Mr. Obama Moves On

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

AFTER A ROUGH patch, the confident, eloquent Barack Obama was back Tuesday night, proclaiming victory in North Carolina and, all but explicitly, in the Democratic nomination contest as well. Hillary Clinton may, as she promised yesterday, fight on through the next few weeks of primaries, but after her disappointing showing Tuesday she has no plausible route to victory. So Mr. Obama was sounding themes for the coming battle against John McCain. He will cede no ground on patriotism. He will paint Mr. McCain as a man of the past. Above all, he will end the politics of "polarization and gridlock" by "telling the truth -- forcefully, repeatedly, confidently -- and by trusting that the American people will embrace the need for change."

These are familiar phrases by now, appealing but also insubstantial. So far, there is a circularity to the message: Americans stand ready to be summoned to "a common purpose"; that purpose boils down to a desire for "change in America"; the desired change is "to no longer be defined by our differences." The vision can be inspiring. But as Mr. Obama moves into general-election mode, whether and how he adds substance will be key.

The need is in part tactical. Exit polls Tuesday showed that in both North Carolina and Indiana, fewer than half of Clinton voters said they would vote for Mr. Obama in November if he is the Democratic nominee. No doubt a rousing convention, distance from the wounds of the primary campaign, and dissatisfaction with the economy, the Iraq war and other elements of the status quo will bring many of those voters back into the fold. But the number of voters, and the number of Democratic voters in particular, who are unconvinced thus far presents Mr. Obama with a sizable challenge.

But it's not just a political challenge. Mr. Obama has been promising, most famously since his 2004 Democratic convention speech, to rise above traditional red state, blue state divisions, but his political program and his legislative record are almost entirely blue. Now he's entering the period when politicians generally move toward the center, no longer needing to appease quite so fervently the special interests of their base. We would hope that in Mr. Obama's case this does not mean simply a cynical repositioning but rather an honest exploration of how he intends "to overcome the politics of division and distraction." We would hope that, where he disagrees with Mr. McCain -- as he often will and should -- he does not continue to insist that people who vote Republican are "tricked into believing" that Democrats are out of touch (as he said last month) but that instead he will show enough respect for voters to argue on the merits.

Most of all, we look forward to hearing Mr. Obama fulfill his vision that "the American people aren't looking for more spin or more gimmicks, but honest answers about the challenges we face."

In the primary campaign, he has done his share and then some of telling people what they want to hear: on middle-class tax cuts, on trade, on how easy it will be "to end a war that isn't making us safer." There's been a lot less in the way of straight talk about tough choices. In the past few days, though, he bravely refused to go along with the gimmicky gas-tax holiday espoused by both Mr. McCain and Ms. Clinton. If that foreshadows the truth-telling Mr. Obama promised Tuesday, we could be in for an edifying campaign.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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