Sean Wilentz on Obama and Substance

Barack Obama has chosen to deliver the most important speech of his young political career in a setting that suits his spectacular campaign in the presidential primaries. In front of 75,000 roaring, adoring Democrats at Invesco Field at Mile High stadium in Denver, he will give one of his uplifting arena-rock performances, while also evoking the spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (on the 45th anniversary of the March on Washington) and John F. Kennedy (who moved his own acceptance speech in 1960 from the convention hall to the Los Angeles Coliseum).

Obama's most ardent admirers, who include much of the political press and practically all of the liberal intelligentsia, will almost certainly report and analyze the event as a mammoth historical occasion, and quite possibly praise the speech as one of the greatest political orations ever. But will Obama, amid the pulsating theatrics, also attempt the less glamorous and more difficult task of explaining specifically where he wants to move the country, and how he proposes to move it, above and beyond reciting his policy positions? History, as well as recent public-opinion polls, suggests that he badly needs to do so. As a lifelong Democrat who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during the primaries, I would like to see him succeed in fulfilling his promise.

Since the end of World War II, every Democrat who has sought the presidency has attempted to update the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. From Harry Truman to Bill Clinton, those elected president have refreshed the liberal tradition by promising to put their own stamp upon it, and then doing so. After 40 years of mostly Republican control of the White House, it should be clear that mistakes and overreaching have hampered liberalism's evolution. But by renewing the idea that government has an important role to play in expanding the opportunities and well-being of ordinary Americans, the basic Democratic tradition has survived through thick and thin.

Senator Obama's efforts to reinterpret the Democratic legacy have thus far amounted chiefly to promising a dramatic break with the status quo. His rhetoric of "hope" and "change" has thrilled millions of Democrats and helped secure the party's nomination. Yet millions of other Democrats still find his appeals wispy and unconvincing, and the persistent coolness within the ranks worries some party veterans. Democratic governors have already urged him to be more explicit about how he intends to adjust the party's principles to meet today's challenges.

Obama might find instructive President Truman's example of 60 years ago. Suddenly thrust into the presidency when FDR died, Truman quickly shifted gears from winning World War II to contend with the nation's former ally, Stalin's Soviet Union. Truman's most notable early achievements in foreign policy, including the Marshall Plan and the Truman doctrine, implemented the new concept of containment that guided American policymakers of both parties for the next two generations. At home, Truman tried to augment the New Deal by calling for a national health-care system, and he expanded his party's fledgling support for civil rights by ordering the desegregation of the armed forces.

Truman's Fair Deal liberalism, firmly anti-communist but pro-labor and favorable to blacks, caused both the left wing of the party and the Southern Democratic segregationists to defect in the 1948 election, but Truman regained the White House after a stirring campaign. Truman's cold-war liberalism—what the young, pro-Truman historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the politics of "the vital center"—provided the central ideas for a new generation of mainstream Democrats.

Kennedy, in 1960, explicitly invoked the New Deal and Fair Deal as "bold measures for their generations," but also laid out the basic framework for his own New Frontier as a set of specific challenges, international and domestic. The foreign policies of Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, produced both triumphs (the peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis, the nuclear Test-Ban Treaty of 1963) and fiascoes (the Bay of Pigs invasion and, worst of all, rapid escalation of U.S. military intervention in the Vietnamese civil war). As they stayed the course of nuclear deterrence and anti-communist containment, Kennedy and Johnson addressed domestic challenges left unmet by Roosevelt and Truman, in a booming, affluent consumer society very different from the America of the 1930s and 1940s.

Most important, JFK and LBJ, at first cautiously and then wholeheartedly, embraced what Kennedy as early as his acceptance speech called America's "peaceful revolution for human rights" by formulating and then enacting landmark legislation against racial discrimination. Their determination fundamentally changed the Democratic Party by causing the political implosion of the formerly solid Democratic South, while making the Democrats the new political legatees of Abraham Lincoln. Kennedy and Johnson also attended to other glaring social needs, through new federal programs (Medicare, Medicaid and Johnson's multifaceted war on poverty, announced in his first major address as president) and public service (Project Head Start in early childhood education; Johnson's VISTA program, based on Kennedy's Peace Corps). LBJ's Great Society represented the full flowering of New-Deal-style liberalism before it was stalled by the financial and political costs of Vietnam and urban racial unrest.

As for the one-termer Jimmy Carter, Democrats ignore his different brand of politics, and its fate, at their peril. Carter ran against "Washington" on the slogan "A Leader, for a Change," and on his brains and personal authenticity: "Why Not the Best?" After he only narrowly defeated Gerald Ford, he came to office with the advantage of enormous Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate (where he had a filibuster-proof 62 Democratic seats). In the wake of the Vietnam debacle and the Watergate scandal, Carter—an outsider and a decidedly non-imperial anti-politician—stressed the virtues of truthfulness, efficiency and technical expertise above either partisanship or new federal programs. In foreign policy, recoiling from Vietnam, he focused on the use of diplomacy to advance the ideal of human rights around the globe.

Yet little seemed to go right for the earnest president. The economy, hit by repeated oil shortages and hikes in oil prices, remained trapped in a combination of high unemployment and runaway inflation. Impatient with and at times heedless of the political prerogatives jealously guarded on Capitol Hill, Carter quickly found his relations with his own congressional majority deteriorating.

Although he won notable victories in foreign affairs, including the Panama Canal Treaty and the Camp David accords, Carter's "soft power" approach was overwhelmed by the capture of American hostages in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In an extraordinary speech in mid-1979, Carter blamed the troubles on a "crisis of confidence" of the American people themselves. His gloomy diagnosis of the nation's malaise set the stage for the entrance of the beaming conservative champion, Ronald Reagan.

Bill Clinton was the first president to take office after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he began his presidency committed chiefly to reducing the federal deficit and the economic inequities created during the administrations of Reagan and George H.W. Bush with a Democratic liberalism updated for the 1990s. By the end of his second term, he could boast that he had helped turn crippling deficits into the largest federal surpluses in American history. He also could point to a prolonged economic boom that benefited Americans across the lines of class, race, region and ethnicity. Following calamities in Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti, and after the Western nations' catastrophic inaction in Rwanda, Clinton had shifted course and both revived and revised America's forceful sense of purpose in world affairs, from the Balkans to Northern Ireland.

Clinton suffered through major domestic blunders as well, above all the political debacle concerning his ambitious health-care proposals. Some of Clinton's initiatives—signing the North American Free Trade Agreement, a welfare-reform bill and balancing the budget—infuriated the left of his own party. Meanwhile, right-wing Republican efforts to demolish him bore bitter fruit with his impeachment. Yet amid the peace and prosperity of his final year, with his public popularity soaring, Clinton appeared to have created successfully a new, post-New Deal liberalism that was moving the country beyond Reaganite conservatism—reversing regressive fiscal policies that had virtually bankrupted the federal government; spreading economic growth more broadly; finding a new balance of American force and diplomacy in foreign affairs, and countering racial polarization and right-wing antigovernment fervor with appointments, policies and speeches that promoted what Clinton called the ideal of "One America."

But the election of 2000 stopped the Clintonian experiment short, for reasons ranging from the destructive left-wing campaign of Ralph Nader, to Al Gore's strategic error of distancing himself from a successful record, to the dubious, one-vote majority decision in Bush v. Gore. George W. Bush's administration, despite its thin mandate, moved federal policy sharply right—a heavily politicized shift that accelerated under the cover of Bush's War on Terror following the atrocities of September 11, 2001.

The list of Bush's failures is long and familiar. He will depart office in January having registered the lowest sustained public-approval ratings of any president on record—and will hand over to his successor numerous crushing burdens: gargantuan new federal deficits; a political and military morass in Iraq; federal agencies hollowed out by cronyism and narrowly ideological appointments, and an international image that is badly in need of repair. It is no wonder that 2008 has looked as though it will be a year of sweeping Democratic triumphs.

Against this backdrop, how has the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, proposed to revivify Democratic liberalism? There is a quotation that ought to give Democrats, and not just Democrats, pause: "This year will not be a year of politics as usual. It can be a year of inspiration and hope, and it will be a year of concern, of quiet and sober reassessment of our nation's character and purpose. It has already been a year when voters have confounded the experts. And I guarantee you that it will be the year when we give the government of this country back to the people of this country. There is a new mood in America. We have been shaken by a tragic war abroad and by scandals and broken promises at home. Our people are searching for new voices and new ideas and new leaders."

Delivered in Obama's exhortatory cadences, the words are uplifting. The trouble is, though they seem to fit, the passage is from Carter's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 1976.

The convergence is revealing. As Republican strategists have begun to notice with delight, Obama's liberal alternative to the post-Bush GOP to date has much in common with Carter's post-Watergate liberalism. Rejecting "politics as usual," attacking "Washington" as the problem, promising to heal the breaches and hurts caused by partisan political polarization, pledging to break the grip that lobbyists and special interests hold over the national government, wearing his Christian faith on his sleeve as a key to his mind, heart and soul—in all of these ways, Obama resembles Jimmy Carter more than he does any other Democratic president in living memory.

In other ways, Obama's liberal vision appears clouded, uncertain and even contradictory. During his four years in Washington, he has compiled one of the most predictably liberal voting records in the Senate—yet he presents himself as an advocate of bipartisanship and ideological flexibility. He has offered himself as the tribune of sweeping change—yet he also proclaims national unity, as if transformation can come without struggle. He has emerged as the champion of a new, post-racial politics, even though he has only grudgingly separated himself from his pastor of 20 years, who every week preached a gospel of "black liberation theology" that has everything to do with racial politics.

The most obvious change to liberal politics Obama has to offer is the color of his skin. Some of his supporters have, whether wittingly or not, been candid enough to say, as Sen. John Kerry did last March, that Obama's blackness is the rationale for making him president. But it is difficult to square such claims with Obama's appeal to a liberalism that transcends race. And when Obama himself subtly and not so subtly draws attention to his color, and charges that the John McCain Republicans will try to scare voters by saying he "doesn't look like all those presidents on the dollar bills," he turns voting for him into an intrinsically virtuous act, proof that one has resisted base appeals to racism (which, in fact, the McCain campaign has not made).

Much of Obama's appeal to the left stems from what might be called the romance of the community organizer. Although his organizing career on Chicago's South Side was brief and, by his own admission, unremarkable, it distinguishes him as another first of his kind in presidential politics, a candidate who looks at politics from the bottom up. For the left, community organizing trumps party politics and experience in government. Some even imagine that Obama is a secret radical, and they see his emergence as an unparalleled opportunity for advancing their frustrated agendas about issues ranging from the redistribution of wealth to curtailing U.S. power abroad.

Obama still has a long way to go to describe the kind of liberalism he stands for, how it meets the enormous challenges of the present—and how it will meet as-yet-unanticipated challenges after the election. Nowhere is this more crucial than in the harsh and volatile realm of foreign policy. Last winter, when his candidacy gained traction, Obama's foreign-policy credentials consisted almost entirely of a speech he gave before a left-wing rally in Chicago in 2002, denouncing the impending invasion of Iraq as "a dumb war." That speech, made by a state senator representing a liberal district that included the University of Chicago, and that went unreported in the Chicago Tribune's lengthy article on the rally, was enough to convince many of his supporters that he is blessed with superior acumen and good instincts about foreign affairs. Later comments, such as his promise, later softened, to meet directly and "without preconditions" with the leaders of Iran and other supporters of terrorism, pleased left-wing Democrats and young antiwar voters as a sign of boldness—even as they left experienced diplomats in wonder at such half-baked formulations.

Then, suddenly this summer, Russia attacked Georgia—and Obama's immediate reaction was to call for reasonableness and good intentions and urge both sides to show restraint and enter into direct talks. Unfortunately his appeal sounded almost like a caricature of liberal wishful thinking. It was left to his opponent, John McCain—whose own past judgments on foreign policy demand scrutiny—to declare right away the sort of thing that might have come naturally to previous generations of liberal Democrats (let alone to a conservative Republican): that "Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory." Beyond the matter of experience, beyond how thoroughly the two candidates had thought through the situation, the difference highlighted how Obama still lacks a comprehensive vision of international politics.

That Obama's record and statements have created any other impression cannot be ascribed only to his campaign's political skills and the news media's favor. Liberal intellectuals have largely abdicated their responsibility to provide unblinking and rigorous analysis instead of paeans to Obama's image. Hardly any prominent liberal thinkers stepped forward to question Obama's rationalizations about his relationship with his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. Instead, they hailed his ever-changing self-justifications and sometimes tawdry logic—equating his own white grandmother's discomfort in the presence of a menacing stranger with Wright's hateful sermons—as worthy of the monumental addresses of Lincoln. Liberal intellectuals actually could have aided their candidate, while also doing their professional duty, by pressing him on his patently evasive accounts about various matters, such as his connections with the convicted wheeler-dealer Tony Rezko, or his more-than-informal ties to the unrepentant terrorist William Ayers, including their years of association overseeing an expensive, high-profile, but fruitless public-school reform effort in Chicago. Instead, the intellectuals have failed Obama as well as their readers by branding such questioning as irrelevant, malicious or heretical.

Can Obama, who lost the large industrial states in the primaries, deal with a troubled economy and become the standard bearer for the working and middle classes—the historic core of the Democratic Party that the last two Democratic candidates lost? Can the inexperienced candidate persuasively outline a new foreign policy that addresses the quagmires left by the Bush administration and faces the challenges of terrorism and a resurgent Russia? Can the less-than-one-term senator become the master of the Congress and enact goals such as universal health care that have eluded Democratic presidents since Truman? On these fundamental questions may hang the fate of Obama's candidacy. In the absence of a compelling record, set speeches, even with the most stirring words, will not resolve these matters. And until he resolves them, Obama will remain the most unformed candidate in the modern history of presidential politics.