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Obama's Challenge, Part I: The Rhetoric

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Obama is said to be in a rhetorical pickle. If he talks a language of hope and inspiration, it's too general and ethereal. On the other hand, if he get too specific, he sounds like a policy wonk. And if he goes for McCain's throat, the pundits have been warning that he will evoke the dreaded specter of the Angry Black Man.

To this observer, these formulations, repeated over and over by the usual talking heads, are so much baloney. At various times and in various speeches, Obama has come out with superb rhetorical flights that demonstrate his understanding of the situation of America's stressed working families, and he has done well at connecting their plight to the Bush administration's disastrous policies. He just hasn't done it quite consistently enough. But if you can imagine what it feels like to be Barack Obama after the last three nights, he must be feeling pretty pumped.

What he needs is just a bit more of what Joe Biden did last night, speaking personally of what American families worry about around kitchen tables; and a little more of what John Kerry did, in shaming John McCain the senator versus John McCain the candidate, the latter being hopelessly out of touch with what working Americans face.

The first nights of the convention teed it up for Barack, in multiple and reinforcing ways, my favorite being the introduction to America of Michelle Obama, accurately presenting the Obama family as a much better rendition of the American dream and American work and family values then the rather awkward family story of the John McCain and his beer- heiress current wife. The Biden family only provides reinforcement.

If expectations have been lowered by media blarney, so much the better. There will be shock and awe when he hits it out of that ballpark tonight. And, senator, it's okay to a be a little partisan. This is an election after all.

And at his best, Obama has beautifully combined uplift, detail, partisanship, and connection to regular people. To pick just one example, from one of his very best speeches, his commencement address at Knox College three years ago, portions of which have found their way into other speeches:

How does America find its way in this new, global economy? What will our place in history be?

Like so much of the American story, once again, we face a choice. Once again, there are those who believe that there isn't much we can do about this as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government--divvy it up by individual portions, in the form of tax breaks, hand it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, their own education, and so on.

In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it--Social Darwinism--every man or woman for him or herself. It's a tempting idea, because it doesn't require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say that those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford--tough luck. It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who have lost their job--life isn't fair. It let's us say to the child who was born into poverty--pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And it is especially tempting because each of us believes we will always be the winner in life's lottery, that we're the one who will be the next Donald Trump, or at least we won't be the chump who Donald Trump says: "You're fired!"

But there is a problem. It won't work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact that it's been government research and investment that made the railways possible and the internet possible. It's been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools that allowed us all to prosper. Our economic dependence depended on individual initiative. It depended on a belief in the free market; but it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity. That's what's produced our unrivaled political stability.

And so if we do nothing in the face of globalization, more people will continue to lose their health care. Fewer kids will be able to afford the diploma you're about to receive. More companies like United Airlines won't be able to provide pensions for their employees. And those Maytag workers will be joined in the unemployment line by any worker whose skills can be bought and sold on the global market.

Expect even better tonight.

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