Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Stylin'

Hilzoy over at Obsidian Wings goes all plaintive over those who criticize Barack Obama on the grounds that he's all talk, no action:

I came to Obama by an unusual route: as I explained here, I follow some issues pretty closely, and over and over again, Barack Obama kept popping up, doing really good substantive things. There he was, working for nuclear non-proliferation and securing loose stockpiles of conventional weapons, like shoulder-fired missiles. There he was again, passing what the Washington Post called "the strongest ethics legislation to emerge from Congress yet" -- though not as strong as Obama would have liked. Look -- he's over there, passing a bill that created a searchable database of recipients of federal contracts and grants, proposing legislation on avian flu back when most people hadn't even heard of it, working to make sure that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were screened for traumatic brain injury and to prevent homelessness among veterans, successfully fighting a proposal by the VA to reexamine all PTSD cases in which full benefits had been awarded, working to ban no-bid contracts in Katrina reconstruction, and introducing legislation to criminalize deceptive political tactics and voter intimidation...

...Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard people saying that Obama wasn't "substantive". It was exactly like my experience in 2004 when, after hearing Wes Clark for the first time, I went and looked up his positions on a whole host of issues of concern to me, and only then started reading media accounts of him in which I "learned" that no one knew what his positions were.

As some of my students would say: I was like, wtf?


I've been making the point in conversation (it's not original to me, and I'd credit wherever I saw it first if I could remember it right now) that Obama is the Ronald Reagan of the 2008 election season -- he's all about emotionally stirring, even inspiring rhetoric that, unfortunately, seems to have little or no actual semantic value. "Yes we can!" and "Change we can believe in" strike me as little more than liberal/progressive flourishes rung on Reagan's "It's morning in America".

And, okay, I can see that Obama has some substance to him, even given his relatively short career in politics to date. What I can't see, though, is how he's using the enormous media attention generated by his Presidential campaign to address any of the truly urgent, truly global issues confronting every living being currently drawing breath or in some way processing energy on the planet today. Just one example of this is Obama's energy policy, as explained in this speech he gave in 2006. Dewey scholar/ecoblogger "David Roberts" advises that he thinks this is a 'pretty ballsy' speech and rejoices that "That man's got a pair, you gotta give him that" (perhaps underscoring the huge fundamental perceptual disadvantage Hillary Clinton has in this election, but never mind that for now)... but in point of fact, as an energy policy, this is all worthless feel-good Hollywood happy ending bullshit.

Obama calls for a much more marked increase in the fuel efficiency of American manufactured motor cars. He wants more hybrids, and he especially wants to see more production of alternative biofuels. Which is to say, this is more of what James Kunstler might call Happy Motoring horseshit.

Like every other ambitious politician out there, Obama is paralyzed by the thought of trying to tell the truth to the American electorate. The simple, brutal, horrible, unacceptable, unavoidable truth is, we have to change our way of living, because the cheap energy is running out. America uses up a massively disproportionate amount of the world's available consumables, especially petroleum derivatives and natural gas. And we are going to have to stop. If we don't, the rest of the world will do its level best to make us, and if it turns out they can't (and global civilization survives that eventual determination), well, eventually (not far in the future, at the rate we suck it down) the oil is all going to run out, anyway.

I can certainly understand why Obama is all style, no substance when it comes to, well, substantial issues. And, certainly, a Reaganite circa 1980, confronted with someone criticizing his or her candidate on the basis of what seemed like a lot of high falutin', pretty soundin', but ultimately empty rhetoric, might well shoot back that Reagan's two terms as governor were full of substantial political accomplishments -- Reagan legalized 'therapeutic abortion' in California (something he claimed forever afterward he regretted), he sent in the Highway Patrol and the National Guard to break up student protests in Berkeley, resulting in one student death and hundreds of injuries, he spoke out strongly in opposition to what he saw as excessive Federal tax rates and social spending, and in favor of capital punishment.

Yet what Reagan did not say when he was running for President in 1979 was, "I'll cut your taxes, eviscerate social spending, and, at the same time, run up historic deficits by increasing America's defense budget 40%." The first two would have sounded very good to both economic and social conservatives; the last one, however, would have probably lost him some votes among everyone but service members, their families, and defense contractors. Had Reagan also admitted that there was a very good chance his economic policies would result in the national unemployment rate rising from an unpleasantly high 7% to a staggering 10.8%, he most likely would have lost the votes of everyone in the country making less than $40,000 per year... and with them, the election.

Similarly, there is a reason Obama does not specifically and substantively address extremely serious problems like the global energy crisis, preferring instead to focus on stirring sounding but still essentially trivial microissues like weapons regulation, government corruption, and the welfare of our military veterans. And there's also a reason why, when he does address energy issues, he does it with half truths and half measures. Just as with Reagan, if Obama were to tell the whole truth about these issues, and what measures will really have to be taken to deal with them, it would cost him votes... in fact, were Obama to ever publicly state "Here's some change you can believe in -- if we want to survive as a species on this globe, Americans are going to have to give up our private automobiles, rebuild and substantially expand our mass transit systems, and stop wasting so much of the world's irreplaceable resources. Which means we have to eat healthier, exercise more, and stop using so much electricity" it would certainly cost him the election.

So I can understand why Obama prefers high flown elocution to talking about the actual nuts and bolts of tough policies that will not be even remotely popular with the American people.

Nonetheless, whether I understand it or not, whether it's justifiable or not, it's still valid to say that Obama avoids talking about substantive policy by substituting stirring rhetoric... and pointing to his past legislative record and saying "Look, look, he really has done stuff" isn't going to change that.

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