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Required Reading

4:10 PM, Jul 28, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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1) From the Horse Race Blog, "On Obama's Message" by Jay Cost

The always cogent Cost does a magnificent job laying out Barack Obama's meta-narrative:

Obama's organization is built around a faulty, occasionally absurd meta-narrative.

A meta-narrative is just a campaign's central message, the core claim that connects all of the campaign's assertions. It communicates the candidate's diagnosis of the country and his prescription for the future. Bill Clinton had a great one in 1992: generational change can invigorate a tired government and grow a sagging economy. Clinton's outfit consistently reinforced this narrative. From the campaign theme, to the selection of Al Gore as running mate, to "It's the economy, stupid" - it made sure people knew his core claim.

Obama's narrative should be similar to Clinton's. It's tailor-made for a year like this and a man like Obama. But that is not the Obama campaign's message. Its message seems to be: this great man will unify a divided America around himself…

Early in his candidacy, Obama's narrative was very different. He was a candidate mobilizing the public in a social movement for the sake of the common good. This was a good message - but because of his campaign's grandiose rhetoric and imagery, it has been displaced. Obama no longer seems like the humble mobilizer, working to unite people around the common good. Instead, he often seems like the goal of the mobilization itself.

You'll have to read the whole thing, but I especially want to salute Cost for making the perspicacious comparison between Clinton and Obama. Like Obama, Clinton in '92 hit the change thing hard. But Barbara Jordan was able to ask repeatedly at the Democratic National Convention that year in regards to all the change talk, "From what to what?" because Clinton, bless his heart, never skimped on the specifics. In 1992, Clinton had so many multi-point plans that many of us played a parlor game at home called "Guess the Acronym" that tried to figure out what acronym he used to remember all of his boring talking points. Later, as president, Clinton became the master of the two hour State of the Union address. The SOTUs had to be so long because Clinton larded them with minutiae ranging from how long he would require a woman to stay in the hospital after giving birth to the particulars of his midnight basketball program.

The Obama campaign rolls differently, obviously figuring specifics are boring and so last millennium. On the rare occasions when Obama tries to put some flesh on his Hope/Change skeleton, the specifics are so vague as to be essentially meaningless. For instance, Obama assures us that in an Obama administration, all seniors will henceforth retire with dignity. I guess from a policy perspective this has something to do with social security, but specifically what it has to do with social security is unknowable. All of Obama's big promises - from "provid(ing)care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless" to "slowing the rise of the oceans and healing the planet" - are maddeningly devoid of specific policy implications. Indeed, Obama's entire agenda is more a wish list than a plan for action.

I know I may be coming across as a frustrated conservative in talking this way, angry that Obama has so far managed to pull one over on the electorate. But those aren't my feelings at all. Barack Obama is the most ideologically agnostic candidate for president we've had since George H. W. Bush. Bush 41 thought he should be at the center of things because of his personal skill set. Obama feels the same way. Many people consider Obama a far left liberal. While he may tend to the liberal side of things just as Bush 41 tended to the conservative side of things, he subscribes to no consistent political orthodoxy.

So what kind of policies will we get in an Obama administrations? As we've seen with his serial vacillations on Iraq, even he doesn't know. And he won't be hemmed in by a series of onerous campaign promises. Campaign promises like pledging to "heal the sick" leave a lot of wiggle room.

2) From the New York Times, "Be Afraid, Please" by William Kristol