Today, the Washington Post compares commencement addresses given by candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton’s speech outlined a proposal for federal involvement in rebuilding New Orleans, while Obama used the opportunity to offer “words of inspiration and hope” and to encourage the new graduates to get involved in the world around them, decrying the “political and media culture that he said prizes the inconsequential at the expense of the important.”
Critics might say this type of speech amounts to nothing more than a pep talk – style as opposed to Clinton’s substance. A few months ago I might have said the same thing. But recently I’ve recognized something about Obama’s efforts to inspire hope – they’re working. His campaign website and conventional news coverage alike are rife with vignettes of the hardworking, everyday American who just a few months ago couldn’t care less about politics, but has now been inspired to give their time or money to a campaign for the first time in their lives. Obama is clearly striking a chord with people, and I’m willing to guess that the reason for this has been the “rhetoric of hope” critics have been so quick to dismiss.
When Obama was first emerging as a contender for the Democratic ticket, I was wary of his consistent religious references and apparent outreach to the conservative “middle” of the country. Republicans might get elected by moving toward the middle and finding religion, but Democrats can’t win on territory that’s not theirs. Instead of trying to win over the Republicans’ base, I thought, Democrats need to reach out to a large, untapped resource – people who have Democratic values, but have been disenchanted with politics or never involved in the first place. I don’t know if the Obama campaign is seeing their efforts in these terms, but this is what’s happening across the country. Obama is building a base of support made up of ordinary Americans who see him speak and simply like what they hear.
For those of us who have already been bitten (and in some cases, badly) by the political bug, it’s hard to imagine the perspective of someone who is apathetic toward politics altogether. I can see one of us being exasperated: “Of course politics affects your daily life; of course there’s a place for you.” But many people don’t see these connections or don’t see any hope for changing the broken system. Obama is reaching out to these people and convincing them that yes, there is a place for you, and together we really can make a difference. To the already-converted, this might sound like a useless pep talk, but to the rest of the country, Obama is the only candidate who bothers to address the reasons behind their apathy and attempt to build their trust.
So while Clinton continues to talk like a Senator, Obama will be reaching out to people who don’t like Senators. And he will be winning himself – and the Democratic party – some very loyal allies in the process.