Is Obama as much of a straight talker as he claims?

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Jan. 18 2008 5:59 PM

A Few Inconvenient Truths

Is Obama as much of a straight talker as he claims?

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

Barack Obama has a great new act needling Hillary Clinton over her double-speak. He says that at the last debate when the candidates were asked to name their greatest weakness, he answered honestly (he's no good at paperwork), but Clinton and Edwards gave fake answers. Pretending to talk about their weaknesses, they actually talked about their strengths. If he'd known it was a game, said Obama at a rally in Las Vegas, he would have given the same kind of answer: "Well, ya know, I like to help old ladies across the street. Sometimes they don't want to be helped. It's terrible." (Or perhaps he could have answered that his weakness is that he answers questions too honestly.)

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.

At the same debate, Clinton said she voted for a bankruptcy bill but was glad it didn't pass. "What does that mean?" Obama asked his audience, to laughter. "No, seriously, what does that mean? If you didn't want to see it passed, then you can vote against it! People don't say what they mean."

Obama has rich and plentiful Clinton material to work with here, and the jokes hit her on a big weakness—that voters don't think they can trust her. One other example he might add is that Clinton spends lots of time delineating all the reasons Obama is not fit to be president, but then when she is asked the unfit question directly, she says that's an issue for the voters to decide. It walks, quacks, has feathers, webbed feet, a beak, and we call it Donald, but it's up to the voters to call it a duck.

A conversation about candidates who don't exactly say what they mean would not be complete, though, without examining Obama's own campaign-trail history of not saying exactly what he means. For months, he has told audiences in nearly every speech that he is the kind of candidate who is going to tell voters what they should hear, not what they want to hear. This gets applause and makes Obama look politically courageous for risking voter anger for the sake of the truth. The problem is, he doesn't really do the actual truth-telling much. I've not seen every Obama speech, of course, but I've seen a lot of them, and I've never heard him say anything that might make his audience shift in their seats out of discomfort. Mostly he tells voters what they do want to hear, both with his infectious message of hope and his belittling of the Bush administration.

I have, a few times, heard Obama say things that might make voters mildly uncomfortable. He told a questioner that his energy policies would cause a temporary increase in electric bills, for example. But then he quickly assured the man that costs would go down soon thereafter. I've also heard him, a couple of times in front of large black audiences, call for the African-American community to stop devaluing education and ask black men to take better care of the children they father. This gets applause.

At times, he has also called for merit pay for teachers, which the teachers' union didn't like; and he has said he won't mindlessly slash defense spending. These represent a kind of bravery in his otherwise pretty standard set of Democratic policy views, but these are one-offs. They are not mentioned that often, and they are certainly not central elements of his standard pitch. This isn't the limit of what voters honestly need to hear or of brave stands a candidate could take.

Hillary Clinton doesn't say much of anything to make audiences uncomfortable, but then she doesn't promise she's going to in every speech, either. Obama's problem may be that he's falling short of his own standard of previous courage as demonstrated in the honesty of his first book, his politically courageous call for civility among liberal bloggers, and his speech about religion and politics for which he was walloped by members of his party.

When I asked his aides for examples from the campaign that I might have missed of Obama's self-touted truth-telling trait, I got one that just didn't fit at all. Obama told Iowans that "ethanol was neither the perfect nor permanent solution to our energy problems." This is exceedingly mild. If Obama really shifted his long-standing support for ethanol (he represents the second-largest ethanol-producing state), the message was too subtle for Iowans. "He's got a track record of supporting ethanol," Todd Church, the plant manager who showed Obama around the largest ethanol plant in the state, told the Financial Times. "That's important here. You can't fool people in Iowa."

As proof of his truth-telling, Obama also often cites—and has made an ad about—his May 2007 speech in front of Detroit executives in which he called for higher efficiency standards. Obama rightly points out that a less brave politician would have given the speech in front of the Sierra Club. The moment certainly shows a kind of bravery, but the Detroit speech isn't an example of telling rank-and-file voters a hard truth, as Obama claims it is; it's an example of speaking truth to corporate power, which is a standard successful Democratic applause line. He ultimately received a standing ovation after the speech, and outside of Michigan it no doubt delighted a Democratic electorate full of Prius drivers who are more concerned about climate change than the fate of GM and Ford.

Calling for higher efficiency standards might have angered the autoworkers union except that it actually supported the most recent hike. Obama seemed to be nervous enough about the UAW reaction, though, that he dashed by the whole issue in a single sentence when courting Iowa's UAW before the caucus.

The point is not that Obama has never taken a brave position. The issue is that as a candidate he talks about telling hard truths far more than he actually does so. To claim regularly that he's going to tell audiences what they need to hear and not what they want to hear, and then to skirt delivering on that promise consistently is, to use a favorite Obama word, audacious.

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