Friday, August 29, 2008

Hitting the Big Shot

The most impressive speech of my lifetime was Barack Obama's speech on race relations delivered in Philadelphia. That speech was a virtuoso display of Obama's dialectical, agile mind, his ability to self-examine and empathize with others, to eloquently explain both the root of white resentment and black anger in what was, at heart, a put-out-the-fire political speech.

In the four years since he's been on the scene, Obama's delivered a number of terrific speeches -- perhaps all of the best speeches of the last four years. Obama's 2004 keynote address, a brilliantly constructed and delivered oratory that's a bit too utopian and gooey for my taste, is certainly one of the most memorable events in political rhetoric of recent years. I'd personally rank the Jefferson-Jackson Iowa address, which relaunched his candidacy and provided the bones of his primary stump speech (including the "a nation at war, a planet in peril..." formulation), the New Hampshire "concession" speech (with the famous "Yes We Can" passage), the South Carolina victory speech, and the Selma anniversary address right up there among Obama's best addresses.

Last night's nomination acceptance speech didn't soar as high. As rhetoric, it was fairly prosaic and disjointed, with long streches of laundry-list prescriptions and responses to trivial campaign memes. Substantively, he made promises that no one can meet and offered proposals and goals that gave off a whiff of yucky paleoliberalism. (This insightful article from the New York Times shows that Obama is actually a very sophisticated economic thinker, seeking to find that right balance between U. of Chicago thinking, Rubinomics, and Robert Reich-human investment liberalism. Thankfully, he also understands that discussions of "moral hazard" or "cap-and-trade" won't win him too many votes.)

But I loved it. I loved it more than any of the more eloquent speeches. I loved it especially because Obama took the wood to McCain and bashed him in the very area that McCain is perceived by voters as strong, but is actually the main reason why McCain should never be president: McCain is a far-right neocon on foreign policy whose instinct is to rattle sabres in response to any and every foreign threat. McCain is too dangerous to lead. Voters don't understand foreign policy, we all know, and typically will gravitate towards "wrong and strong" rather than "weak and right." But Obama never sounded weak as he argued forcefully to reclaim liberal internationalism but talked tough on Afghanistan and al Quida. With Biden on board, Obama can re-fight the stupid skirmish that flared up earlier in the campaign, when Obama expressed that he would take out Bin Laden in Pakistan with or without Pakistan's permission. McCain, then, was talking about getting a hall pass from Musharref.

Politically and substantively, the right political formulation for a Democrat is to argue for "diplomacy and international cooperation" generally, get out of Iraq "responsibly", but take a hard line on Bin Laden himself. Force McCain to be hawkish on Iraq and make him move to the right and look like a unilateralist.

Obama doesn't have to win the political argument. And he probably can't, given that a lot of people simply will trust a war-hero Republican over a young black Democrat on national security no matter what positions they take. But Obama just needs to make up some ground -- make sure he sounds confident and appears to be a credible commander-in-chief. And he should if he continues to speak confidently and offensively about foreign policy. One thing I loved about the Joe Biden pick is that he exudes confidence on national security. He treated idiotic hawks like Rudy Giuliani with the disdain they deserve. Even if voters don't understand foreign policy issues, a lot of folks can sense which side is confident and which side isn't. By signaling that he won't be in a defensive crouch on national security, Obama won't make the mistake of looking like the typical backtracking Democrat who won't fight for what he believes in. That's the real weakness people sense.

More generally, his speech showed an aggressiveness and messaging savvy that seemed lacking in the last couple weeks. Slamming McCain every which way: that was the change I needed.