During the primary campaign, Hillary Clinton complained that Obama's candidacy was built on "just words" and ignored the reality of politics. That theme is picked up again today by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who writes of Obama's style: "He has grown accustomed to putting on this sort of saccharine show for the rock concert masses, and in Berlin his act jumped the shark. … Obama has benefited from a week of good images. But substantively, optimism without reality isn't eloquence. It's just Disney."
Politics and elections are about differences, contrasts and competing visions. By very definition, they are about winning the argument on the issues that divide voters, leaving about half of the electorate against the eventual winner (in most cases). So far, Obama has largely transcended those differences by avoiding becoming bogged down in them (with the exception of Iraq and foreign policy, perhaps).
But the contrasts will become clear in the coming weeks as both parties lay out their visions at their party conventions, at the debates and through the advertising onslaught to come. Whether it's taxes, energy policy or health care, there will be differences.
When Clinton scoffed at Obama's "just words" style, he reached into the nation's history to fire back. "Don't tell me words don't matter," he said. "'I have a dream.' Just words? 'We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.' Just words? 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' Just words? Just speeches?"
Of course, the Civil Rights era, the great depression and America's fight for independence stand as defining moments. But they were also accompanied by tumultuous divisions, sacrifice and outright ideological warfare and violence.
Obama has gone out of his way to avoid confrontation. He's aggressively courted every constituency, even the evangelicals who make up one of the most loyal bases of the Republican Party. But at some point, his positions and the issues will cause deep divisions that even the best oratory can't paper over. And at some point, Obama may need to put some detailed substance into his speeches or else risk them turning into bubblegum pop hits that sound catchy but fade quickly.
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