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Obama's "Inspiration" vs. Clinton's "Solutions"

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One of Hillary Clinton's recent rhetorical tactics to try to stop the Obama momentum has been to draw a contrast between Obama, who makes uplifting speeches but, she suggests, fails to present real substance, and herself, who is the candidate who offers real solutions to real problems.

How valid is that argument?

It certainly seems true that the standard Clinton speech contains more policy details than the standard Obama speech. If one were to judge, therefore, simply on the basis of the speeches televised nationally on the evenings of the major primaries, Barack Obama specializes in inspiring rhetoric while Hillary Clinton is more likely to talk policy.

But the standard speeches do not constitute the whole of what the candidates have to say. As Scott Galindez has written in a recent column on truthout.org:

Many pundits and the Clinton campaign keep asking where the substance is to Obama's campaign. There's a simple answer: in his plans.

It's true that his stump speeches are full of soaring oratory and do not satisfy policy wonks, but do a simple search of his web site and you will find substance. He also regularly gives policy speeches packed with specifics.

There is a good reason why Obama's speeches of "soaring oratory" don't satisfy policy wonks: getting into policy nitty-gritty would thwart the essential purpose of the speech. That purpose is to inspire, to uplift, to reach the heart and spirit of the listeners and fill them with a feeling that yes we can bring positive transformation to America. Policy-wonk talk addresses the head, not the heart and spirit. To shift from the one to the other, therefore, would be like interrupting a piece of music to discuss its structure: like an airplane that shut off its engines while lifting off the runway, the momentum of the speech would be lost and the effects on the listeners would come crashing down.

That's why Obama is wise to separate his policy-wonk speeches and papers from his inspirational presentations.

It suits Hillary Clinton just fine to focus on the policy-wonk elements of her vision, for the policy specifics are the level at which she dwells, and the strength on the basis of which she is attempting to sell herself as a potential president. She forfeits no emotional and spiritual uplift by shifting to the head.

But the main thing that Obama is trying to sell is the spiritual/emotional inspiration of hope, of a sense that an America of a kind we yearn for is possible. And the way to convey that is to sustain a message of spirit, of uplifting vision.

But there's more that needs to be said-- more about the importance in today's America of inspiration.

The implication of this knock on Obama is that his rhetoric is merely inspiring, that stirring people's emotions and mobilizing their spirits is somehow an empty thing, clearly inferior to spelling out detailed plans for new policies.

Surely it is true that in America today we are in dire need of new policies, of new directions in the way our government addresses our problems. And I do not mean to denigrate the importance of good policy nor of good policy wonks.

But the most fundamental problem in America right not is not at the level of policy, but at the spiritual and moral level. The defective policies are symptoms of the terrible degradation of America's soul that has been inflicted by our governing powers.

What America needs most fundamentally then is a change in spirit, a driving out of the evil forces that have seized power and a calling forth of the better angels of our nature.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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