In the matter of Barack Obama and his rhetorical style, a familiar and tedious critique appears -- and reappears -- each time the candidate steps on a new stage. The high-falutin' words. The inspiring sentiments, devoid of any content or connection to reality. The absence of policy prescriptions. The poverty of ideas, beyond the spine-tingling oratory.
And so it is today, following Obama's performance before some 200,000 good burghers of Berlin: "Obama, Vague on Issues, is a Crowd-Pleaser in Europe," intones a New York Times headline, in a typical example of the genre. The suggestion seems to be that Obama missed a perfect opportunity to explain his views on GATT, say, or perhaps offer his opinions on the European Union's standards for global financial integration. For that matter, why didn't Obama take this golden moment to announce a radical new initiative for the earned income tax credit?
Is there -- indeed, could there have been -- a less congenial setting and moment for wonkery than yesterday in Berlin? All the more so, in light of universal agreement among the chattering classes that the reason for Obama's trip was to introduce himself on the world stage. Would he, the central question went, succeed in appearing "presidential" in such an august setting, in front of those who, until now, had experienced Obama only from afar?
And now, having done exactly that, Obama is guilty of 'playing innocent abroad,' in David Brooks's inelegant parlance. In his column today, Brooks compares Obama in Berlin yesterday to Reagan and Kennedy in Berlin two and four decades ago. Alas, Obama comes up short. Kennedy invoked "hard realities"; Reagan cited "tough policies." Whereas Obama's "golden rhetoric impresses less, the evasion of hard choices strikes one more."
Hard choices? Tough policies? Hmmm. Might Our Mister Brooks have overlooked one little 'bitty fact? Kennedy and Reagan were already president when they went to Berlin. Obama is more than a month away from being the nominee! I confess utter bewilderment at the inaptness of the comparison. What could explain Brooks disappointment at our current presidential aspirant?
Brooks himself provides the answer. He confesses that he was stirred by Obama's ringing oratory at the beginning of the campaign, back in Iowa. But now "it is more than half a year on" and "it turns out the vague overture is the entire symphony." Imagine! Here it is late July, just a month before the political conventions, barely more than three months until election day, and Obama has not laid out his program for even his first term in office, much less his second! Clearly, the manner and rate at which Obama reveals himself, his plans, and his policies have inconvenienced our Mister Brooks. Attention Senator Obama: speed things up, please, we're getting impatient out here.
There is one more component of yesterday's speech that Brooks and some others overlook entirely. Put simply, Obama offered up the very foundation of his foreign policy and his over-arching world view. Berlin, Europe, the world, all anxiously await what follows the calamity of the last eight years. It was Obama's job yesterday to address those anxieties. And he did so, unambiguously. An Obama administration, he made clear, would turn away from American exceptionalism and unilateralism. While declaring his love for his country, Obama announced that the era of American triumphalism would be put to rest. The United States would rejoin the community of nations which it actually quit in January of 2001, nine months before the start of the war on terror.
So, a question: what, precisely, is vague about that?