Campaign Crawlers

Inspired, But Not Inspirational

Barack Obama's greatest asset, and his greatest defect, is his ability to speak.

By 2.18.08

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When Barack Obama was pelted for cribbing some language from a speech given by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, it was a blessing for the Clinton campaign. They had been working for some time to get the charge to stick, that Obama is a great salesman without an inventory. It's not important whether he "stole" the line, "borrowed" it with permission, or happens to have a good ear. The Clintons wanted the press to stop gushing about how the man looked (stylistically and, gasp, racially). They wanted them to listen up. And what timing -- on the eve of the primaries, Barack Obama was taking flack for doing the one thing he does well. Speaking.

This followed a more general assault in the press over the past week. Obama-rama was (finally) going through the meat-grinder. For the first time in the mainstream press, Obama was being accused of being a cult of personality, a charismatic candidate with no substance. The "cult-like" nature of his followers was no longer "electrifying," but rather eerie. But reporters were confronted with a problem when attempting to describe the inexperience of a candidate -- that "nothing" is kind of hard to talk about.

Worse, Obama's words now have him flip-flopping on an issue about integrity -- something that's not hard to hold as an advantage over Hillary Clinton. Having promised to take public-funds for his campaign should his Republican opponent do the same, McCain's willingness to call his bluff has left him in a lurch. As an excuse, the Washington Post noted that "The candidate's advisers said yesterday that his pledge came before anyone realized how explosive his fundraising effort would become." Of course it did -- even Obama didn't expect to be crowned Jesus Christ, Redeemer of Politics. But the crown he received has its thorns.

THE BIGGEST thorn is not Hillary Clinton, but John McCain. It was an unexpected twist. At the end of the Bush administration, weren't the Democrats supposed to have this down? Their candidate was supposed to be, well, the Messiah, come to bury the failures of the Republicans' supposedly false one. It didn't happen. Instead, they're arguing about which candidate is the least likely to get buried. With the nomination for the Republican Party decided, the Democratic contest is eclipsed by McCain. McCain who was always a maverick. McCain who has his own cult of personality, but also war experience, foreign policy expertise, and, most important, time to gather his base. This was never supposed to happen.

Which is why Obama's campaign is so fascinating to watch as it unravels. Even if he doesn't admit it, he has taken huge hits. His personality, and the integrity that seems so engrained in it, is open to debate. While he has lived up to his promise of running a clean campaign, it seems just as much politically expedient as it does seem honorable. And his campaign contribution flap has placed serious doubt in whether he is a man of his word anyway. And Obama's use of funds to effectively bribe super-delegates is hardly reassuring when considering the "new" politics about which he's so excited.

Additionally, his speeches are now being derided as empty. A stumped reader writes in to WaPo:

...The Cult of Obama is one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen. When I hear things like "We are the ones we have been waiting for" and "We are the change we seek," I want to scream.

And David Brooks picks up that thread, asking with laser-point accuracy, "If we are the change we have been waiting for then why have we been waiting since we've been here all along?"

Hasn't every politician promised "Change" and "Hope"? Hasn't every politician used rhetoric that sounded Biblical, with varying degrees of success? How has Obama gone for so long without being called out as an articulate cliche? In an alternative universe in which there was never a Hillary Clinton, how would Obama be framed without the greatest threat of the 21st Century: the baby boomers?

IT'S HARD TO BLAME the Clintons (a rarity, in fact). As a political adolescence goes, Obama's rite of passage (his 2004 Democratic convention speech) was certainly awash with silver spoons. CNN correspondent Candy Crowley even exclaimed in her interview following a speech, "You're a star!" But the speech he gave, even then, was a clever misappropriation of conservative rhetoric to liberal ends. He described the plight of his parents who had to work hard to get where they were, which perked up ears. Then he went on to outline a philosophy that would ensure that no one else would ever have to work that hard again.

Hillary couldn't do a thing without being heavily scrutinized. Even her "inevitability" was always a bit of a slam. She finds herself now playing John Kerry to Obama's Howard Dean -- not the nominee that everyone wants, but the one they may have to settle for once the Obama bubble bursts. That is, if Obama ever has his "scream" moment, or his "tank" moment. But it is hard to believe that "Just Words" (the speech he supposedly stole) could be the turning point, considering it was still a moment of eloquence, even if borrowed.

That eloquence, though, is overstated. Barack Obama is not a good speaker. He can read speeches better than George W. Bush -- but that is a very low bar. As he continually refuses Hillary's demands that he debate her (as here), he is being rightly accused of a problem he has: an inability to engage, an inability to speak on issues. Hillary Clinton is defined by her willingness to engage. Her husband is a reminder of how bad that willingness can be.

Liberals may be tired of that willingness right now, in the midst of the Democratic primaries. However, when Democrats see Barack Obama standing at a podium, not across from a sympathetic audience chanting "Si se puede," but across from John McCain, they will wonder whether it was wise to simply hope for a good candidate.

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About the Author

J.P. Freire is a writer in Washington and a former editor at the Washington Examiner and The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jpfreire.