Professor Obama's policy class.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 9 2007 7:02 PM

Health Class With Professor Obama

How to look substantive without a policy.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Sen. Barack Obama

The biggest knock on Barack Obama is that he's short on substance. This comes from his opponents, like John Edwards, who says it in public, and from Hillary Clinton supporters, who say it in private. Columnists have been writing it and writing it. A waitress in Des Moines, Iowa, summed his candidacy up this way to me a couple of weeks ago: "Too much fluff." Obama did not help himself at a health-care forum in Las Vegas last month. While his opponents outlined specific proposals, he twice told questioners that on this issue so important to his party's primary voters, his campaign was still developing a plan.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

But putting out detailed white papers isn't the only way to show your substance. Obama likes to strut his policy stuff by playing the professor. After 10 years teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago and several before that running meetings as a community organizer, he's highly skilled at talking to an audience in a way that exposes his knowledge. He did this at the two health-care forums he moderated last week. I was at the first in Portsmouth, N.H., last week (the second was held in Iowa). (Why am I taking so long to write about it in this Internet age? Well, the Q&A session went on for nearly two hours, and I don't have quite the candidate's focus. I had to go back to listen carefully to the tape.)

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Seated on a stool in themiddle of an audience of 200, Obama listened to one depressing story after another from people who had no insurance, bills that had bankrupted them, sudden losses of coverage, or only enough money to pay for the thinnest catastrophic policy. A woman who described herself as the CFO of a small business explained that her costs to cover the company's 10 employees went up 22 percent in the past year. One man described being fired by his employer and losing his coverage the day after having a stroke. Mothers explained the complexities of covering their children with Down syndrome.

Obama had clearly done his homework on this subject. He regularly offered facts: Two-thirds of the uninsured are employed; 20 percent to 30 percent of the $2 trillion spent annually on health care goes to paperwork and red tape. He occasionally referred to index cards to prompt the audience with questions about employer-based plans or their tolerance for possible tax increases. He appeared to be listening so intently that he neglected to laugh when one of the speakers made a joke.

There's a political downside to these events, of course. We're not electing a president to run a seminar. That Obama has to hold them to show he's serious only reminds voters that he doesn't have a lot of national political experience. If George Bush has demonstrated anything, it's that we should be extra nervous about candidates who need on-the-job training. But for Obama, the advantages of demonstrating detailed knowledge probably outweigh the dangers of trying too hard to prove it. The 100,000 people who donated to Obama's campaign in the first quarter and the massive crowds that show up at his events seem to be willing to give him the time he needs to formulate his detailed plans. If they were going to turn away from him because he lacks experience, they would have done so already. The events also allow Obama to show off his ability to listen and connect with people in their daily lives—a skill he clearly has, and one that voters tend to respond to positively.

Those who aren't already committed get to watch Obama think. Voters see how he assesses issues, balances competing priorities, and formulates conclusions. This is not just interesting, but necessary in evaluating a first-term senator with a truncated record. This will be our only way to know whether Obama thinks independently, how tied he is to his party's key constituencies and interest groups, and whether he can really sell his ideas to the public.

Obama has promised a plan in a few weeks, and the bar is high for him. He has two tasks beyond the obvious challenge of coming up with a workable system for universal care that isn't the same as someone else's. Obama has campaigned on a transcendent politics he calls a "common sense, non-ideological, practical-minded, generous agenda for change in this country." A proposal is where the rubber meets the road. If Obama's thinking is too unconventional and bipartisan, he'll risk alienating Democrats, and particularly unions. If his party's interest groups applaud him, he risks looking more political than transcendent.

An even bigger challenge for Obama is to create a national movement behind his policies. A questioner in Portsmouth asked why his health-care plan would be any different than all the plans that haven't gone anywhere. Wouldn't the lobbyists win again in the end? Obama's response indicated that with his leadership, "the people" would be stronger than the special interests this time around. But for that to happen, the country needs more than just a policy savant. It needs a political magician.

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