6. Does Obama have a problem with "policy specifics"? Yes and no...
This critique has always bothered me. The fact is, most voters are moved by speeches about broad themes and values, not policy wonkery. And I find it highly suspicious that everyone makes this complaint about Obama, while no one says it about McCain, even though McCain is even more vague than Obama on policy. But...
a) Hearing Bill Clinton's convention speech, where he mentioned actual statistics and explained how they matter to ordinary people's lives, made me think: it is possible to have the best of both worlds. Obama is just not operating at the Bill Clinton level when it comes to communicating policy. Of course, very few people are at Bill Clinton's level -- but Obama has been billed as the next Clinton. And given the Democrats' history with presidential elections over the past few decades, Bill Clinton would be a pretty good person to emulate.
b) While saying "His policies are on his website!" is appropriate as a response to anyone who suggests that he truly hasn't offered specific proposals ... it's not very satisfying. If he really cares about those policies, he should be devoting real effort and political capital to trying to convince people of their merit instead of just passively hosting them on the web.
Also, he obviously didn't sit down and write that stuff from scratch and hit the "post" button; he found some smart, knowledgeable person to do it for him. Nothing wrong with that! That's true of every candidate. But it would be more useful if we could see him actually explain and defend these policies in an extemporaneous setting (or as close as you can get, given the scripted nature of campaigns).
Many Democrats are (rightly) skeptical of whether Bush, McCain, or Palin genuinely understands and believes in their own official economic policies. Voters are entitled to be equally skeptical of Obama.
c) Campaigns aren't fair -- that's life. Even if you don't agree with the narrative that "Obama is inspiring but too vague," as long as that idea is out there, it's Obama's burden to proactively convince voters otherwise.
He actually tried to do that in February while campaigning in Wisconsin ... but the result just wasn't very interesting! I watched one of his "specific policy" speeches, and the only thing I remember from it is that he wants to give college students a few-thousand-dollar tuition credit in exchange for community service. If I'm understanding it correctly, he's basically saying he'll offer a bunch of low-level government jobs specific to college students. That may be a perfectly fine thing to do, but it's not the kind of idea that's likely to sway anyone's vote. Yet it was the climactic moment of his whole policy speech.
d) A couple of his most distinctive policies -- that is, ideas specific to him rather than simply reflecting the consensus of mainstream Washington Democrats -- are notably bad ideas:
- Requiring 50 hours a year of public service from middle and high school students as a condition of federal funding for schools. I think my mom had the right call on this:
[C]hildren are already forced to work when they are sent to school. School is work. Respect that work. Let them know that it is work, and it's their job. And when they are done, let them play. Let them have their free time. Don't appropriate any more of their time. How dare you!
- The faith-based initiative. Why put so much emphasis on a reheated leftover from Bush's 2000 campaign? Admittedly, this is an example of actually backing up his bipartisan rhetoric with policy specifics ... but if that's what Obama's bipartisan approach is really like, then I can do without Obama's bipartisan approach! (To be clear: I admire religious organizations for doing good works, but I don't want my tax dollars favoring the religious over the secular.) He claims the program will fund only "secular programs" and not "proselytizing" ... but money is fungible: give a church more money for their charitable works, and you're indirectly giving them more money for everything else they do.
7. As much as I hate to admit it, there's a lot of truth to the "He's all about speeches, not ideas" critique.
This is similar to #6, but broader. In other words, even beyond policy, what has he ever said about anything that's so exciting or original?
This is another point I've been resisting for months and months, but I couldn't deny the basic truth that Robert Wright -- another skeptical Obama supporter -- hit on here (transcript of key point followed by video clip):
If you are a great orator ... and you don't use your skills to surprise people or stake out a position that's a little risky and really do the work of convincing people that that's the right position -- if you take your great oratorical skills and just keep repeating "I'm a uniter, not a divider," plus several boilerplate predictions that are totally poll-driven -- you look like an empty suit!
(end of quote -- back to me...) It's getting clearer and clearer that what has gotten him so much attention and adoration despite his inexperience is not his ideas or policies or even his life story. It's two things: he's black, and he can give a great speech. If you took those two things away, it'd be inconceivable that he'd be chosen over Biden, Richardson, or Dodd, let alone Hillary Clinton. I'm not complaining about the focus on his race -- I think it's really important to have the first black president. And I'm glad he gives a great speech. But look, fellow Obama supporters: that's not really enough, is it, considering the crisis America is in right now?
Many commenters on my previous post complained that if I'm going to make all these anti-Obama points, I shouldn't turn around and vote for him. Well, there's a difference between whether to vote for him, and whether the excitement surrounding him has been justified. None of the points I'm making in this list convince me to vote for McCain instead of Obama. But at the same time, I think it's worth pointing out that it's really hard to see the justification for the unprecedented level of excitement around the guy -- which I myself participated in.
8. His take on race has been disappointing.
I largely agreed with the praise showered on his race speech. But it was pointlessly overshadowed by the famous passage in which he criticized his own grandmother for fearing black men on the street -- the implication being: even basically decent people have some racism in their hearts.
The problem is: whether or not you think Jesse Jackson and others are racist to feel relieved if the person towards them down a dark street turns out to be white, the fact is that many Americans do feel this way and don't consider themselves racist, anymore than they'd consider it sexist to feel relieved upon seeing that the person walking towards them turns out to be a woman. It's fine with me if Obama privately thinks otherwise, but that doesn't make it a productive thing for him to say when he's running for president.
Of course, the fact that he later tried to clarify that part of the speech by explaining that his grandmother was being a "typical white person" only compounded the problem.
Another example: when he was asked at a debate whether he, as the son of a Kenyan immigrant, has had to deal with the problems facing most black Americans, he jocosely mentioned "trying to catch a cab," then pointedly cut himself off as if to say to the audience: Now, doesn't that just about say it all? Of course, this got enormous applause. First of all, if that's one of the worst problems facing blacks in America, given our racial history, then we should all be overjoyed. Second, this image conjures up an affluent man standing around in NYC, waiting for a driver who -- let's face it -- is quite likely a minority and/or an immigrant trying to make ends meet. That's not exactly a crystal-clear symbol of everyday black people being thwarted by The Man.
UPDATE: Concluded here.