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Obama's oratory doesn't deliver goods on policy

By David Ignatius, Washington Post Writers Group
Published February 17, 2008


WASHINGTON

Why is the press going so easy on Barack Obama?" asks a prominent Democratic Party strategist, echoing a criticism frequently made by the Clinton campaign. It's a fair question, and now that Obama appears to be the front-runner in terms of his delegate count, he deserves a closer look, especially from people like me who have written positively about him.

The reason to look closely now, quite simply, is to avoid buyer's remorse later.

Obama is a phenomenon in American politics - a candidate who has ignited an enthusiasm among young people that I haven't seen in decades. He promises a nation in which, as his supporters chant, "race doesn't matter." And for a world that is dangerously alienated from American leadership, he offers a new face that could dispel negative assumptions about America - and in that sense boost the nation's standing and security.

But these are symbolic qualities. What Obama would actually do as president remains a mystery in too many areas. Before he completes what increasingly looks like a march to the Democratic nomination, Obama needs to clarify more clearly what lies behind the beguiling banner marked "change."

Let's start with Obama's economic policies. Like all the major candidates, he has a Web site brimming with plans and proposals. But it has been hard to tell how these different strands come together. Is Obama a "New Democrat," in the tradition of Bill Clinton, who would look skeptically at traditional welfare programs? Is he a neopopulist, in the style of John Edwards, who would make job protection and tax equity his top domestic priorities? Or is he a technocrat, whose economic answers wouldn't be all that different from those of Hillary Clinton?

I'm still puzzled about where to locate Obama on this policy map. Until the past few weeks, I would have put him somewhere between "New Democrat" and "technocrat." But as he reaches for votes in big industrial states, Obama has been sounding more like Edwards. He proposed a middle-class tax cut a few months ago that would provide a tax credit of up to $1,000 per family. That's a big policy change that deserves real debate.

Obama added more Edwardsian flourishes in a speech at an auto plant in Wisconsin. He called for a $150-billion program to develop "green collar" jobs and new energy sources. Meanwhile, to fix all the highways and bridges of our automotive society, he proposed a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that would spend $60-billion over 10 years. Obama should be pressed on whether these big programs are affordable for an economy that appears to be in a tailspin.

Foreign policy is the area on which Obama has been longest on rhetoric and shortest on details. I've always liked his line about Iraq, that "we have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in." And when I asked Obama last summer what this might mean in practice, he talked about the need for a residual force in and around Iraq, and for a gradual, measured pace of troop withdrawals. But in recent months, his tone has suggested a speedier and more decisive departure from Iraq. I fear that Obama is creating public expectations for a quick solution in Iraq that cannot responsibly be achieved.

With any candidate, there's always a question about the quality of his advisers. Hillary comes prepackaged as Clinton II, with a retinue of aides-in-waiting that is at once her strength and disadvantage. Obama's advisers are a mixed group, but I hear some complaints from policy analysts. His most prominent foreign-policy adviser, Anthony Lake, was widely criticized as national security adviser in the first Clinton administration. His role does not reassure people who wonder what substance lies behind the "change" mantra.

To understand why Obama needs tougher scrutiny now, we need only recall his political avatar, President John F. Kennedy. Like Obama, JFK had served a relatively short time in the Senate without compiling a significant legislative record. He was young and charismatic, but uncertain in his foreign and domestic policies, and during his first 18 months, JFK was often rebuffed at home and abroad. The CIA suckered him into a half-baked invasion of Cuba. And Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev concluded after an initial meeting that Kennedy was so weak and uncertain that he could be pushed around - a judgment that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Obama's inexperience is not a fatal flaw, but it's a real issue. He should use the rest of this campaign to give voters a clearer picture of how he would govern - not in style but in substance.

David Ignatius' e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com