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All Sizzle, No Fat in Obama’s Message


As America familiarizes itself with this year’s large crop of presidential candidates, it seems easier to compare the people running to office to politicians we’re more familiar with than to get to know them ourselves. Indulging in this parlor game a few weeks ago, I compared Republican Mike Huckabee to the Bill Clinton of 1992—but one without the demons of gluttony and adultery. Today, it’s Sen. Barack Obama’s turn.

And as with Huckabee, the best comparison for the Democratic presidential contender is a someone from across the political aisle.

The Obama campaign has embraced a monosyllabic message: change. Obama wants to spread hope through change to unify the country, much to the chagrin of those who point out that not all Americans may desire unifying around Obama’s specific version of change.

Here in California the tone of Obama’s message is familiar. It sounds much like that of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s why Obama may have trouble selling his fairy tale to Californians on February 5th. We’ve voted for a politician who promises the sizzle without the fat.

The defining moment of the Obama candidacy came not with his win in Iowa, but in a Las Vegas debate in mid-November. When asked what he would do about sending nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain – an unpopular idea in the state – the Illinois Senator skipped the pandering and started with the dreaming.

“I don’t think it’s fair to send it to Nevada… because we’re producing it.” Obama said, before continuing, “so what have to do is we’ve got to develop the storage capacity based on sound science. Now, laboratories like Argonne in my own home state are trying to develop ways to safely store nuclear waste without having to ship it across the country and put it in somebody else’s backward.”

Moderator Wolf Blitzer wasn’t buying it, so he pressed on, asking, “until there’s some new technological breakthrough, as you would hope and all of us would hope, where do you send the waste?”

After criticizing Blitzer for trying to find out what Obama’s practical solution to a real and urgent problem was, Obama rejected the question entirely: “But — but — but I’m running for president because I think we can do it. I reject… I reject the notion that we can’t meet our energy challenges.”

Then he finished with a flurry: “We can, if we’ve got bold leadership in the White House that is saying we are going to do something about climate change, we are going to develop renewable energy sources. That’s what I intend to do as president. And we shouldn’t, you know, be pessimistic about the future of America.”

As I see it, neither ‘hope’ nor ‘change’ will make the nation’s very real nuclear waste go away, but Senator Obama wasn’t having any of it, acting as if the President could wish away the nation’s problems. Barack Obama isn’t running a fairy tale campaign, as Bill Clinton suggested, he’s running for President of Fantasyland.

When he ran for Governor back in 2003, Schwarzenegger promised change. He said he would “blow up the boxes” of bureaucracy in Sacramento, address the budget crisis, pension reform and other pressing needs. When his actual proposals were put on the ballot two years later, voters rejected them.

With a booming economy, the State’s finances and the Governor’s public image improved – until this month. In his State of the State address, Schwarzenegger sounded like a visionary uniter of men, expressing his faith in government to address monumental crises, as it had in response to the Southern California wildfires last fall. The budget, he suggested, was in just such a crisis, and he entrusted the legislature to rise up to the moment and dream big about what can be done to improve education and provide universal healthcare in the face of a $14 billion fiscal hole.

The good will did not last long, however. Once the TV cameras were turned off and Schwarzenegger actually had to “govern”—releasing his budget blueprint which slashed school funding and closed public parks and beaches – Californians realized that you cannot have sizzle without the fat.

So far, the Obama message is all about the sizzle. We should be optimists about America and have faith that if we can dream a solution we can achieve it. Those are worthy goals indeed, but more often than not, those who hold them are forced to face the dirty reality of governing. Having bought the Schwarzenegger sizzle twice, Californians may be reluctant to think that a third time might work when Obama comes around to charm us.

Share  Posted by Scott Olin Schmidt at 9:52 AM | Permalink

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