Captivating rhetoric

To many pundits the challenge of the Obama campaign consists in the separation of "lofty rhetoric" from substance (by the way, the search string "'lofty rhetoric' + Obama" yielded 6,880 hits on Google, go figure).  Such a task, however, seems an odd challenge for people whose job description ought to presume an ability to separate real arguments from their window dressing.  A pundit ought to be able to leap a speech in a single bound.  But no.  For some of them, well three of them so far this week, Obama seems a powerful intoxicant.  Today it's Robert Samuelson's turn.  He begins his "Obama is a mirage" discussion with the now canonical admission that he too was beguiled by his honeyed words:

It's hard not to be dazzled by Barack Obama. At the 2004 Democratic convention, he visited with Newsweek reporters and editors, including me. I came away deeply impressed by his intelligence, his forceful language and his apparent willingness to take positions that seemed to rise above narrow partisanship. Obama has become the Democratic presidential front-runner precisely because countless millions have formed a similar opinion. It is, I now think, mistaken.

There is something about Obama that drives these guys to autobiography:

As a journalist, I harbor serious doubt about each of the most likely nominees. But with Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain, I feel that I'm dealing with known quantities. They've been in the public arena for years; their views, values and temperaments have received enormous scrutiny. By contrast, newcomer Obama is largely a stage presence defined mostly by his powerful rhetoric. The trouble, at least for me, is the huge and deceptive gap between his captivating oratory and his actual views.

Whatever you might call him, Samuelson is not a journalist.  He writes on the opinion page, which makes him a pundit, a completely different activity from journalism.  Besides, the following paragraph smacks not of journalism–which would involve an impersonal and objective analysis of facts–but of self-centered opinion offering.  On top of that, how does being a journalist somehow imply "serious doubts" about each of the candidates?    

Besides that, Samuelson offers up the rather strange charge that a "huge and deceptive gap" separates Obama's "captivating oratory" from his "actual views."  Let's sit here for a second and try to figure out what that means.  

It could mean that (1) Obama is a liar, because what he says differs from his actual beliefs.  His beliefs, in other words, are other than what he says they are. 

Or perhaps it means that (2) Obama's captivating rhetoric does not match his views, because his views are not captivating–they're perhaps a little boring or ordinary.  Worse than this, Obama somehow knows this and he works to cover it up.  That's an odd charge.  Actual views are likely not to be "captivating."  Being "captivating" is an attribute rather of rhetoric or art.  The ideas may be plausible or sound or true or some other such thing.  But captivating?  Nope.

So which is it?  I can't really tell.  Because Samuelson's point is too confused to evaluate.   He writes:

The subtext of Obama's campaign is that his own life narrative — to become the first African American president, a huge milestone in the nation's journey from slavery — can serve as a metaphor for other political stalemates. Great impasses can be broken with sufficient goodwill, intelligence and energy. "It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white," he says. Along with millions of others, I find this a powerful appeal.

But on inspection, the metaphor is a mirage. Repudiating racism is not a magic cure-all for the nation's ills. The task requires independent ideas, and Obama has few. If you examine his agenda, it is completely ordinary, highly partisan, not candid and mostly unresponsive to many pressing national problems.

Samuelson's reading of the "Obama subtext" is baffling.  In the first place, the subtext is an aesthetic category used by critics in their evaluation of literary (or other) works–it isn't a position Obama is actually advocating.  Besides, the remark following that isn't even about race.  All of this is followed by the even more bizarre claim that the "metaphor is a mirage."  It's a mirage, because it turns out, because Samuelson doesn't find Obama's ideas compelling.

That's different.  If Obama's ideas aren't compelling, then perhaps Samuelson could write an article about how they're not.  Taking Obama to task because his ideas do not match the various adjectives Samuelson and other equally vacuous pundits use to describe them doesn't establish anything other than they have the wrong method of evaluation.

And by the way–by all means.  Let's have the discussion of Obama's ideas without the tiresome preamble about how much you had a crush on him.  That's your fault.

Now to be fair, Samuelson goes on to point out his problems with Obama's views.  But he concludes:

The contrast between his broad rhetoric and his narrow agenda is stark, and yet the media — preoccupied with the political "horse race" — have treated his invocation of "change" as a serious idea rather than a shallow campaign slogan. He seems to have hypnotized much of the media and the public with his eloquence and the symbolism of his life story. The result is a mass delusion that Obama is forthrightly engaging the nation's major problems when, so far, he isn't.

Again with the categories.  Stick with the agenda.  Obama has been forthright enough for you to discover his "real" positions on things.  It's not so hard.  After all, you're a "journalist."

4 thoughts on “Captivating rhetoric”

  1. I love the constant, vague references to “independent ideas,” “originality” and Obama’s “agenda” being “completely ordinary.” It would really be helpful if the author gave a few examples of policy proposals he finds fresh, original, and revolutionary. Because clearly all of the major candidates are simply brimming with those. A few such ideas really stand out, like McCain’s “Let’s double down in Iraq” and “Cut taxes and the economy will be off like a rocket!” proposals. Stunning. Truly unique. Never have I heard anything like that.

    A truly bad author takes a broad, generalized flaw in the political system and selectively lays it at the feet of one candidate. Mainstream political figures are constantly trotting out the same few ideas – occasionally repackaged or given shiny new paint – in every election. Apparently, according to Samuelson, this is Barack Obama’s fault and a flaw that only he exhibits.

    My comment overlooks, of course, the more basic problem that Samuelson is essentially bashing Obama based on *his perception* of Obama’s policies. That perception – Obama is vague and wholly indecipherable – is far more likely to be a result of the author’s laziness or stupidity than the candidate. It took me about 15 seconds on his website to find his positions on 8-10 major issues.

  2. Right Ed. I wonder what the value of “independent ideas” is per se. I don’t care if Obama or Clinton plagiarizes all of their ideas–as long as they’re good ones. Democracy, after all, isn’t about originality.

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