genuinely trying to craft a solution that everyone can get behind...

I can't remember another freshman Senator who so routinely pops up when I'm doing research on some non-sexy but important topic, and pops up because he has proposed something genuinely good.

Hilzoy brings specific examples of Obama's substance on non-proliferation, avian flu, medical malpractice, energy policy, Katrina, federal spending, CAFE standards, veterans' health care, voter intimidation, lobbying reform, and ethics oversight.

Or how about this column by Charles Peters in The Washington Post, which goes into some detail about Obama's accomplishments in the Illinois State Senate?

Want to know the details of his plans for the presidency?

Start with his website, which offers documents as detailed as any other candidate's at this stage in the game. You won't find the exact wording of bills he will support as president, but you will see some specifics. For example, on his page about fiscal matters, you will learn that he supports the reinstatement of PAYGO rules, reversing Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, slashing earmarks to "no more than 2001 levels," ensuring competitive bidding for federal contracts, ending wasteful spending, doing away with tax haven abuse, and closing special interest loopholes. You'll also see that Obama has already voted for the reinstatement of PAYGO several times, introduced and helped pass legislation to limit the abuse of no-bid contracts, and voted against raising the debt limit.

And that's just "fiscal." His issues page has 19 other categories.


G said...

Eh, just words :)

Lawyer-Wearing-Yarmulka said...

The guy's got basically a perfect liberal voting record. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But ff he really is all about bipartisanship why didn't he join the Gang of 14?

asher said...

Talk about white guilt.

I'm not worried, Louis Farakhan wouldn't endorce a candidate he didn't think would do a great job with foreign policy especially toward Israel.

However, JA,

The last time we had a politican who was such a great orator (and Obama is no better than your neighborhood Sunday morning preacher)who had such great communication skills, who connected with people on such a human level (albeit no one fainted in the front seats) and was accused of having no substance was this ex-actor, ex-governor named Ronald Regan...for whom the phrase the "teflon President" was coined.

B.O. is about as substantive as his voting "present" more times than not in the Illinois State Legislature, he avoiding any controversial vote in the Senate and his inability to get anything resembling a bill passed in his full 2 (two) years in the senate.

But like Republicans saw Ronald Regan as the second coming.....you can believe in Peter Pan as well.

asher said...

and one more thing...

When BO said he got down on his knees and heard the word of the Lord, and got religion from hearing the preaching of his beloved friend, confidant and adviser, you really didn't think it was a load?

I'm have truly never been prouder to be an American blogger than at this moment....oh..I misspoke

Comrade Kevin said...

I do not support Barack Obama out of white guilt in the least.

I am critical of any sort of politics that attempts to use victimization and marginalization to score political points and win sympathy.

I do not support those who vote for Obama simply because he's black OR Clinton because she's a woman.

And I am a foe of white guilt.

He is, however, the best qualified for the job and has the best sense of judgment.

If you will look beyond his rhetoric and truly analyze it and truly look at what he is saying and admittedly, a lot of is very cerebral and philosophical, you will understand the attraction.

To attach it somehow to white guilt is to miss the point altogether.

Jack said...

It is a stretch to try and claim that Obama has as much substance as you assign to him.

It is a stretch to say that he was right about the war and everyone else was wrong.

Samuelson has a good article about this.

Here is an excerpt

The subtext of Obama's campaign is that his own life narrative -- to become the first African American president, a huge milestone in the nation's journey from slavery -- can serve as a metaphor for other political stalemates. Great impasses can be broken with sufficient goodwill, intelligence and energy. "It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white," he says. Along with millions of others, I find this a powerful appeal.

But on inspection, the metaphor is a mirage. Repudiating racism is not a magic cure-all for the nation's ills. The task requires independent ideas, and Obama has few. If you examine his agenda, it is completely ordinary, highly partisan, not candid and mostly unresponsive to many pressing national problems.

By Obama's own moral standards, Obama fails. Americans "are tired of hearing promises made and 10-point plans proposed in the heat of a campaign only to have nothing change," he recently said. Shortly thereafter he outlined an economic plan of at least 12 points that, among other things, would:

• Provide a $1,000 tax cut for most two-earner families ($500 for singles).

• Create a $4,000 refundable tuition tax credit for every year of college.

• Expand the child-care tax credit for people earning less than $50,000 and "double spending on quality after-school programs."

• Enact an "energy plan" that would invest $150 billion in 10 years to create a "green energy sector."

Whatever one thinks of these ideas, they're standard goody-bag politics: something for everyone. They're so similar to many Clinton proposals that her campaign put out a news release accusing Obama of plagiarizing. With existing budget deficits and the costs of Obama's "universal health plan," the odds of enacting his full package are slim.

CyberKitten said...

Just a quick question: What on Earth is 'White guilt'? [looks confused]

What are we supposed to feel 'guilt' about exactly?

Jewish Atheist said...


Here's what I responded to someone who emailed me that article:

That's maybe the most dishonest (or ill-informed?) articles I've ever read in newsweek. For example, he says that Clinton accused him of plagiarizing his ideas from her -- but the plagiarizing claim was about a speech he gave using the same words as one of his close colleagues. Ridiculous. Then he just launches into a rant on Social Security, when he freely admits that Obama is no worse than the other two candidates. (And he's been bitching about this all through Clinton's and Bush's presidencies. Finally, his claim that Obama's message of change is belied by his stance on Social Security is just stupid. He might as well argue, "Obama says he's for change... but he doesn't even want to paint the White House purple! What a liar! He's not for change at all!"

(The column appeared in both Newsweek and the Washington Post, apparently.)

Jack said...

He is one of many people who continues to pick apart the lack of substance in Obama. The man sounds good. I like his positive attitude, it is very attractive, but it doesn't hide his nakedness.

It is really easy to say things people want to hear.

Stephen said...

I agree with the gist of your post, that Obama possess substance in addition to style. But there's another element of this argument that I haven't seen addressed anywhere.

In contrast to Obama, Hillary Clinton has detailed policy prescriptions on virtually any issue anyone asks her about. It's an impressive performance, but what it means in practice is this: Hillary would be completely inflexible if she became President. She has a plan, and she's going to butt heads with anyone who stands in the way of implementing her plan.

In my view, Obama isn't stuck on a particular way of achieving a particular result. He's going to hold onto his policy proposals loosely, while building a consensus among Democrats, independents, and Republicans — whatever coalition he can assemble to achieve his policy objectives.

The kind of pragmatic flexibility that Obama represents necessarily requires that you be relatively less prescriptive.

As you indicate, Obama has thought through the issues and come up with reasonable proposals. But he can't give you twelve bullet points per issue, like Hillary can, because that's not how he'll implement his proposals.