Can Obama's Substance Match His Style?

Barack Obama is a man of grace. With his eloquent language and compelling life story, he has crafted two best-selling books and can deliver campaign rhetoric with deftness. At town-hall meetings, he looks pensive as he carefully answers voters' questions, like the law lecturer he used to be. He sweeps his hand across the stage when he sounds expansive, and jabs a finger when he's critical of President George W. Bush. Even his clothes on the campaign trail suggest a seriously cool character, with his trademark black suit and white shirt unbuttoned at the neck.

But beyond his charm and magnetic personality, what is the substance of the Obama campaign? In another era, his rivals might have asked, "Where's the beef?" John Edwards—the candidate Obama pushed into third place in the polls—is more specific, suggesting that Obama's fine words are no substitute for his missing health-care policy. "We have a responsibility, if you want to be president of the United States, to tell the American people what it is you want to do," Edwards said at last week's presidential debate in South Carolina. "Rhetoric isn't enough. Highfalutin language is not enough."

Obama isn't about to surrender the highfalutin ground of "hope" and "change." But he's aware that as a first-term senator with a relatively thin résumé, he's particularly vulnerable to such charges. He can draw crowds and he's proved that he can raise money on a par with the Clinton machine. Now that the debate season is starting, however, Obama needs to move beyond those metrics. Voters will soon tire (if they haven't already) of candidates who repeat sound bites. But Obama, armed with degrees from Columbia and Harvard, is nothing if not a smart guy. So he's preparing to deliver a half dozen detailed policy proposals in the next two months, on education, the economy and—finally—health care.

Obama's aides, who didn't want to be identified discussing campaign strategy, say the health-care policy has been worked over for several weeks. The bar is high for Obama, not least because Edwards spelled out his universal health-care plan two months ago. Yet there is also an element of political caution. Opponents can use—or distort—detailed policy positions to mislead voters or caricature a candidate.

Obama's policy director, Mark Alexander, knows this all too well. His résumé looks much like Obama's: Alexander is a graduate of Yale Law School and law professor at Seton Hall, and he is part of a new generation of African-American political stars. (He is also close to Cory Booker, the recently elected Newark, N.J., mayor.) But, unlike Obama, Alexander bears the scars of a previous presidential campaign. In 1999 he was issues director for former senator Bill Bradley, as the former NBA star mounted an insurgent challenge to Al Gore. After several months on a listening tour, Bradley offered up a detailed, $65 billion plan for universal health care. Within weeks, Gore revived his lackluster campaign by eviscerating Bradley's plan as impractical and irresponsible. "I think that was definitely one of the reasons for the vice president's ultimate success in the primaries," says Alexander. "It was effective campaigning, but ultimately it wasn't helpful [to the country]." Now Alexander's challenge is to offer up enough details to be credible, but not too many to make Obama vulnerable. "It's important to strike that balance," he says.

With a team of 10 policy staff and some 500 outside advisers, Alexander isn't short of manpower or advice. On foreign policy, he can reach out to ex-Clinton aides like Tony Lake and Susan Rice; on economic policy, he has Joe Stiglitz and Jeffrey Liebman (also former Clinton White House staffers) and the University of Chicago's Austan Goolsbee. Obama has already begun offering some detailed policies, starting with an energy and global-warming speech he gave in New Hampshire just before Earth Day last month. His proposal would introduce a low-carbon standard, cutting the use of fuels like gasoline by 10 percent by 2020 and replacing them with renewable alternatives like ethanol and biodiesel—as Bush and several of his Democratic rivals have also advocated. Last week he mapped out his foreign-policy agenda, which includes a doubling of foreign aid to $50 billion a year by 2012, an expansion of the Army and Marines by a total of 92,000 troops and the securing of all nuclear material (especially in the former Soviet Union) within four years.

Still, even in his most wonkish moments, it's hard to separate his personal style from his policy. His global approach sounds like an extension of his domestic politics, with his ambitious goal of bringing people together and winning back disgruntled allies. Obama says he wants to "invest in our common humanity" and reach out "to all those living disconnected lives of despair in the world's forgotten corners." In that sense, he sounds a lot like the husband of his biggest rival, Hillary Clinton.

Behind the scenes, Obama's aides present him as something of a micromanager—albeit one with a sweeping vision. In his Senate office, Obama set up a policy shop that was more like a small think tank than a senator's legislative base, inviting outside experts to brief him on a wide range of issues beyond his committee assignments. As a presidential candidate, Obama sounds like his own policy director and speechwriter, mapping the outlines of his foreign-policy speech, digging into details like the foreign-language skills of the troops and tweaking the final language. "You walk into the room to discuss a topic where you're supposed to be expert and you feel you are constantly playing catch-up," says one experienced adviser, who isn't authorized to talk on the record about private meetings. "You hope you don't get busted with a question that you can't answer."

Of course, all campaign aides believe their candidate is superintelligent and worthy of a nation's dreams. Early polls suggest that the public already feels that Obama is well educated and intelligent. Where opinion is divided (according to voters' responses in a recent Pew Research Center poll) is whether he seems "inexperienced, not ready" or "new, fresh." His aides hope that their new policy speeches can neutralize concerns about experience without killing the appeal of his freshness. Until now, Barack Obama has built his identity around the audacity of hope. Now he needs to be audacious enough to offer up something more than hope itself.