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Thursday, August 28, 2008

What Obama Needs to do Tonight

All right, there will be no shortage of pundits, columnists, and bloggers giving Barack Obama unsolicited advice about what his speech should do tonight. Senator Obama certainly doesn't need my advice and given that we are political opponents he would certainly take anything I say with a grain of salt.

That said, I have noticed something about Obama's speech making. That is that his soaring rhetoric has, for months, given him diminishing returns. He gave his campaign theme, message, and purpose with his uplifting and soaring rhetoric. His message of unity, hope and change were themes that the public at large were desperate for. That said, after a while of speaking of the nebulous unity, hope and change the public began to ask how he would accomplish all of these things. In fact, George Will described his predicament well today.

When Barack Obama feeds rhetorical fishes and loaves to the multitudes in the football stadium Thursday night, he should deliver a message of sufficient particularity that it seems particularly suited to Americans. One more inspirational oration, one general enough to please Berliners or even his fellow "citizens of the world," will confirm Pascal's point that "continuous eloquence wearies." That is so because it is not really eloquent. If it is continuous, it is necessarily formulaic and abstract, vague enough for any time and place, hence truly apposite for none.

Speaking on the subject Dick Morris said the most effective acceptance speech was delivered by Al Gore. He said that speech was more like a State of the Union speech. In it, he produced a laundry list of ideas that he was looking to implement. That speech gave Gore, in Morris' recollection, a bounce of nearly ten points.

But what can Obama learn from Gore? Well, Gore basically gave a State of the Union speech - at the risk of boring the audience, he laid out to TV viewers a complete presidential program, delving into each area of substance and articulating his plans in detail and with specificity.

The media highlighted his prolonged kiss with Tipper on the stage as the reason for his bounce, but it was really a speech bursting with specifics that gave him his edge.

Voters have been very impressed by Obama's opening act. His charisma, intellect and message have thrilled tens of millions, especially among the young. But, so far, he's had no second act - he's been unable to follow up the generalities with specifics or to put flesh on the skeletal message of change.

Now, in his acceptance speech, the nominee needs to go where he hasn't been before and answer the implicit question voters always ask of candidates who run on promises of change: Where's the beef?

One of the knocks on Obama is that he speaks in broad terms and never tells anyone how he will accomplish any of his lofty goals. Iran is on its way to get a nuclear weapon. We are struggling for victory in Afghanistan. We are on the brink of victory in Iraq. Gas prices continue to be near all time highs. Russia appears insistent on relaunching the Cold War. We have nearly 50 million uninsured. The economy is struggling to recover from the real estate bubble's burst. There will likely be up to three Supreme Court Justices chosen by the next President. In other words, there will be plenty on the plate for the next President. Simply saying hope, change, and unity is not enough for this speech.

This speech must get into specifics and the more specific the better. If he says he will spend X dollars on alternative energy, that is good. If he explains how his program will differ from all previous alternative energy investments, that will be effective. If he proclaims that his health care plan will provide insurance for all uninsured, that is good. If he explains how his plan will reduce health care costs to all, that will be effective.

This speech will test Obama's oratory skills. It will NOT be what the crowd in Invesco Stadium will want to hear. Detailed plans of policy will likely bore most of his most ardent fans who are mostly seduced by the soaring rhetoric. Furthermore, the massive crowd and elaborate set up is not exactly the backdrop for detailed numbers explaining tax policy. If the speech bores people his opponents will quickly produce the narrative that his specifics aren't as effective as his soaring rhetoric.

Furthermore, I am of the opinion that his specifics are frankly cut and cloath standard boiler plate classic liberalism. If he lays out a play to spend a lot of money, increase the size of government a lot, and raise a lot of taxes, my hope is that John McCain's campaign immediately releases this release

Listening to Barack Obama's speech I couldn't help but be reminded of something Ronald Reagan once said, the nine most terrifying words in the English language are I'm from the government and I'm here to help

Barack Obama's speech will need to thread a very sharp needle. He will have to finally put a lot of meat on the bones. He will have to do it while keeping the crowd riled up, and he will have to do it without exposing a classic liberal philosophy that will then be torn apart in the next convention. That may be a tall order but those that have doubted his oratory skills have overplayed their hands before.

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