The Blog

Is Obama Ready? Sit Tight

Though Obama might not be quenching the thirst for detailed plans and proposals that many readers desperately want to see Obama lay out, what he is doing is very smart.
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In the past couple of weeks here at HuffPost, there's what can only be described as Obama backlash. Both my friend David Sirota and Russell Shaw wrote excellent posts on why Senator Barack Obama doesn't have the right stuff on policy or isn't ready to carry the Democratic party banner for President. Reading through the comments, most of them agreed with the blog posts.

I take a somewhat different view. Though Obama might not be quenching the thirst for detailed plans and proposals that many readers on here have, and desperately want to see Obama lay out, what he is doing is very smart. In fact, it's the only way the Presidency has been won in modern times.

To run a successful campaign, it is essential that you start with the big picture, and then work your way down to issues. If you go the other way around, you're caught trying to fit a bunch of disjointed pieces together into a larger vision. That rarely, if ever, works. You can take a look at the candidacies of John Kerry, Al Gore, Bob Dole and so on as ones that never really defined the grand vision of where they wanted to take the country, but rather focused on issues first, and worried about a direction later.

Jimmy Carter started with the promise of a government as good as its people. Ronald Reagan had the theme of his presidency restoring confidence in a secure America. George H.W. Bush had his kinder, gentler nation. Bill Clinton opened his campaign with restoring the promise of America (which later became A Place Called Hope). George W. Bush talked of a nation of compassionate conservatism. None of these candidates opened up the dialogue talking about trade, or the environment, or singular issues. Yes, they espoused general views on them, as Barack Obama has, but none of them fleshed anything out until the campaign moved forward, and did so in such a way that it was consistent with the vision they had for America.

Out of all of Bill Clinton's 1992 speeches, I only ever remember one line: "He mocks it, as the 'vision thing.'" That was Bill Clinton speaking at Madison Square Garden, in front of the convention. It was the singularly most important line of the campaign, because it crystallized the idea that George Bush had just not talked about his idea of what kind of country he wanted to make in the next four years, but he actively pooh-poohed it. Meanwhile, it reminded people that Bill Clinton articulated it early, and every single thing he proposed after that neatly fit into his greater plan for where he wanted America to go, with him at the helm.

It's interesting that Bill Clinton so well understood this in 1992, but that his wife is in danger of forgetting it leading up to 2008. All signs point to her believing that Bill Clinton's success was based on triangulation - taking the small issues and staking out a 'centrist' stance on them. If anything, triangulation kept Democrats from winning back the Congress from Newt Gingrich and did very little to help Bill Clinton. In 1996, it was a great economy and a disastrous Bob Dole candidacy that kept Clinton in the White House, not school uniforms. Had Bill Clinton started off his candidacy in 1992 with triangulation, he would have never won the nomination, let alone the Presidency. As Senator Clinton begins pondering a run, she would be wise to remember that next time she's thinking of a press conference on video game violence.

That is another reason Obama is resisting any pressure to get down in the weeds and kick off his pre-candidacy with policy debates; because it contrasts Hillary Clinton's strategy. Obama is setting himself up nicely to be as Bill Clinton was to Bush in 1992 - big vision versus small.

So, Barack Obama will continue to go around the nation and give his stump speeches about a national reconciliation, restoring hope and optimism, and giving everyone the opportunity that he had, all the way through the months after he announces that he's running. Then, we'll start to hear some of the meat. At that point it will be much more fair to judge whether he's got the right ideas to carry the party banner, let alone what it takes to lead our nation.

Is it on our timeline? Nope. Is it frustrating? Sure thing. Does it mean people are wrong when they say he's someone who could be ready to be President? Not at all. If anything, Barack Obama is making all the same moves as each of our Presidents did to start their campaigns, over the past few decades.