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Obama Can Talk His Way to Victory

By Steven Stark

The press -- or some of it -- at least some of it have put Barack Obama on the road to oblivion. When the candidate responded, at the July 23 CNN/YouTube Democratic debate, that he would meet with rogue foreign leaders during his first year in office, much of the media excoriated him -- even though his statement was met with applause, and a subsequent poll showed a large majority of Democratic voters agreed with him. Michael Goodwin of the New York Daily News even wrote recently that Obama "is starting to get that last call feeling. He has to know his presidential campaign is running out of time."

Yet Obama's not nearly in as bad shape as the press suggests. Yes, Hillary Clinton has a substantial lead in the national polls, but Obama isn't far off her heels in several of the opening states that count -- Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Further, he's sitting on a ton of cash and has a large institutional base of support in the black community. Write him off at your peril.

Nevertheless, it wouldn't hurt for Obama to make some mid-course corrections as we head into the fall campaign. Here are three suggestions:

Rule out the Vice-Presidency

For some Democrats, a Clinton-Obama ticket is the best of all possible worlds. It unites the party's two front-runners. It gives Obama more national experience. The speculation is so rampant that this will be the ultimate choice that supposedly even Fidel Castro has predicted a Clinton-Obama pairing.

Obama needs to put a stop to the speculation now. Any talk of the vice-presidency diminishes him. It's not a job he should want, because it's a political dead-end and holding it would forever destroy his star quality. Besides, Clinton would never pick him in a thousand years. Obama's too much of a threat to her own ability to establish an executive aura, and it's not clear whether he's the best choice for her politically.

Even more important, as long as voters are able to dream of a Clinton-Obama ticket, Obama will be unable to take full advantage of the differences between him and the front-runner. It's time for him to put an end to the common line we hear in the debates: that "We Democrats are united about everything." Which brings us to suggestion number two:

Spell out the differences between your candidacy and Hillary's

Obama has done a decent job of articulating in general terms how a nation led by him would be different from one led by Clinton. He's talked about bringing people together, not dividing them, and how it's time for a new kind of politics.

He needs to be more specific, however, if he's going to make the sale. True, he doesn't want to attack Clinton; at this stage of the campaign, any candidate who goes negative will end up doing him or herself more harm than good. Yet he needs to make it clear how he and Clinton offer different governing styles.

Clinton's campaign promises to implement the Democratic agenda by applying her (and Bill's) proven trademark combination of savvy and resilience. But Clinton is a divisive figure -- granted, for many reasons beyond her control -- so she can't realistically pledge to end the politics of polarization. All she can hope to guarantee is that within the polarized universe that surely would follow her election, she could prevail -- if only by one vote.

In contrast, Obama has the potential to unite the country around him and, by implication, around the Democratic agenda. That's an enormously appealing idea, and one that Clinton can't possibly hope to imitate. It must be the underlying premise of Obama's campaign. Which brings us to suggestion number three:

Hire a good speechwriter

Obama is good with words -- as anyone who's read his book or heard his 2004 keynote address knows. But in the middle of a campaign, you can't write your own stuff. What's missing from his repertoire is a clear articulation of his intentions -- something on par with JFK's "It's time to get this country moving again." Without this, Obama has tried to establish credentials through detailed policy prescriptions, which bore voters and leave him open to attacks.

Obama needs to soar above his opponents. So far, he's been selling himself, "the candidate." But elections are about the country more than candidates. In times of change and stress, voters need leaders who can help them confront the future -- mobilizing support by making voters feel as if they're part of a great historic movement. Successful candidates convey the sense that, win or lose, their cause stands for something larger than the individual and will ultimately prevail.

That was the secret of Ronald Reagan's rhetoric -- and Winston Churchill's and Abraham Lincoln's. And it's something that Clinton never can impart because her candidacy is inevitably about a nostalgic restoration of the Clinton years, and, in the end, that's small stuff. Obama, the most eloquent speaker in the field, has his youth and his race behind his message, and can capitalize on the idea of change and progress. His relative inexperience, then, becomes an asset, not a weakness.

Like many of our best leaders, Obama put himself on the political map by delivering a wonderful speech. He must know that even in the Internet age, what defines leadership is the ability to mobilize a nation through effective rhetoric. It's time for him to put his money where his mouth is.

Boston Phoenix


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