Obama to America: 'Here's the Beef'


(Click to watch the ad)

Barack Obama just released the first national ad of the Democratic primary--and it's designed to combat one of his central weaknesses. 

Out of the campaign trail, I always ask undecided voters what they think of the candidates. And when Obama comes up, they always say the same thing:

I need to hear more specifics. 

The problem isn't that Obama hasn't given specifics. He has. In fact, the 2008 Democratic race is by far the heaviest on policy of any nominating contest in recent memory. It's just that voters who aren't paying close attention--and that's most of us--can't "hear" the specifics over all his talk about airier concepts like hope, unity and change. We allot a tiny corner of our brains to each presidential candidate, and Obama has filled that space with rhetoric.

Clinton, on the other hand, has smartly contrasted herself with Obama by positioning "specifics" at the center of her speechifying; voters always assume that Clinton is more "specific" than Obama, even though they're pretty evenly matched. Each morning, for example, a Clinton staffer sends out an email alerting reporters to favorable stories. "Hillary explains 'in fine detail' how she would fix the economy and grow the middle class in an extensive interview with the New York Times," she wrote this morning. The quotation marks are telling.

I've wondered for awhile how the Obama camp would combat the "policy lightweight" perception. Pointing people to their website won't work; only the most avid would visit, and he needs to convince the least engaged voters, not the most.  He's already delivered his policy speeches. And he can't reclaim the rhetorical ground--I'm the specifics candidate-- that he's already ceded to Clinton.

Today's new spot provides an answer--and the result is mixed.

Airing now on CNN and MSNBC, "Inspiring" is a Frankenad assembled from recycled elements of previous spots (see here and here) with a new testimonial from Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a recent endorsee, tacked on at the end. In an attempt to rebut the "all talk, no action" naysayers, the ad highlights the Illinois senator's key policy accomplishments. Obama "[cut] taxes for workers and [won] health care for children [in Illinois]," says the announcer, as words "cut taxes" and "expanded health care" appear onscreen. "In the U.S. Senate, he’s led on issues from arms control to landmark ethics reform." McCaskill adds that Obama "knows how to get things done," while Prairie State Republican Kirk Dillard says his former State Senate colleague "worked on some of the deepest issues." Here, the ad seems to say, is the beef.

Still, I'm not sure it's enough to fix Obama's problem. Instead of focusing squarely on policy, the ad attempts to slot "specifics" into Obama's overarching argument--that he can bring people together. He starts with a clip from his famous 2004 convention speech ("We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes") and ends with another ("There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America"). The soaring rhetoric, in other words, is still front and center. I understand why; Obama's raison d'etre is the idea that unity produces results, and this will (and should) continue to be his message as the race goes national between now and Super Tuesday. But I can easily imagine undecideds seeing it and thinking, "same old shtick."

The question is, will the voters of, say, California hear the whisper of "action" over the roar of Obama's "talk"? As they start to tune in, he's betting that they'll make space for his specifics amid the clutter of "change," "hope" and "unity."

It's a tough task, as Nevada and New Hampshire proved. We'll see soon enough how closely the rest of America is listening.