Obama Discovers His Inner Wonk

by Jonathan Cohn | February 19, 2008

Those of you who have followed my primary night entries know that I've consistently urged Barack Obama to focus on substance in his speeches.

The early speeches, particularly the one he gave after Iowa, seemed to be all about building a movement. He said very little about what he'd do with that movement -- i.e., what kinds of changes he hoped the movement would help push into law. His rivals, meanwhile, pounded the issues and, for the most part, benefitted from that.

More recently, I thought, he got the balance just right. He kept the soaring oratory but managed to put a spotlight on policy, as well. You came away knowing that Obama was an inspiring candidate, somebody who believed that rallying people to his side -- including unlikely allies from across the aisle -- was the best way to enact an agenda. But you also knew what that agenda entailed: making health care and college affordable, ending the war in Iraq, fighting climate change, and so on.  Obama's speech last week, after the Potomac primary, was nearly perfect to my ears.

Tonight -- and he's not quite done talking as I write this, so I reserve the right to revise my remarks -- I think he may be getting a little too wonky, even by my standards. For the first time I can remember, his victory speech has included lengthy policy explanations. He went into great detail about his health care plan -- the kind of coverage it would provide, how much it would cost, the way it would improve medical care. He did the same for college tuition assistance, trade policy, and national security.

It wasn't a terrible speech by any means; I don't think Obama is actually capable of doing that. On his bad night, he still puts most other politicians to shame. And tonight's certainly had its moments. I was particularly struck by the story he told about the 20-year-old soldier killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

But this felt a lot more like those old Bill Clinton State of the Union speeches. Packed with policy ideas, they seemed to go on forever -- and lacked the thematics or sheer lyricism we've come to expect from Obama.

I wonder -- and, for the record, this is sheer speculation -- whether Obama and his advisors are trying to preempt the charge that he's not sufficiently substantive. It's a ridiculous charge: While he may not be as fluent in policy as Hillary Clinton is, that's an awfully high standard. Nobody in Washington may be as fluent in policy as her. Compared to the rest of Washington, though, Obama is still very serious and, as even a cursory look at his website would confirm, he's got plenty of detailed plans for the country should he become the president.   

Still, McCain is already picking up the charge of shallowness, warning tonight about "empty calls for change." And it seems I've seen some polls that suggest the argument may be resonating with some voters. (Naturally, I can't put my finger on them just this second.)

If so, tonight's speech makes perfect sense. And while I personally don't find it awe-inspiring as his recent work, I seem to recall that those old Clinton speeches were always a big hit with the voters. 

--Jonathan Cohn 

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