For all the misty eyes, it is becoming commonplace to allege that he is somehow ‘lacking in substance’, too heavily dependent upon such vague notions as ‘hope’ and ‘unity’. ~Venetia Thompson
This has become commonplace because in his major addresses and his stump speeches, at least until very recently, he has been heavily dependent upon such vague notions of hope and unity and has not provided much in the way of content. He also leaned heavily on his biography for a long time. Yes, he gives policy speeches, and the people who know about those speeches’ content at all well can be numbered in the tens of thousands, not the millions. Obama admirers complain that the media have done a poor job reporting on Obama’s policy views, not realising that this probably does him a huge favour.
Close observers have been remarking for months that Obama is most inspiring and most effective as a candidate when he steers clear of details and specifics and fares less well in debate formats where these are necessary, which is probably why his campaign has smartly steered clear of details and specifics as much as possible. He is, after all, currently defeating Ms. Wonk, so whatever he has been doing before now has worked, at least with the Democratic electorate. Besides, the reality or even just the perception of a “lack of substance” and a well-regarded personality will take you far in American electoral politics (see McCain, John). Incidentally, this is probably what bothers many conservatives the most about McCain–his detailed policy knowledge is quite poor, but he likes to strike media-friendly poses and so becomes a prominent co-sponsor of high-profile legislation of which most journalists approve.
In one respect, this is very good news for Obama. The knock that he “lacks substance” can easily be overcome, because it is both false and easily disproven. The criticism that most of his
supporters fans know next to nothing about his policy agenda is more effective, because it is both true and easily demonstrated by talking to Obama fans at random. The larger problem comes when allegedly sympathetic pundits persuade voters to look past their first favourable impressions of Obama and see what policies he proposes, which is when the substance that these supposed friends of Obama want to emphasise becomes the weight that sinks his campaign. My guess is that he isn’t going to lose because he, Othello-like, inspires resentment or jealousy among white men (Thompson’s article is just bizarre in its treatment of the entire question), but that he will lose, as I expect he will, when it becomes clear that his domestic proposals are very expensive, his foreign policy is risky and once his voting record becomes the subject of some real scrutiny for a change. Having just spent the last seven years rolling snake eyes at the craps table of government with the Bush administration, the public is ultimately not going to “roll the dice,” as a certain former President put it, on someone who is even less experienced in an executive role and management than Bush was in 2000.
When I have declared that Obama will probably lose to McCain, in contradiction of all available polling, I have received responses asking for some justification for this wacky view. Below is my speculaton on what will happen.
Obama is as intellectual as Bush is not, and this will be, to the endless frustration of academics and journalists everywhere, a liability with the general public. It is ridiculous, really, but voters repeatedly opt for bonhomie over intelligence. (McCain should be glad about this, since he has never been accused of an excess of the latter.) Plus, perception of aloofness, an aloofness that Obama seems to have and seems to cultivate, is the ruin of presidential candidates. Where Clinton played the wonk against Obama, he will be necessarily thrust into the role of wonk when faced with McCain, whose obliviousness to the details of policy, including the bills he sponsors, is legendary. Unwittingly, Republicans have managed to select the one candidate as nominee who can compete with Obama in uttering vacuous platitudes and in winning the adoration of the media, while cunningly forcing Obama to adopt the role of relative policy expert against McCain’s impressive ignorance. The turnaround will be sudden: Obama will overcome the “lack of substance” critique right around the time that McCain will win over all those undecided voters by dint of his personal history; Obama will then find himself running the more substantive of the two campaigns and it will undermine his candidacy.
Finally, when they find out what Obama has accomplished, voters may or may not find the legislation that he co-sponsored to be sensible, but even to speak of his “accomplishments” is to draw attention to the limited amount of time Obama has spent in the Senate. If someone objects that he hasn’t accomplished that much in Washington–the place where he proposes to bring the parties together to promote major policy changes–his defenders will note that he hasn’t been in Washington very long, which must eventually make people question whether he could possibly do any of the things he proposes to do.