Obama Attacks Elegantly

Rhetorically, Obama hit the mark and maintained his moderation while harshly attacking McCain.

Did Barack Obama's rhetorical fireworks last night mean that John McCain's presidential hopes are about to disappear in a puff of smoke? Not a chance. McCain, who had closed the gap with Obama in recent weeks by relentlessly pummeling him, has his own convention coming up to unite his party and solidify his credentials. But Obama's forceful and pointed attack on McCain at Invesco Field last night showed that he's no mere "celebrity," as McCain has tried to paint him, but a fighter. By bashing away at Obama, the McCain campaign may inadvertently have done him a favor, revealing its playbook early on and allowing Obama to come out swinging after his sojourn in Hawaii.

Obama astutely defused the issue of his own star power by downplaying it. He barely touched on his own remarkable saga, but instead offered a list of things he intends to accomplish-saving the economy, halting nuclear proliferation, saving the environment, rescuing Social Security, paying school teachers more, and, along the way, ending America's addiction to Middle East oil. About the only thing he didn't promise was to end tooth decay among children. This amounted to something of a laundry list, but Obama did add some twists that will make it difficult for the GOP to paint him as an old-style liberal. He noted that Washington can't fix everyone's problems, thereby depicting himself as the classic outsider riding in to take out the black hats who have corrupted a political Eden. McCain, by contrast, who, as Obama was careful to remind his listeners, has served for decades in this sink of iniquity, is a cheerleader for the Iraq War and has come, by and large, to embrace the Bush administration. In addition, Obama's line about passing tax cuts for 95 percent of Americans should help inoculate him against the charge that he's a tax-and-spend liberal.

But it wasn't Obama's case for himself that was most persuasive last night. Rather, it was Obama's withering comments about McCain that hit home. Though Obama didn't really delve much into foreign policy, he tied McCain to Bush and dinged him by noting that Osama bin Laden remains at large, whatever McCain's rodomontade about following him to "the gates of hell." What's more, Obama effectively portrayed McCain as being to the right of the Bush administration on Iraq itself, fortifying the charge that he just "doesn't get it." That phrase could prove devastating for McCain as it carries the implication that the man who doesn't know how to use e-mail is congenitally out of touch, if not doddering-a kindly old gramps who's a little bit clueless. McCain will need to counter Obama's claim to represent change, which he reiterated last night: "I say to the American people, to Democrats and Republicans and independents across this great land: enough!" At a moment when America is under extraordinary duress abroad and at home, it's a potent message.

Where Obama came up short was in defining what he would actually do as president. But this may not be as great a mystery as Obama's conservative critics would have it. The blunt fact is that his domestic agenda, insofar as it was laid out, seems mostly warmed-over. Commentators such as Charles Krauthammer are attempting to portray him as a gangsterish "Jay Gatsby" figure, but this more delicate version of Jerome R. Corsi's bestseller The Obama Nation serves to make Obama much more mysterious than he really is. Obama's speeches and positions suggest that he would be a moderately cautious liberal who would surround himself with mainstream advisors such as Lawrence Summers and Anthony Lake. Not a lot of new blood there, to be sure, as The National Interest senior editor Nikolas Gvosdev has pointed out on this website.

But in an election year where George W. Bush and a sluggish economy are the real targets, it may well be enough to push Obama over the top. If the Republican brand has become toxic, it won't take many bold Democratic positions to win. Boldness might be counterproductive, as Obama needs to underscore that he would be a steady hand when steering the ship of state.

In short, the most striking thing about Obama's speech wasn't its content, but the passion and verve with which it was delivered. Obama's oratorical power and fluidity do not bode well for McCain in the upcoming fall presidential debates. But Obama's very star power does allow McCain to revel in his self-defined Churchillian role as a bulldog. Now McCain must show that he is in command of his own history. For McCain, who seemed to be facing his political Dunkirk only a year ago, the Republican convention could prove, to borrow a phrase from Churchill, the hinge of fate.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.