Monday, September 8, 2008

Analysis: Barack Obama: Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speech

Following are excerpts of Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) speech [RCP Transcript, CNN Transcript, August 28, 2008] in which he accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for president:

These challenges are not all of government's making. But the failure to respond is a direct result of a broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush.

Comment: Obama is making the "failed policies" criticism of Bush. As with all such assertions, he needs to back it up first by clarifying what policy he is referring to and what its goal was. Then he needs to show that it was implemented fully, that it had ample time to succeed, and then offer empirical evidence of its failure, and show us what alternatives could have succeeded.


I don't believe that Senator McCain doesn't care what's going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn't know. Why else would he define middle-class as someone making under five million dollars a year?

Comment: Obama is deriding McCain as being out of touch with reality.

Moreover, McCain never seriously defined "middle-class" as "someone making under five million dollars a year". Obama is caricaturing McCain's comments at the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency on August 17, 2008 [Transcript: CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL: Saddleback Presidential Candidates Forum].

McCain was asked by the host -- Pastor Rick Warren -- to define the term "rich" as opposed to "poor" or "middle-class". McCain responded by saying:

Some of the richest people I've ever known in my life are the most unhappy. I think that rich should be defined by a home, a good job, an education and the ability to hand to our children a more prosperous and safer world than the one that we inherited. ... I think if you are just talking about income, how about $5 million?


But seriously, I don't think you can -- I don't think seriously that -- the point is that I'm trying to make here, seriously -- and I'm sure that comment will be distorted -- but the point is that we want to keep people's taxes low and increase revenues.

McCain didn't define "middle-class" in the way Obama describes. McCain first offered a definition that did not refer to income at all, but instead to the possession of "a home, a good job, an education", etc. He then jokingly offered a definition based on income, and then immediately reinforced that it was not a serious attempt at a definition. He went even further, to say -- perhaps joking again -- that his humorous "five million dollar" definition might be misrepresented.

Obama has done precisely that. He has distorted McCain's comments, and used that distortion in order to make a derisive "out of touch with reality" accusation. That is, he's used a falsehood to imply that McCain is just unaware of people's economic hardship.


It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it.

Comment: Again, Obama makes the "out of touch with reality" accusation.


For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy -- give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is -- you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps -- even if you don't have boots. You're on your own.

Comment: First of all, this isn't really a fair description of Republican economic policy, it's a caricature (in the same way that it's a caricature when Republicans sum up Democratic economic policy as "communism"). Second, whatever the Republican economic policy is, Obama has yet to substantiate in detail the claim that it is "discredited" -- that is, that it really is a "failed policy".


We Democrats have a very different measure of what constitutes progress in this country. We measure progress by how many people can find a job that pays the mortgage; whether you can put a little extra money away at the end of each month so you can someday watch your child receive her college diploma.

Comment: Republicans don't think that being able to pay your mortgage and save money for your children's' education is a good thing economically? Of course they do. Obama is offering up a caricature that serves to demonize Republicans.


We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether someone with a good idea can take a risk and start a new business.

Comment: Obama provides no evidence that Republicans measure the country's economic success "by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500". This is another caricature that serves to demonize Republicans.


We need a President who can face the threats of the future, not keep grasping at the ideas of the past.

Comment: Is Obama saying that we shouldn't make use of any ideas that have been used in the past? That would be unfortunate -- if it were even possible -- since not all old ideas are bad ideas. We should certainly be trying to discern good ideas from bad ideas, but it's baseless to say that an idea from the past is necessarily a bad idea. Does Obama's slate of presidential policies contain no ideas that have been raised or tried in the past?


These are the policies I will pursue. And in the weeks ahead, I look forward to debating them with John McCain. But what I will not do is suggest that the Senator takes his positions for political purposes. Because one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each others' character and patriotism. The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America -- they have served the United States of America. So I've got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first. America, our work will not be easy. The challenges we face require tough choices, and Democrats as well as Republicans will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past. For part of what has been lost these past eight years can't just be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits. What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose -- our sense of higher purpose. And that's what we have to restore.

Comment: Obama is making a call for everyone to live up to a higher standard. As with all such calls, it has to be more than just a statement in the abstract: specifically, how does Obama want people to improve their conduct? Will Obama also refrain from questioning the motives of his opponents, and stand up to any of his political allies who do so? Obama has already, in this very speech, derided McCain as "out of touch" and misrepresented some of his statements: is that behavior consistent with his call to live up to a higher standard?

Plus, Obama says that "Democrats as well as Republicans will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past". This -- like his earlier admonition that we "not keep grasping at the ideas of the past" -- needs clarification: does he mean that no policies or ideas that were used in the past are acceptable?


We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination. Passions fly on immigration, but I don't know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers. This too is part of America's promise -- the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort. I know there are those who dismiss such beliefs as happy talk. They claim that our insistence on something larger, something firmer and more honest in our public life is just a Trojan Horse for higher taxes and the abandonment of traditional values. And that's to be expected. Because if you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from.

Comment: Obama is making the case that, on highly controversial issues -- such as abortion, gun rights, gay and lesbian rights, and immigration -- there are at least some things that differing sides can agree upon.

That may be true, though it's not clear that it's sufficient to sustain Obama's "uniting the country" call and to "bridge divides and unite in common effort" on those issues. Even allowing the points of agreement he mentions, there will still be debates about:

  • whether late-term abortions should be legal;
  • how easy it should be to acquire a handgun;
  • whether one state must recognize the same-sex marriages performed by another state;
  • whether illegal immigrants should be allowed legal residence in the country.
Obama then goes on to say that some people will dismiss his calls for unity as "happy talk", and will accuse him of using talk about uniting under a "larger" "common effort" as an attempt to cajole conservatives into accepting "higher taxes and the abandonment of traditional values". And THEN Obama argues that anyone who DOES object along these lines to his call to unify is trying "to scare the voters".

In other words, he's saying that anyone who objects along these lines to his call to unify the country is fear-mongering.

Now, Obama may be correct to say that some people will object to his call to unify the country, and that they will object on the grounds that the kind of unity Obama asks for is one in which people agree with him on taxes and traditional values. I don't see any problem with those assertions on his part.

But it is unfounded for him to say that anyone who DOES disagree with him on those grounds is therefore engaging in fear-mongering. If Obama wants to make this accusation, he has to show that anyone who offers this line of objection is raising unjustified fears. And he hasn't given us any good reason to draw this conclusion.

(Obama does offer some sort of argument in the form of his statement that, "If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from." But this argument relies on the premise that the objectors "don't have a record to run on", which needs a great deal of clarification before we can even begin to assess its truth. More, the general line of reasoning -- which is something like, "my opponents are appealing to fear, therefore their objections to my calls for unity are baseless" -- sounds ad hominem, at least on the face of it.)


For eighteen long months, you have stood up, one by one, and said enough to the politics of the past.

Comment: Again, Obama isn't clear what this "politics of the past" is, though it's clear he's making an accusation along the lines of "negative politics". What, though, of the past are we to be rejecting? Everything? And in what respect is the "new" politics supposed to be virtuous? (Not everything new is good, after all.) Does the "new" politics manifest a higher standard that Obama himself is living up to?

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