Details, Details; in the Next Two Months, Barack Obama Will Embark on a Quest to Prove That He's Got as Much Substance as Style

By Wolffe, Richard | Newsweek, May 7, 2007 | Go to article overview

Details, Details; in the Next Two Months, Barack Obama Will Embark on a Quest to Prove That He's Got as Much Substance as Style


Wolffe, Richard, Newsweek


Byline: Richard Wolffe

Barack Obama is a man of grace. With his eloquent language and compelling life story, he has crafted two best-selling books and can deliver campaign rhetoric with deftness. At town-hall meetings, he looks pensive as he carefully answers voters' questions, like the law lecturer he used to be. He sweeps his hand across the stage when he sounds expansive, and jabs a finger when he's critical of President George W. Bush. Even his clothes on the campaign trail suggest a seriously cool character, with his trademark black suit and white shirt unbuttoned at the neck.

But beyond his charm and magnetic personality, what is the substance of the Obama campaign? In another era, his rivals might have asked, "Where's the beef?" John Edwards--the candidate Obama pushed into third place in the polls--is more specific, suggesting that Obama's fine words are no substitute for his missing health-care policy. "We have a responsibility, if you want to be president of the United States, to tell the American people what it is you want to do," Edwards said at last week's presidential debate in South Carolina. "Rhetoric isn't enough. Highfalutin language is not enough."

Obama isn't about to surrender the highfalutin ground of "hope" and "change." But he's aware that as a first-term senator with a relatively thin resume, he's particularly vulnerable to such charges. He can draw crowds and he's proved that he can raise money on a par with the Clinton machine. Now that the debate season is starting, however, Obama needs to move beyond those metrics. Voters will soon tire (if they haven't already) of candidates who repeat sound bites. But Obama, armed with degrees from Columbia and Harvard, is nothing if not a smart guy. So he's preparing to deliver a half dozen detailed policy proposals in the next two months, on education, the economy and--finally--health care.

Obama's aides, who didn't want to be identified discussing campaign strategy, say the health-care policy has been worked over for several weeks. The bar is high for Obama, not least because Edwards spelled out his universal health-care plan two months ago. Yet there is also an element of political caution. Opponents can use--or distort--detailed policy positions to mislead voters or caricature a candidate.

Obama's policy director, Mark Alexander, knows this all too well. His resume looks much like Obama's: Alexander is a graduate of Yale Law School and law professor at Seton Hall, and he is part of a new generation of African-American political stars. (He is also close to Cory Booker, the recently elected Newark, N.J., mayor.) But, unlike Obama, Alexander bears the scars of a previous presidential campaign. In 1999 he was issues director for former senator Bill Bradley, as the former NBA star mounted an insurgent challenge to Al Gore. After several months on a listening tour, Bradley offered up a detailed, $65 billion plan for universal health care. Within weeks, Gore revived his lackluster campaign by eviscerating Bradley's plan as impractical and irresponsible. "I think that was definitely one of the reasons for the vice president's ultimate success in the primaries," says Alexander. "It was effective campaigning, but ultimately it wasn't helpful [to the country]." Now Alexander's challenge is to offer up enough details to be credible, but not too many to make Obama vulnerable. …

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