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Linda Bergthold Headshot

Obama's Not Specific Enough? Gimme a Break

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I am truly surprised by the number of my otherwise well-informed friends who support Obama, who still say, Barack Obama really needs to get more specific with his policies. People really don't know where he stands. I don't know if they haven't been paying attention, if the press just doesn't cover the substance of what the candidates are doing, or if town halls or political speeches just aren't the right place to communicate specificity.

But it's true that people don't know the details - less than 10% of the electorate can probably tell you much about Obama's policies -- that Obama has a tax policy plan on his website that outlines, to mind-blowing degree, his proposals for tax reform or that he has a Blueprint for Change that is 59 pages long that outlines details about 15 or more of his policies on education, the environment, health care, etc. How many people know that Obama's tax proposals would produce $900 a year in net savings for the middle class while McCain's would produce on average $200? Even the most well informed can succumb to the trite pronouncements by radio and TV so-called pundits that he is all charisma and no substance.

Whose fault is this? Is Obama really not being specific? His website has more policy information than the most rabid policy wonk would want to know at this point. Is it his fault for not communicating it more effectively? I don't think so. He has tried. Obama has given at least 5 major speeches that I know of, carried by major networks, on topics such as race, energy, education, the economy, and relations with Israel. Those speeches were filled with specific ideas and the transcripts were available on his website immediately after he gave them.

Perhaps it is the media's fault? After all, if you only watch CNN or the evening news, you would think that all that is happening on the campaign trail is embarrassing gaffes or attack ads being replayed in the guise of "analysis." But who would listen to CNN or the evening news if they reported policy details? Would you? What is the audience for PBS or C-Span? Not even close to Anderson 360.

Maybe we are not interested in learning this stuff, or maybe TV is just the wrong medium for transmitting serious information. As wacky as he was, Marshall McLuhan of The Medium is the Message ( who died in 1980 long before cable TV), understood the limitations of TV better than anyone. In his words, At the speed of light, policies and political parties yield place to charismatic images. Maybe it's not the message at all. It's just the wrong medium?

Today's New York Times Magazine has an article by David Leonhardt How Obama Reconciles Dueling Views on the Economy . But article is long and complex and requires time and thought to absorb. It would not communicate well on television.

So what's the solution? If the candidates are being specific but we don't perceive it that way, what should we do? Is there any chance people will read the stuff on the websites and do some research? Probably not. Should the candidates insist on giving long, sometimes boring answers to simple questions or are most voters happy with the one word answers that McCain gave at Saddleback? Is complaining about the lack of specificity in Obama's speeches a trap that McCain has successfully set?

It seems hypocritical to complain about a lack of specificity if you are not willing to do the work to find the answers. Yet that's where we are at this point - 19 months later, dozens of debates and town halls on both sides - and we still hear our friends saying they don't know what Obama stands for? Pay attention people! Either pay attention or don't complain.