In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president, Barack Obama had to negotiate a fine line. The throng in Denver’s football stadium was eagerly awaiting the eloquence and idealism that propelled him to the pinnacle of national politics. At the same time, he had to counter the Republicans’ caricature of those qualities as nothing more than the callow charisma of a political rock star. That meant giving content to the campaign theme of “Yes, we can.” It meant moving beyond the crowd-pleasing anti-Republican slogan “Eight is enough!” to provide an outline of the policies a Democratic administration would pursue in the ensuing four years.
To a considerable extent, Obama accomplished that feat. Some of the proposals in the speech were familiar: a rewrite of the tax code to benefit working families and small businesses and to end breaks for “corporations that seek to ship our jobs overseas.” Some were surprising: an energy policy that includes “ways to safely harness nuclear power.” On foreign policy, Obama elaborated on his theme -- which also has been lampooned by Republicans -- of opening channels of communication even to hostile nations. In addition to a familiar pledge to collaborate with other nations to combat terrorism, disease and climate change, he promised to “renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”
Two familiar Democratic themes dominated the proposals broached in the speech. One is to use the tax code to redistribute wealth. The other is to leverage government spending to equalize opportunities in education and employment. Not coincidentally, these themes resonate with the “ordinary Americans” with whom Hillary Rodham Clinton had such success in the Democratic primaries.
Many of those Americans no doubt reacted enthusiastically to Obama’s promises to close tax loopholes that benefit the rich and to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse in the federal bureaucracy. Others will wonder -- we do -- whether more government spending and a fairer tax code are enough to reduce income inequality or expand opportunities for workers who in a previous generation could count on well-paying jobs in the steel and auto industries.
Obama noted that 23 million jobs were created when Bill Clinton was president -- but they were not created by reconstructing the economy of the 1950s and ‘60s. In the campaign ahead, expect John McCain to ask Obama to prove that the journey on which he plans to take the country isn’t just a nostalgia trip. That will mean reconciling the Democratic goals of greater equality and a more activist government with the need to acknowledge and capitalize on a global economy.
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