Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) has risen from the relative obscurity of Chicago politics to a real shot at the most powerful job on the planet. Despite his successful campaign for the Democratic nomination for president of the U.S., Obama's positions remain relatively unknown to many Americans.
Obama's big challenge this week at the Democratic National Convention will be to reach beyond the rhetoric. Sure, he can use his pat slogans of "change you can believe in" and "yes, we can," but he also has to demonstrate to the American people he's a strong leader ready to assume the difficult challenges we face as a nation.
Obama failed miserably in this regard last week during the Saddleback Forum on Faith in California. When asked by Pastor Rick Warren when human life begins, Obama launched his reply by saying: "That's above my pay grade." That was a major-league dodge of the question. In an effort not to offend anyone by taking a stance, he alienated everyone: evangelicals who wanted to hear "at conception" and women who wanted a statement supporting a woman's right to choose.
A leader has to take a strong stand to earn respect. Obama must learn from fellow Democrat Harry Truman who famously said: "The buck stops here." Obama should have said he supports a woman's right to choose -- his actual position -- and then lauded the goals of those who work to facilitate adoption and other services for unwanted children.
Abortion, however, is not the major issue on the minds of voters -- it's the economy. The declining purchasing power of wages and soaring petroleum prices have American consumers in a pinch. They want to know what a candidate can do to help them.
Obama had a chance to explain his vision on the economy in an
New York Times
economic reporter David Leonhardt. Obama began by saying: "My core economic theory is pragmatism, figuring out what works." That's fantastic. But how do you explain this to voters and make them understand what you plan to do?
Obama has to drop this penchant for nuanced answers. For example, he supported renegotiating free-trade agreements like NAFTA during the Democratic primaries. This pleased union leaders, who favor greater protections for the American worker. After the primary ended, he modified his rhetoric to say he supports free and fair trade. He cautiously tried to signal support for free markets. Which is it, Obama?
Luckily, Obama has an easy solution on economic matters. He has to position himself as a fighter for the middle class who will fight for good jobs and lower taxes for them. His life story perfectly illustrates the American dream. He came from a broken home and succeeded in life through education and hard work, not special treatment.
Obama benefited last week from Sen. John McCain's (R., Ariz.) gaffe on not knowing how many homes he owns. Obama has to demonstrate compassion for those facing tough economic times, those facing foreclosure and unemployment. He can then channel that compassion into his passion to fight for the American dream. He can follow the lead of former candidate John Edwards and become a voice for the lower and middle classes.
Obama can hammer President Bush and rival McCain for tax policies that have redistributed the balance of money from the middle class to the rich. Warren Buffet makes for a perfect example of the inequity. The billionaire investor says he pays about half the tax rate of his secretary because he pays capital gains of 15% compared to the 28% his secretary pays on income. Worse, the tax cut for Buffet has racked up budget deficits that our kids and grandkids will pay for years to come.
Obama can also emerge as a strong leader on foreign affairs. He commented in his October 2002 speech against the Iraq war: "I'm not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars." He doesn't have to sound like a pacifist. He can continue to point out the failure of the Bush administration to capture Osama Bin Laden and allowing Al-Qaeda and the Taliban to regroup in Afghanistan.
Obama can also oppose another war in the Middle East, speaking in favor of diplomacy to stop Iran from securing nuclear weapons. The Bush administration showed with their handling of North Korea that it is possible to find alternate solutions. McCain, on the other hand, has joked that we need to "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb" Iran.
Yes, Obama has an opportunity Thursday night in his acceptance speech. Americans want someone who can take charge. If Obama wants to win in November, he has to be a fighter for both the middle class and the war on terror, not a leader who proposes nuanced positions.