Starting Gate: Bubblegum Pop?

It's a given that Barack Obama's speech in Berlin yesterday was much more about the images projected back home than the words he spoke. The Democratic candidate painted with a broad brush and spoke in sweeping terms but spoke about unity, not the very real issues that divide people.

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.

Around The Track

  • Aides to John McCain tell the Washington Post that the Republican is in a position to make his vice presidential pick soon and indicate that it will happen before the Olympics, which kick off on August 8th.
  • The Secret Service has requested an extra $9.5 million dollars to "cover unexpected costs of protecting the presidential candidates", reports the AP. "Among other things, the extra money would be used for the added costs for the candidates' international travel and a late-in-the-game decision by Barack Obama to accept the Democratic nomination at Denver's Invesco Field at Mile High - an open-air, 76,000-seat stadium."
  • Barack Obama tells People magazine in the upcoming issue that he and his wife Michelle give no Christmas or birthday presents to their two daughters. "Malia says, 'I know there is a Santa because there's no way you'd buy me all that stuff,'" says Michelle.
  • "My opponent, of course, is traveling in Europe, and tomorrow his tour takes him to France. In a scene Lance would recognize, a throng of adoring fans awaits Sen. Obama in Paris – and that's just the American press." – John McCain, on the campaign trail in Ohio last night.