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Still, sixteen months after announcing his candidacy, and after twenty-six Presidential debates and thousands of public-speaking engagements, Obama remains a puzzle to many voters. Almost as dedicated a policy wonk as Hillary Clinton and arguably more centrist in his economic beliefs, he offers plenty of specifics about what needs to be done. But his captivating eloquence and his slogan—“Change We Can Believe In”—have seemed to lift him dangerously high above the concrete. He has proved his steadiness of purpose without clearly defining his priorities. What, above all, does he intend to accomplish if he is elected President? . . .
The general consistency of Obama’s policy views—with an occasional bald deviation, as on the public funding of his campaign—is a contrast to John McCain’s erratic shape-shifting. McCain opposed the Bush tax cuts as skewed toward the rich, and unsustainable; now he wants to extend them forever. He co-sponsored a relatively humane immigration bill; now he disowns it. He deplored the torture of detainees at Guantánamo; now he attacks the Supreme Court’s decision granting them the constitutional right to challenge in federal court their continued detention as “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.” . . .
Obama promises to tell voters what they need to know and not what they want to know. It’s a risky strategy, and one he doesn’t always follow, but when he put it into effect in April, by attacking McCain’s proposed summer gasoline-tax holiday, he helped his campaign more than he hurt it. Last week, he denounced McCain’s latest reversal, on offshore drilling. But he needs to go further. A year ago, he likened “the tyranny of oil” to that of Fascism and Communism, saying, “The very resource that has fueled our way of life over the last hundred years now threatens to destroy it if our generation does not act now and act boldly.” This is the kind of unequivocal message that Obama needs to develop. By telling just such inconvenient truths, Al Gore has inspired a worldwide movement to arrest climate change. The next President could be its most powerful leader. Obama will not rouse voters by getting lost in a tussle with McCain over the virtues of cellulosic ethanol. He can, however, make voters part of the solution by helping them understand that the greedy oil companies, the failing auto industry, and the craven Congress will not redeem themselves until consumers demand that they do so by making some inconvenient changes of their own. A little more audacity will yield a lot more hope.