Obama and Clinton on the Issues

Several commenters were taken aback by my suggestion in the Barack Obama’s Cult of Personality post that Obama was running a personality-driven campaign on a “vision for leadership that’s remarkably short on specifics.”

There’s no question that Obama has put out issues papers and that one can get a sense of what he wants to do on various matters of public policy. My point is simply that his appeal based more on charisma and energy and “hope” and “change” than on ideology or policy vision.

My colleague Joe Synder earlier mentioned to me the differences in the Clinton and Obama websites on an unrelated matter of site design. But the sites are an excellent starting point for this.


Look at the splash pages:

Barack Obama Website Splash Page

Hillary Clinton Website Splash Page

Obama’s site is uncluttered and more powerful. But you have to click to get beyond “Change We Can Believe In.” Let’s do that, though, to get to what might be more fairly called the “true” home page:

Barack Obama Website Home Page

The entire page is devoted to feel-good news releases and the like. Clinton’s site, by contrast, is all about promoting speeches, issue blogs, and the like. True, there’s an “ISSUES” button in the top navbar, as there is on Clinton’s site. But, rather clearly, the issues are de-emphasized.

Let’s turn now to the ISSUES pages. It’s not that hard to make two clicks to get there, after all. Both sites have thumbnail images and hyperlinks to issue papers with a short blurb summarizing the candidate’s views. Both sets of summaries, frankly, are platitudinous. That’s not surprising. But, even so, Clinton’s at least makes reference to legislation and public policy-making; Obama’s just emphasizes hope. She points to laws passed or programs proposed whereas his talks mostly about reaching out and finding common ground. Hers is policy wonk; his blue skies and rainbows.

Some examples:

Health Care:

“I…believe that every American has the right to affordable health care. I believe that the millions of Americans who can’t take their children to a doctor when they get sick have that right…We now face an opportunity – and an obligation – to turn the page on the failed politics of yesterday’s health care debates. It’s time to bring together businesses, the medical community, and members of both parties around a comprehensive solution to this crisis, and it’s time to let the drug and insurance industries know that while they’ll get a seat at the table, they don’t get to buy every chair.”

Nearly 47 million Americans — including 9 million children — don’t have health insurance. America is ready for universal health care. Hillary has the vision and the experience to make it a reality. This is a battle Hillary has fought before — and she has the scars to prove it. She knows better than anyone how to fight and build the political support to get the job done.

Energy:

The choices we make about energy touch nearly every aspect of our lives. Our economy, our national security, our health, and the future of our planet are all at stake as we make a choice between energy independence and dependence on foreign sources of oil. Hillary has proposed an Apollo Project-like program dedicated to achieving energy independence.

Senator Obama has been a leader in the Senate in pushing for a comprehensive national energy policy and has introduced a number of bills to get us closer to the goal of energy independence. By putting aside partisan battles, he has found common ground on CAFE, renewable fuels, and clean coal.

Immigration:

Barack Obama has played a leading role in crafting comprehensive immigration reform. Obama believes the immigration issue has been exploited by politicians to divide the nation rather than find real solutions. This divisiveness has allowed the illegal immigration problem to worsen, with borders that are less secure than ever and an economy that depends on millions of workers living in the shadows.

Our immigration system is in crisis. The laws we currently have on the books are inadequate and no longer serve our best interests. As a nation, we place a premium on compassion, respect, and policies that help families, but our immigration laws don’t reflect that. Hillary has consistently called for comprehensive immigration reform that respects our immigrant heritage and honors the rule of law.

The differences are subtle, to be sure. Both are vague at the top level — which is where the lion’s share of voters stay — and force a drill down to get to specific proposals. But Obama’s message is mostly, “Trust me, I know how to build consensus.” Hers is, “I’ve got a plan and the experience to make it happen.”

Clearly, his message is more resonant. But it’s an ephemeral one.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, General, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Alex Knapp says:

    This might be my biases showing, James, but I just don’t see it. In fact, I think that the energy positions point to the exact opposite of your argument. Hillary’s website is aspirational on energy issues (“an Apollo program”), while Obama’s focuses on experience and laws passed (“has introduced a number of bills to get us closer to the goal of energy independence”).

    Furthermore, I find it telling that Obama’s website, from the examples you selected, doesn’t just say, “I will build consensus”, but also focuses on Obama’s experience in actually building consensus. Isn’t actual experience in bridging people together relevant experience for the Presidency? Because Hillary sure doesn’t have that.

  2. Triumph says:

    My colleague Joe Synder earlier mentioned to me the differences in the Clinton and Obama websites on an unrelated matter of site design. But the sites are an excellent starting point for this.

    I love how you chide the “liberal intelligensia” for curiously favoring the vacuous Obama and then you go into an “analysis” of his campaign based on the design of his website. That’s real deep.

    You also cherry pick sections from his website that seem to support your view of Obama as ignoring policy.

    For instance you missed:

    Specifically, the Obama plan will: (1) establish a new public
    insurance program, available to Americans who neither qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP
    nor have access to insurance through their employers, as well as to small businesses that
    want to offer insurance to their employees; (2) create a National Health Insurance
    Exchange to help Americans and businesses that want to purchase private health
    insurance directly; (3) require all employers to contribute towards health coverage for
    their employees or towards the cost of the public plan ; (4) mandate all children have
    health care coverage; (5) expand eligibility for the Medicaid and SCHIP programs; and
    (6) allow flexibility for state health reform plans.

    He then proceeds to list in detail how his plan would be implemented to meet these needs. This level of substance is all over his website on scores of issues.

    If you want to play the “website game,” you should contrast Obama (or Hillary, for that matter) to McCain, who offers that he’s “ready to lead on day one” and where visitors are invited to watch a video about the candidate’s “courageous service” as a navy fighter pilot. Substance, indeed.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Triumph: I didn’t “miss” anything; that’s not on the main ISSUES page that I was comparing.

    Alex: I’d note that GW Bush ran on his record of building consensus, too. But, sure, that’s an excellent quality to have in a president. My point is just that he’s running on charisma, charm and likability rather than on policy.

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    I’d note that GW Bush ran on his record of building consensus, too.

    Touche. Though it’s worth pointing out that it’s harder to build consensus in the U.S. Senate than it is in the Texas statehouse. Ask GW Bush…

    My point is just that he’s running on charisma, charm and likability rather than on policy.

    To a certain extent that’s certainly true, which I think is partially a consequence of his being an unknown quantity to a lot of people. Also, it’s tough to blame him for running a charisma campaign against Hillary Clinton. You do have to play to your strengths, after all.

  5. Tlaloc says:

    I tend to agree with Mr. Joyner. I think Obama is an excellent speaker, and is clearly charismatic, but I’m not getting the impression that there’s much substance to his campaign (which is not the same as saying there isn’t much substance to the man).

    Those areas where he has put forth specifics he’s been pretty disasterously wrong (as with his health care policy- it’s incredibly bad). On top of that there really is a kind of creepy messianic treatment by *some* of his supporters that I’ve never seen in a dem race.

  6. Aengil says:

    Not convinced.

    For starters, I think it’s pretty weak to click through to issues on both their sites and then stop at the blurb, rather than making one more click to get to the specifics. It’s always iffy to try to put too much weight on a short summary of a topic.

    But that said, their messages in the blurb are both “I can do this” without being specific as to how. I mean, take the Immigration blurb you picked out – where’s the ‘plan’ in Clinton’s? It just says “Hillary has consistently called for comprehensive immigration reform.” Whereas Obama’s says “Barack Obama has played a leading role in crafting comprehensive immigration reform.”

    If anything, the difference there is Clinton is saying “I’ve been saying we should do this” where Obama’s is saying “I’ve already started”. Hardly an ephemeral message from Obama, especially when one more click brings you more detail.

  7. LaurenceB says:

    First of all, I appreciate the fact that James takes the time to respond to comments.

    What James has taken the time to do is to demonstrate (I think fairly) that Obama is more likely to talk about “hope” and “change” than is Clinton. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. However, it’s not impossible for a candidate to do that and also to have a full set of policy positions. I believe that’s the case with Obama.

    To make the case that Obama’s positions on policy are “short on details”, one would have to show where Obama actually comes up short.

  8. Tlaloc says:

    For starters, I think it’s pretty weak to click through to issues on both their sites and then stop at the blurb, rather than making one more click to get to the specifics.

    I think that’s sort of the point though. With Clinton the specifics are right there- I mean RIGHT there. With Obama it’s “go find them.”

    That indicates a difference in style, specifically the style of the campaign. Obama is campaigning in a way that is based on basically fluff. Which is not to say it isn’t effective. Reagan amply proved how open the American people are to vacuous feel good messages from politicians.

  9. LaurenceB says:

    Tlaloc,
    That Obama uses more soaring rhetoric is a given. Nobody contests this. But isn’t it possible for a candidate to speak generously of his “vision”, and also to have fully-fleshed-out policy positions? In fact, wouldn’t that be the ideal candidate?

  10. Tlaloc says:

    But isn’t it possible for a candidate to speak generously of his “vision”, and also to have fully-fleshed-out policy positions?

    I think the key here is that it’d be nice if the politician in question talked about *both*. That is that they made the flowery speeches but they also made the policy speeches. Unfortunately this cycle we seem to be given a choice between candidates that only do one or the other.

  11. Grewgills says:

    To extend the comparison to the other side to the aisle let’s look at the blurbs on the issues page of McCain and Huckabee:
    Health Care – McCain

    John McCain is willing to address the fundamental problem: the rapidly rising cost of U.S. health care. Bringing costs under control is the only way to stop the erosion of affordable health insurance, save Medicare and Medicaid, protect private health benefits for retirees, and allow our companies to effectively compete around the world.

    – Huckabee

    The health care system in this country is irrevocably broken, in part because it is only a “health care” system, not a “health” system. We don’t need universal health care mandated by federal edict or funded through ever-higher taxes. We do need to get serious about preventive health care instead of chasing more and more dollars to treat chronic disease, which currently gobbles up 80% of our health care costs, and yet is often avoidable. The result is that we’ll be able to deliver better care where and when it’s needed.

    Immigration – McCain

    I have always believed that our border must be secure and that the federal government has utterly failed in its responsibility to ensure that it is secure. If we have learned anything from the recent immigration debate, it is that Americans have little trust that their government will honor a pledge to do the things necessary to make the border secure.

    – Huckabee

    My number one priority is to secure America’s border. I opposed the amnesty bill that was defeated by the Senate in June.

    Energy – McCain
    …nothing there…
    – Huckabee

    The first thing I will do as President is send Congress my comprehensive plan for energy independence. We will achieve energy independence by the end of my second term.

    Does anyone really see more substance in these positions? If anything there is less substance, particularly on energy policy.

  12. tom p says:

    OK… I’ll admit that I have not listened to many of Hillary’s speeches, nor have I ever been to her website, but I FAIL to see the “substantive policy positions” in any of their above statements. The closest I have come to substance in the above is:

    Hillary has proposed an Apollo Project-like program dedicated to achieving energy independence.

    But what the H-E- double hockey sticks does THAT mean? Does she intend to fund existing energy companies research? Start ups? Tax breaks for one or the other? Both? Tax Credits? Subsidize ethanol? Renewables(Wind, solar, wave, geothermal)? Change federal laws (tax codes for one) in such a way as to enhance the profitably of renewables?

    And HOW in the H-E-double hockeysticks does this all get paid for?

    No matter who is speaking, it is all flowers and perfumes. If you want the meat and potato’s you have to get a knife and a fork out, and cut away the fat (or pork if you prefer).

    Disclaimer: Yeah, I voted for Obama. Why? Because for starters, he has proven an ability to work across the aisle (even when he and those on the other side could not come to a compromise they still appreciated his ready ear), and I am among those who beleive that divided gov’t works best (like when Billy boy had to make deals with the GOP’ers in the House)(I don’t give Bill sole credit for the balanced budget… just half)(co-equal branches of gov’t and all that)

  13. Tlaloc says:

    Yeah, I voted for Obama. Why? Because for starters, he has proven an ability to work across the aisle

    When? In Illinois? Okay, great. Now why would you consider that applicable to the federal government? Meanwhile Hillary has actually done very well in the senate of working with republicans (insert joke here).

    I hate the fact that I come across as a Hillary supporter when I really don’t particularly like her politics, but Obama supporters are consistently so hyperbolic that it rankles. If they would just confine themselves to something approaching reality we’d get along much better.

  14. tom p says:

    Tlaloc: Politics is politics (“All politics is local.” Tip O’Neill)

    The point of my post was simply that Hillary and Obama are similarly vague on specifics (he is one HELL of a lot more eloquent, I think we can all agree on that)

    But here’s a dose of reality (OK the joke you asked me to insert here): Everybody but you and me hates Hillary… Except for those she is voting with when the political winds are blowing (Iraq for instance)(my own personal pet peeve) And then I am merely disgusted with her. You? (This is an honest question, I put no words in your mouth)

    Honestly Tlaloc, I do not know why you feel you are being “put” in Hillary’s camp, or even less why you feel I am being “Hyperbolic”… When what I said was, NEITHER had any real substance in their above referenced statements. Yeah, I picked on her statement. Why? Because her words were “full of sound and fury, signafying nothing” (see, I even read a little poetry from time to time)

    Look, whether you or I like it, substance does not get one very far in a primary election. For those of us who care, we have to DIG. (and no, I do not like everything he says… but Hey… when did anyone agree with everything I thought to be right???)(and I AM right 😉

    As to why he would get further than her in dealing with Rep congressman???? Where have you been for the last 15 years? Thay hate her, OK, ok… I exagerate when I say “they”, but you have to admit, even among those who don’t “hate” her there is very little respect for her (she folded like a pair of treys against a full boat on the Iraq vote…. even when she had a royal flush)(if only she had read the Iraq NIE)(if only she had had the balls to stand up and say “No.”)(she was afraid of “appearing” weak…. little did she know that is exactly what she demonstrated), For Obama, they do not know what to make of him. Maybe he is just another liberal demagogue (who, whether they like it or not, has 60-70% of the voters behind him?)(OK, I dream here) But maybe, JUST maybe he will listen? He has listened to others…

    Yeah… I bet on a roll of the dice. But as an independent (with a decidedly liberal bent)(a subject for a different post) I make no apologies. I bet on a winning hand, maybe I was wrong, but I knew it was not a losing hand (HRC).

    The times they are a’changing. I honestly do not know where this election is going… but history will say that things will never be the same.

    tom