Obama's Not-so-inspiring Rhetoric

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THE PLANK JUNE 29, 2007

Obama's Not-so-inspiring Rhetoric

Jonathan Cohn thinks that Obama distinguished himself in last night's Democratic primary debate as the one candidate who can appeal to African Americans and build a multi-racial political coalition. Jon makes some fair points, but I had a slightly different take on Obama's performance.

For my part, I thought Obama's tendency to talk in abstract terms about what "society" needs to do put him in an awkward position. The point of the evening was to prove to the black community that the Dems took them and their issues seriously, and Hillary Clinton and John Edwards's command of policy minutae did just that. Obama, by contrast, seemed to approach the evening as though, because of his race, he didn't need to prove to the audience that he took them seriously--he was one of them already. And he emphasized that point by talking in terms of "we" and "us," as in his answer to a question about the disproportionate number of blacks in jail:

[The criminal justice system] does not work for all people equally and that is why it's critical to have a president who sends a signal that we are going to have a system of justice that is not just us, but is everybody.

It certainly may be the case that Obama doesn't have to work to be accepted by blacks--the audience was clearly behind him from the start ("Obama!" one supporter shouted as the candidates took their positions onstage, and even moderator Tavis Smiley said at one point "I love you," before gently cutting him off).

To me, however, this strategy made it seem at points like Obama was dodging the questions. Sure, he seemed to say, I know as well as you what our problems are, so let's dispense with that and look at the bigger picture. But last night wasn't about the bigger picture. It wasn't about "social responsibility" writ large. It was about showing minorities that the candidates possessed concrete answers to the problems affecting them most. On this point, Obama didn't distinguish himself. The exception, I think, was his line about overcoming the stigma of HIV/AIDS, which Jon cites:

One of the things that we've got to overcome is a stigma that still exists in our communities. We don't talk about this. We don't talk about in the schools. Sometimes we don't talk about it in the churches. It has been an aspect of sometimes a homophobia, that we don't address this issue as clearly as it needs to be.

But whatever points Obama gets for that line should be undone by the exchange that followed moments later. When Joe Biden talked about overcoming the stigma of being tested for AIDS ("I got tested for AIDS. I know Barack got tested for AIDS. There's no shame in being tested for AIDS"), Obama interjected that he got tested with his wife:

Barack Obama: Tavis, I just got to make clear that I got tested with Michelle when we were in Kenya in Africa, so I don't want any confusion here about what's going on.
Joe Biden: Well, I got tested to save my life because I had a blood transfusion.
Barack Obama: I was tested with my wife.
Tavis Smiley: And I'm sure Michelle appreciates you clarifying that.
Barack Obama: In public.

So while he's all for combating homophobia within the African American community, it seems he also doesn't want anyone to get the impression that he's on the down-low.

--Alexander M. Belenky

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