28 August 2008

Willing To Believe

So, I watched Barack Obama's acceptance speech, and a few other speeches, from Mile High Stadium (the actual process of getting in and getting out deserves a post of its own). Essentially, the event is a very long political advertisement, but it is an effective one. The audience was clearly swing voters who will see the event on television rather than the party loyal who where there. But, it has changed how I think about Obama, for the better.

Today's events really emphasized the extent to which Obama and Biden are positioning themselves as advocated of the working class and middle class in America, reaching out to people who may be inclined to be conservatives with a message that Obama's economic agenda is tailored to their needs. The notion that Obama is more familiar with the life of working people than McCain was driven home repeatedly. Biden likewise positioned himself as an advocate for the working class in a future Obama administration.

Unlike many Democratic Presidential candidates (Kerry, Gore and Dukakis among them), Obama manages to be smart without being cerebral or unemotional. Obama is informed by the views common among Brookings Institute and academic liberals, but makes moral arguments more often than purely rational ones. Obama is also, by far, the most powerful and effective speaker alive today in the Democratic Party, a contrast emphasized, for example, by a far more wooden speech from Al Gore, who came across as intelligent, but struggles to make emotional connections with his audience and grows histronic about problems that are bad enough without taking a "world is coming to an end" prespective on them.

Obama has firmly appropriated both the Clintonian "play by the rules" meme and the Clintonian "legal but rare" stance on abortion. Of a piece with these ideas was a strong empahsis on our mutual responsibility for each other.

Obama has also done an excellent job of appealling at a cultural and emotional level to people who may not have thought of themselves of Democrats in the past, without being crass or obvious about it.

Obama talked a lot about the role of his American grandparents and mother, who are white and from Kansas, noting that his grandfather was a World War II veteran put an American flag in his hand while waxing patriotic, and that his grandmother sacrificed economically for him and worked in war related industries while his grandfather was at war. For example, a passing comment explained that his success in the Illinois legislature was informed by the fact that many members of that body were a lot like his grandparents.

Country music got equal time with rock music. Repeated riffs of "Born in the U..S.A." subtly point out that McCain was not (McCain was a natural born citizen by paternity but born in the Panama Canal Zone).

Perhaps one of the most powerful messages that comes with Biden's selection as Vice President is that he takes the train home to his wife every night from Washington. This messenger as message statement was matched by a real emphasis on Obama's love for his wife and children. The emphasis on both Obama's own biography and that of Biden emphasizes McCain's less than impressive respect for family values in the life that McCain has lived without saying a word.

An emphasis on Obama as a man of faith, and the theme of faith in other speeches, coupled with a tolerant but definitely evangelical preacher from Florida's benediction also wordlessly make the point that McCain's recent claims to be an evangelical Christian are less than convincing. The evening was full of God and Country patriotism, spoken sincerely, along with plenty of biographical background that portrays Obama is a fundamentally decent and service minded person. The repeated mentions of Obama's relatively humble upbringing and long standing commitment to public service, most dramatically illustrated by his decision not to take the high paying jobs available to him as a top Harvard graduate, combined with the thoughtfulness of his oratory, undermine the Obama as rockstar meme.

A very long list of former admirals and generals on the stage in support of Obama spoke more loudly than words could. Also powerful on the foreign affairs front, at an emotional level, were vivid descriptions of how Obama behaved on an official tour of Africa.

A brief mention of Obama running the Harvard Law Review neatly and quietly invited comparison with McCain's miserable academic record in the Naval Academy. One can be comfortable that the disparity between Obama and McCain in brain power will come out in the debates. McCain is far more prone to putting his foot in his mouth than Obama.

Today's also also made a distinction between Obama as a man with the courage of his convictions, even when they are unpopular, which have been proven out by history; in contrast to McCain as a Bush loyalist who has flip flopped to more conservative positions on those few issues where he opposed Bush in the past. For example, while every other speaker was unwilling to discuss anything beyond the safe political territory of renewable energy, Obama took a position, not necessarily popular with all environmentalists, pledging to make progress with "clean coal" and nuclear power as well. Likewise, Obama made several specific proposals to reform a bankruptcy law that Biden recent was instrumental in moving through Congress. Similarly, his voice of support for a reasonable interpretation of the Second Amendment right that still conveys real individual rights, was contrasted with the fact that McCain was, until recently, an enemy of the NRA. Whatever the merits of those positions, it illustrates the fact that Obama is willing to take political risks in support of potentially unpopular ideas.

Indeed, Obama mounted a steady attack, without naming any names or pointing any fingers, on the blogosphere's greatest frustration with the current Democratic party establishment, namely an attitude of defeatism and unwillingness to use the power that they do have to take bold action.

The fact that much of Obama's message was subliminal doesn't make it any less persausive, even when you do consciously pick up on that messaging. Obama effectively did make the case that he was better on the issues, particularly for working class and small business owning conservative voters. But, Obama also strongly made the case that he was a more virtuous man and was more endowed with common sense than his opponent, despite disavowing personal attacks with his words and only attacking personally by implication by emphasizing parts of his biography where McCain is weak. The attacks themselves have been left to be made by others. McCain is a poor cultural fit for many independents and Republicans, and Obama has with measured but unannounced precision taken full advantage of this fact.

I willing to believe that Obama isn't just another politician and is the right man to be our next President, not simply because his is a Democrat with whom I agree more closely on the issues, but because he seems to have both intelligence and a sound moral compass. I'd like to hope that when the campaign is over that most of the nation will agree.

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