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Obama Tries For Substance

By Reid Wilson

After months of skepticism over whether Senator Barack Obama can deliver substance to bolster his style, the Illinois freshman quietly spent September rolling out a laundry list of detailed proposals to go along with his continued outspoken emphasis on the war in Iraq.

Obama's supporters and critics alike have questioned whether the freshman is too much style and not enough substance. Without more than just lofty rhetoric, Obama's politics of hope and promises to change Washington would go only so far.

The campaign recognizes that flashy style doesn't trump meaty substance. "People in Iowa and in all of the early states take the importance of their role very seriously," said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "They want to know that a candidate like Barack Obama has substance and not just style."

To answer those worries, Obama's campaign rolled out a series of intricate policies aimed at quenching the thirst of media insiders and bolstering their case that someone with just a few years' federal government experience is ready to be President. Whether he succeeds in convincing people that he has substance as well as style will determine if he can catch Clinton.

Obama has happily pointed out that he opposed the Iraq war before it started. The issue was one Congress focused on almost exclusively in September, with reports from Army General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker as well as a number of House and Senate committees and the General Accounting Office.

Obama himself has delivered several major addresses on Iraq. He promised to "turn the page" in a major address the day after Petraeus and Crocker testified before the Senate. This week, he offered his foreign policy vision, calling for an elimination of nuclear arms on the five-year anniversary of an anti-war speech he gave during his Senate campaign and showcasing a new slogan that promised the "judgment to lead."

Obama's focus on Iraq has not been entirely of his own choosing. "For better or worse, the war is going to be the centerpiece" in voters' minds, University of Iowa Professor Bruce Gronbeck said. But any campaign needs to expand its repertoire. "As we move into the fall and the war theme gets beaten to pieces, candidates have simply had to open up the domestic side of their agenda."

The campaign has done so, slowly at first - their health care proposal came out in late May - then with increasing speed in August and September. The campaign suggests that nothing should be read into September rollouts, though "people really start to pay attention in September," Psaki says.

If Obama's proposals aren't groundbreaking in their originality, they are comprehensive and detailed.

Obama, like the other top-tier Democrats, supports a national health program and making the same policies available to both federal employees and the general public. He would expand Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program and prohibit health care providers from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions.

Still, said several political watchers, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, much less voters in states with less commitment to getting to know the candidates, will have a difficult time distinguishing between Obama's plan and that of any other Democrat. Only the most dedicated will be able to tell the difference between plans that all, essentially, promise universal coverage.

One issue on which Obama can get traction is reforming Washington. As voters around the country come to dislike and distrust Congress and the Bush Administration, Obama's status as a perceived outsider might work. His ethics plan, which he rolled out just after Labor Day, addressed everything from prohibiting former Administration officials from lobbying their old co-workers to changing rules on no-bid contracts and making Freedom of Information Act disclosures more easily achieved.

A former community organizer, Obama has also offered an urban agenda that has yet to get significant play. He would create Promise Neighborhoods to encourage education and health care for children in troubled areas, make broadband internet available to every home in the country, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Calls to offer policy proposals came earlier this year, thanks in large part to a compressed primary calendar and a drawn-out campaign. "I think every one of the campaigns got surprised by how fast they had to start," Gronbeck said.

But at this point in the campaign, voters are more concerned with impressions of candidates than with their actual policies, said University of Pennsylvania political scientist Kathryn Dunn Tenpas. For voters, "it's impressionistic," she said. "People are saying, 'Gosh, can this person be presidential?' I don't know that people are expecting a full platform this early."

Psaki thinks some policy proposals, though, are getting through. "If you spend a day on the trail with Barack Obama, and you go to some town hall meetings, people ask some very substantive questions," she said.

Polls show more Democratic voters think Clinton has the experience necessary to be president than Obama: A Fox News poll last month showed 44% of Democrats saying Clinton had the right experience, 18% for former Senator John Edwards and 10% for Obama.

The September blitz - aside from ethics, his urban agenda and two big speeches on Iraq and foreign policy, Obama also offered a middle class tax relief plan - is designed to make up for that deficit. In recent weeks, Obama has also taken to talking about his twenty years of public service, not just his three years in the Senate.

The same Fox poll showed more Democrats see Obama as personally moral and honest or trustworthy than Clinton. In order to capitalize on those leads and translate them into support, Obama will need to win, at least among the top three Democrats, the ideas primary. September was the start to a good finish for Obama's campaign, but to complete any kind of comeback, he will need stronger, bolder policies to distinguish himself.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at

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