On October 7, 2002, in Cincinnati, Ohio, George W. Bush delivered the defining speech of his Presidency. In the face of “clear evidence of peril” from a regime harboring terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, he declared, “we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”
Five days earlier, a forty-one-year-old Illinois state legislator had given a momentous speech of his own, although few recognized it as such at the time. “I don’t oppose all wars,” Barack Obama told a few hundred Chicago protesters, adding:
I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush discovered a big idea for his Presidency. He would bring down a tyrant, crush terrorism, and impose democracy and peace on what his regent, Vice-President Dick Cheney, called “freedom-loving peoples of the region.” As the world now knows, that idea was based on faulty intelligence reports and executed with a fatal disregard of political reality in the Middle East and at home. By the time of the 2008 Presidential campaign, Bush’s approval rating had shrunk from sixty-seven per cent to thirty-seven per cent, the Republican Party was coming apart, and Obama’s 2002 speech had proved a precondition for an astounding climb to victory this month as the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for President.
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Still, sixteen months after announcing his candidacy, and after twenty-six Presidential debates and thousands of public-speaking engagements, Obama remains a puzzle to many voters. Almost as dedicated a policy wonk as Hillary Clinton and arguably more centrist in his economic beliefs, he offers plenty of specifics about what needs to be done. But his captivating eloquence and his slogan—“Change We Can Believe In”—have seemed to lift him dangerously high above the concrete. He has proved his steadiness of purpose without clearly defining his priorities. What, above all, does he intend to accomplish if he is elected President?
Obama is said to have been dissatisfied with the slogan. If so, he has a point. The “change” he advocates can be understood as a pragmatic correction to the radical policies and the ineptitude of the Bush brigade. His political departure is a kind of return. He has written two unusually revealing books—one describing how he came to be who he is, the other delineating how he proposes to reclaim the qualities that once made America so admired. He argues that the United States must relearn the fundamental lessons of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and its own long journey toward a more perfect union, and then apply them to the global upheavals of the twenty-first century.
In his books, Obama emerges not as the personification of cool projected onto him by his young adherents—or as the disdainful élitist suggested by his offhand remark about a “bitter” working class—but as something of a square: someone who doesn’t have to strain to talk about “values,” God, and family. His eerily objective self-analysis is matched by his lawyerly ability to see things from the perspective of those on the other side. In January, after Obama uttered a few words of praise for Ronald Reagan in an interview with newspaper editors, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards rushed to condemn his apostasy. But he meant what he said. In 2006, in “The Audacity of Hope,” he had written, “Reagan spoke to America’s longing for order, our need to believe that we are not simply subject to blind, impersonal forces but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies, so long as we rediscover the traditional virtues of hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility, optimism, and faith.”
The general consistency of Obama’s policy views—with an occasional bald deviation, as on the public funding of his campaign—is a contrast to John McCain’s erratic shape-shifting. McCain opposed the Bush tax cuts as skewed toward the rich, and unsustainable; now he wants to extend them forever. He co-sponsored a relatively humane immigration bill; now he disowns it. He deplored the torture of detainees at Guantánamo; now he attacks the Supreme Court’s decision granting them the constitutional right to challenge in federal court their continued detention as “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”
Over the years, Obama has carefully calibrated his political message, and he has won a grudging respect among some conservatives. In The New Republic, Bruce Bartlett, a Treasury official in the Reagan and Bush père Administrations, writes that “Obamacons”—libertarians, disillusioned neoconservatives, even a few supply-siders—have been pushed “into Obama’s arms.” In The American Conservative, Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of international relations and history at Boston University, complains, “To believe that President John McCain will reduce the scope and intrusiveness of federal authority, cut the imperial presidency down to size, and put the government on a pay-as-you-go basis is to succumb to a great delusion.”
Obama promises to tell voters what they need to know and not what they want to know. It’s a risky strategy, and one he doesn’t always follow, but when he put it into effect in April, by attacking McCain’s proposed summer gasoline-tax holiday, he helped his campaign more than he hurt it. Last week, he denounced McCain’s latest reversal, on offshore drilling. But he needs to go further. A year ago, he likened “the tyranny of oil” to that of Fascism and Communism, saying, “The very resource that has fueled our way of life over the last hundred years now threatens to destroy it if our generation does not act now and act boldly.” This is the kind of unequivocal message that Obama needs to develop. By telling just such inconvenient truths, Al Gore has inspired a worldwide movement to arrest climate change. The next President could be its most powerful leader. Obama will not rouse voters by getting lost in a tussle with McCain over the virtues of cellulosic ethanol. He can, however, make voters part of the solution by helping them understand that the greedy oil companies, the failing auto industry, and the craven Congress will not redeem themselves until consumers demand that they do so by making some inconvenient changes of their own. A little more audacity will yield a lot more hope.