The only thing about the launch of Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy that wasn’t meticulously stage managed was the weather. Outside the old statehouse in downtown Springfield, it was sunny but the thermometer hovered in the teens and even the thousands of hearty Illinois Democrats who had shown up for the “historic event” were shivering uncontrollably by the time the senator arrived with a standard-issue opening line about how, despite the cold, “I’m fired up.”
Obama’s announcement, which had been anticipated since he announced last month that he would be announcing this month, had all the spontaneity of a Bill O’Reilly rant about “San Francisco values.” There was the predictable U2 music, the predictable Lincoln reference – “a house divided…” – and the predictable “hand-lettered” signs promising to “Barack the Vote!” Leaving no cliché unuttered, Obama reminded the crowd that his was not a campaign but “a journey.”
And a long one it shall be.
The frustrating thing about Barack Obama’s “improbable quest” is that very little about it seems improbable. This campaign began as exactly what it is: a calculated grab the Democratic nomination by an appealing young senator who is risking very little in the hope of achieving very much.
Obama did deliver a fine populist line addressing his relative inexperience: “Now listen, I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness — a certain audacity — to this announcement. I know I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.”
But even that soliloquy was woven with the point of getting in a mention of his best-selling book, The Audacity of Hope.
With the exception of the weather that accompanied it, nothing about Barack Obama’s announcement was particularly invigorating.
That’s not to say that the senator’s launch was inept.
If anything, it was too ept, too well plotted, too reflective of the high-powered consultants who are managing one of the more interesting men ever to seek the presidency into the narrow confines occupied by every man who has ever sought the presidency.
Of course, Obama went through the motions with finesse. This is not some bumbling Biden we’re talking about.
The junior senator from Illinois began by reviewing the challenges facing the country, as must any presidential candidate who is not an incumbent seeking reelection.
“All of us know what those challenges are today — a war with no end, a dependence on oil that threatens our future, schools where too many children aren’t learning, and families struggling paycheck to paycheck despite working as hard as they can,” Obama said. “We know the challenges. We’ve heard them. We’ve talked about them for years.”
And he talked about them some more on Saturday morning.
Obama was at his most effective in Springfield – as he was two and a half years ago while delivering the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston – when he scored the Bush administration, and by gentle extension the so-called Democratic “opposition,” of recent years.
“For the last six years we’ve been told that our mounting debts don’t matter, we’ve been told that the anxiety Americans feel about rising health care costs and stagnant wages are an illusion, we’ve been told that climate change is a hoax, we’ve been told that tough talk and an ill-conceived war can replace diplomacy, and strategy, and foresight. And when all else fails, when Katrina happened, or the death toll in Iraq mounts, we’ve been told that our crises are somebody else’s fault. We’re distracted from our real failures, and told to blame the other party, or gay people, or immigrants,” the senator boomed. “And as people have looked away in disillusionment and frustration, we know what’s filled the void. The cynics, the lobbyists, the special interests who’ve turned our government into a game only they can afford to play. They write the checks and you get stuck with the bills, they get the access while you get to write a letter, they think they own this government, but we’re here today to take it back. The time for that kind of politics is over. It is through. It’s time to turn the page right here and right now.”
But did Obama offer much of a change?
Not from a policy standpoint. His pronouncements, such as they were, sounded like Democratic regifting.
“Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age.” O.K., but the rhetoric was fresher when Al Gore was peddling it in 1999.
“Let’s set high standards for our schools and give them the resources they need to succeed. Let’s recruit a new army of teachers, and give them better pay and more support in exchange for more accountability.” Didn’t Bill Clinton say that in 1991?
“Let’s be the generation that ends poverty in America.” Er, John Edwards.
And so it went.
Obama said most of the right things. And he did so with the rhetorical flourishes that distinguish him from most of the other runners in a crowded Democratic field.
But the cautious candidate broke little in the way of new ground, pushed few limits and took no risks with his announcement. He wants the troops home from Iraq by next March, but is he willing to use the power of the purse to make it happen? He wants health care for all by the end of his first presidential term, but is he talking single-payer? He wants to end poverty, but does that mean the United States is going to start redistributing wealth down to those who lack it — as opposed to the current upward trajectory? Of are we looking at another one of those “rising-tide-raises-all-boats” scenario?
There is no question that Obama is charismatic.
The size of the crowd in Springfield was no fluke. His “rock-star” campaign will draw the largest and most enthusiastic audiences throughout this campaign.
But Obama has to offer the people more than an acknowledgement of what ails the nation that, with a few tinkers, could be delivered by any number of moderate Republicans.
If Barack Obama’s campaign is going to cause the nation to shake off its slumber “and usher in a new birth of freedom on this earth,” as the senator promised on Saturday, this candidate must give America more than repackaged rhetoric and another U2 song. America does not need a new generation of careful politicians mounting predictable campaign. America needs a rock star who is ready to play a new song.
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