The Magazine

The Wit & Wisdom of Barack Obama

Some of it may sound familiar.

Mar 24, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 27 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Timelessness may be the key here: You begin to wonder, listening to Obama's rhetoric, whether anything has changed in 20 years. "This is a defining moment in our history," Obama likes to say; but that's what Elizabeth Dole said when her husband ran for president in 1996. (They're both wrong.) In 1992, Bill Clinton was complaining that "Washington" was a place "people came to just to score political points." Eight years later Bush was complaining that "Washington is obsessed with scoring political points, not solving problems." Now, in 2008, "Washington has become a place," Obama says, "where politicians spend too much time trying to score political points."

What's to be done about all this Washington point-scoring? Bob Dole's solution, 12 years ago, was to strongly favor "the things that lift this country up instead of dragging it down"; today Obama opposes "the politics where we tear each other down instead of lifting this country up." Because Howard Dean failed in his promise in 2004--"we're going to take this country back"--Obama revives the pledge, word for word, today. But like Gerald Ford, running against Jimmy Carter in 1976, he believes "we can disagree without being disagreeable."

Onward they plod, these old warhorse phrases, until Obama climbs to the climax of his stump speech. Head bowed, brow furrowed, eyes flashing, he announces that we "will choose unity over division [Jesse Jackson, 1992]. We will choose hope over fear [Bill Clinton and John Kerry, 2004]. And we will choose the future over the past [Al Gore, 1992]." In so doing, we will overcome our "moral deficit [Bush, 2000; Gore, 2000; Newt Gingrich,1994]" by "bringing people beyond the divisions of race and class [Clinton 1992]" because the "story of our country [Ross Perot, 1992]" or the "genius of our country [Bush 2000]" or the "wonder of our country [George H.W. Bush, 1988]" is, as Obama says in 2008, "ordinary people doing extraordinary things [Perot, Bush, Bush, and Ronald Reagan, 1984]."

Talk like this is the elevator music of politics, soothing and inoffensive and unavoidable. Obama has had the unbelievable luck to attract listeners who seem to think he's minted it fresh. Indeed, among his opponents, the most common criticism of Obama's speeches is not that they are hackneyed but that they are short on detail--details of policy in particular. This isn't completely true; a few proposals can always be picked out from the texts, like seeds from a clump of cotton. In nearly every speech I've read, Obama mentions withdrawing troops from Iraq, raising marginal tax rates on "all the wealthy people," dropping poor old people from the tax rolls, and giving every college student $4,000 a year in return for a pledge of community service. He always mentions eliminating tax subsidies that encourage U.S. companies to build plants overseas, while offering tax subsidies to companies that don't do that. How each of these would work as a practical policy is left to his audience's imagination--could you really have a federal program that gives money to every company that stays where it is?--but there's nothing new about that, either: People don't come to a rally to hear a candidate read a white paper from the Brookings Institution, unless they work at the Brookings Institution.

The truth is that Obama's speeches are full of engaging detail--just not policy detail. With his first book, the memoir Dreams from My Father, Obama proved he was a literary man of great skill, and he knows that the details that catch the attention are personal. So in his best speeches he offers quick, arresting portraits of individual Americans he has met in his travels. Taken together they help him execute a rhetorical pivot that only the greatest populist politicians--FDR in the 1930s, Reagan in 1980--have been able to pull off. You could call it optimistic despair. The overarching theme of Obama's speeches, and of his campaign, is that America is a fetid sewer whose most glorious days lie just ahead, thanks to the endless ranks of pathetic losers who make it a beacon of hope to all mankind.

Here's a partial list of the people that Obama has met lately. All of them are unhappy, and no wonder: Ashley, who grew up eating mustard sandwiches because her mother contracted cancer, lost her job, went bankrupt, and lost her health insurance; the "girl who goes to the crumbling school in Dillon"; "the mother who can't get Medicaid to cover all the needs of her sick child"; a New Hampshire woman who "hasn't been able to breathe since her nephew left for Iraq"; "the teacher who works another shift at Dunkin Donuts after school just to make ends meet"; a young woman in Cedar Rapids "who works the night shift after a full day of college and still can't afford health care for a sister who's ill"; "the Maytag worker who is now competing with his own teenager for a $7 an hour job at Wal-Mart." And beyond these dim, huddled figures lies the American landscape, unbearably bleak: "shuttered factories," "crumbling schools," "a planet in peril."

It's not exactly Walt Whitman. But Obama wants us to know that the picture he paints with his pointillist precision is comprehensive: He's leaving nothing out. He drives the point home when he concludes his litanies of despair by saying: "I have seen what America is." In this sense Obama truly is the unity candidate. There is no white America or black America, as he says; no blue states or red states, in his famous formulation, but only the United States of America. And what unites all these people--what unites us--is our shared status as victims.

Unfortunately, this raises the question of who the victimizer is. It's an uncomfortable question for a candidate who, having drawn such a depressing picture, wants to pivot toward the positive and upbeat and hopeful. Suddenly Obama's gift for the identifying detail leaves him. With unaccustomed vagueness he refers to "lobbyists" and "overpaid CEOs" but never names them. It's a world without human villains, improbably enough. Who are the agents of this despair? By whose hand has the country been brought so low? Whoever they are, they vanish in the fog of sentences like this: "We are up against decades of bitter partisanship that cause politicians to demonize their opponents instead of coming together to make college affordable or energy cleaner." So not even politicians in power are responsible; it's decades of bitter partisanship that has forced them into demonization, and the demonization has in turn prevented them from getting things done.

This is a murky place. Cause and effect are blurred. Bad things happen though nobody does them. Instead we face disembodied entities, ghostly apparitions. "Make no mistake about what we're up against," he will announce, with what sounds, for a moment, like clarity; but then he goes on to say what we're up against: "the belief that it's okay for lobbyists to dominate our government"; "the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as president comes from longevity in Washington"; "forces that feed the habits that prevent us from being who we are"; "the idea that it's acceptable to do anything to win an election."

Some agents of despair these turn out to be! A belief, a way of thinking, an idea, forces that feed habits, and decades of partisanship. He won't even bring himself to blame Republicans.

Why does Obama choose to conjure up these disembodied spirits as the obstacles to "change"? There are a couple of explanations. One possibility is that he won't credit actual, nameable persons with holding these beliefs because no actual person does hold these beliefs. Imagine a candidate whose platform said: Vote for me and I'll guarantee that "our government is dominated by lobbyists." Who's on record saying that it's okay to do anything to win an election? And it's hard to find anyone who subscribes to the "conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as president comes from longevity in Washington." Four of our last five presidents have been governors who never worked a day in Washington. And look where that got us.

But this is not the best explanation for why Obama won't specify his opponents. He is partisan enough to believe, and certainly many of his supporters believe, that some villainous figure--Karl Rove, I suppose--does believe these things. But if Obama named anybody, the cat would be out of the bag. It would at last be plain that his politics of unity, his politics of "addition not subtraction," is simply another way of recasting the old "politics of us versus them" that he says he disdains.

Leave aside the disembodied forces; forget the beliefs and ideas that no one really holds. Somebody somewhere has to be preventing Obama's kind of health care reform, and sending kids to underfunded schools, and shipping jobs overseas to increase profits, and standing in the way of medical research, and downplaying climate change out of skepticism or general orneriness. Put them all together and it's likely to come to a fairly high number of people: stockholders, employees, and managers of globalized companies; insurance claim adjusters, guys on oil rigs, hog farmers, pro-lifers, moms in SUVs, taxpayers who decline to float bonds for local schools, voters who pulled the lever for President Bush and are still kindly disposed toward him. People who make red states red and blue states purple. Lots and lots of people.

If Obama made this explicit, if in his speeches he dared to wrap bodies around those disembodied forces, if he began to trace effects back to the agents that cause them, then his campaign would suddenly appear to be what it is: a conventional alignment of political interests, trying to seize power from another conventional alignment of political interests--just one more version of a tussle that's gone on since the country's founding. His fans, it turns out, aren't the people they've been waiting for; they're just the same old people, like everybody else.

Of course, they're drawn to his campaign precisely because they refuse to believe that this is so. Maybe Obama refuses to believe it too. He seems to be a sincere man, as I say. But he's also a very smart one.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.