Reagan also displayed strong convictions; revolutionary ideas. In 1980, Ronald Reagan declared: Down with big government! And concerning foreign policy he said: America ought to negotiate with the Soviets from a position of strength. Reagan had unambiguous policy objectives. Moreover, his straightforward ideas were highly contentious. Saying controversial things with a sense of conviction made Reagan appear brave.
By contrast, Barack Obama's message is all "Morning in America." The Obama campaign reflects the sunny side of Reagan, not the underdog fighter side. With respect to Obama, it is hard to detect anything concrete about a message that amounts to little more than the hopeful promise of change. I happen to believe Obama is a man of principle. But I am left wondering what his principles stand for in terms of substantive policies. In 1980 Ronald Reagan spelled this out for Americans and the world.
Obama -- assuming he wins his party's nomination -- will be pitted against a man with a clear message: McCain -- McCain who is winning the Republican Party nomination because his main opponent, Romney, was perceived not to stand for anything. At least when you see McCain's strange website, you know McCain has convictions. McCain's campaign shouts: America is at war with terrorists and so must elect a warrior to lead the country in battle -- and do some good societal things on the side.
And if Barack Obama becomes the Democratic nominee, in November there remains a strong likelihood that Americans will pick McCain as their leader. Because John McCain clearly stands for something.
On the other hand, if Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, in a match-up with McCain at least Hillary Clinton will be able to say: "I'm every bit as competent as McCain. And I am better than McCain because I have a plan to end the war in Iraq and the knowledge to keep American safe." Hillary is not vulnerable on the basic question of competence or whether she and Bill can protect the American people.
To date, Obama's inspiring speeches have attracted many educated Democrats with high-level aspirations. Obama's present approach might win him a general election in Sweden or Canada. But in the US, a presidential candidate must address the safety issue before he or she can successfully appeal to people's dreams and higher aspirations. Despite the "land of the free" rhetoric, America is a country where many people subsist near the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid. Many Americans are not at the "self-actualization stage." The demographics of the US do not mirror the profile of the enthusiastic early Obama supporter.
Unless Obama learns from Ronald Reagan's successful bid for the White House, McCain's campaign is liable turn the rhetoric of the Obama candidacy against Obama. McCain's people will bombard US voters with variations of these lines:
Hope won't keep America safe. Vote McCain.
Hope won't save your job. Vote McCain.
However, McCain cannot use these devastating slogans against Hillary Clinton. She is not vulnerable to the charge that she offers hope of change without substance.
Barack Obama might yet be the Democrats' ticket to the presidency in 2008. But first Obama needs to show he is brave enough to present his priorities clearly with conviction. I long to hear some bold ideas worthy of the rhetoric.
I want to hear Obama say he will make America safe. Safe from corporate predators. Safe from inept bankers, media conglomerates, drug and insurance companies, big oil, and the shady dealings of military contractors. What if Obama redefined national security?
Because Barack Obama's present approach won't cut it. He is unlikely to win if he is perceived both lacking in conviction and short on competence. Obama can't do much about the second, but now is the time for him to shore up the first. Twenty-eight years ago a former actor made up by way of sheer audacity what he lacked in terms of knowledge and experience. It's a lesson for Barack Obama.