Matthew Burton

“Obama is all talk” is all talk

Scroll down for an update to this post, February 20

The Clinton campaign’s new strategy is to cast Obama as an orator, and nothing else. From today’s Times:

“Speeches don’t put food on the table,” Mrs. Clinton said at a General Motors plant in Warren, Ohio, on Thursday morning. “Speeches don’t fill up your tank, or fill your prescription, or do anything about that stack of bills that keeps you up at night.”

“My opponent gives speeches. I offer solutions.”

“It’s about whether you choose the power of solutions over the power of speeches.”

(That last quote is from Bill.)

Hogwash. I’ve been hearing this more and more lately: Obama is all talk, everything he says is vague, he never talks details, we don’t know what he offers…and on and on. Not only is it crap. The opposite is true: there is much more meat to Obama’s platform than Clinton’s, and I’ll prove it.

Now, before I begin, I want to say that I’m neither a Clinton fan nor an Obama fan (nor McCain, for that matter). My candidate dropped out long ago. Like that candidate, I worship facts and I despise catchy slogans that belie the truth. Vote for whomever you want. Just make sure your vote isn’t influenced by a lie.

That said, let’s begin.

Go to and look at the Issues page. Read each issue’s dedicated page.

Now go to and look the issues page. Read each issue’s dedicated page.

You Obama fans already know what I’m getting at. You can stop reading this article.

For the unconvinced, keep reading. Here’s a breakdown of their Web sites’ content in the context of the above statements by the Clintons. I’ve roughly calculated how many pages of details each candidate offers on each issue:

Issue Obama Clinton Who’s got more?
Civil rights 6 page PDF 0 4.5p press release, corrected by Syphos in comments Obama
Disabilities 9 pages. 8-page PDF on disabilities (probably some overlap with civil rights document), and a dedicated 1-page PDF on autism. 0 Obama
Economy 5p PDF, with some overlap in content with other topics Hard to quantify. The site has a “blueprint”, a “stimulus plan”, and several other plans and press releases about the economy. Many of them probably have lots of overlapping information. Can’t say
Education ~16 pages in PDF files. 14 on K-12, 2 on college affordability. 10 at most. Hard to quantify. Site has several different pages, each on a different aspect of education at various typefaces, sizes, etc. Obama
Energy / Environment ~15 pages in PDF. Two separate plans for energy and environment, with some overlap ~11, PDF Obama
Ethics/government reform 5 in PDF ~1 Obama
Fiscal policy <1 <1; no dedicated page Can’t say
Foreign policy ~2p PDF file Hard to say, but more than Obama. Site links to article in Foreign Affairs on her foreign policy. Site also has agendas on global AIDS, development, and Latin American cooperation. Clinton
Health care ~10 ~8 Obama
Homeland security 2.5 0?? Obama
Immigration 1.5 1 Obama
Iraq ~2p PDF. Disappointingly small, but still more than Clinton. ~1 Obama
Poverty 7 page PDF report No dedicated page or agenda, but details on poverty are mentioned in several other agendas. Hard to estimate page count. Obama (probably)
Rural 14p PDF report 6.5p PDF report Obama
Service National Service Plan. 5page PDF report. 0 Obama
Seniors and social security ~1.5 Web-based pages on social security. No dedicated page. Probably some info in health care agenda. Can’t say
Technology ~5. HTML-based. Some overlapping content with Energy agenda, but mostly new stuff on net neutrality, telecom infrastructure, science funding, etc. ~2.5. Also HTML-based. Also some overlap with Energy agenda. Details on science funding and telecom infrastructure, but nothing on net neutrality. Obama
Veterans <1. 10-point plan. ~1.5. 8-point plan, but more details about each point. Clinton
Women 0. Brief mentions of women in other sections (civil rights, health care), but nothing much. ~1 Clinton
“Other” The Obama site has lumped a few other issues onto one page. Each issue on that page has a dedicated PDF file fully explaining a more detailed plan: Arts education, child advocacy, Katrina, Science (in addition to his technology section, possibly some overlapping content), “Sportsmen” (probably a 2nd Amendment thing conservation stuff), and Transportation infrastructure. The Clinton site has no agenda details on these issues, except for science, which I’ve put into the Tech section above. Obama

(Methodology: These are estimates. In both cases, I did not count portions of pages or reports that mentioned past histories or experience, as I didn’t think this was pertinent to the question: “What is your plan for Topic X?” I also disregarded introductions to agendas that explain the problem being addressed (each Obama agenda contained such an intro). I mention the media format in the interest of transparency, so you know what I’m basing this on. Page counts are an estimate. Because of the different media formats, I had to estimate how many pages the content would fill up in a standard Word document. Notes regarding the inability to quantify should not be taken to mean that candidate is weak on that subject. It’s just a matter of Web site organization.)

Why use the candidates’ Web sites as the determining factor? Because it should be the definitive archive of everything substantive they have to say about any issue. And it’s all text, so there’s little room for rhetoric. Details, please.

If you disregard page counts and just skim through each site, you’ll notice something else: much of Clinton’s issue pages are devoted to sections called “Ready to Lead,” which list bullet points about her past experience. On some pages, these lists make up the bulk of the content, while real policy ideas get little attention.

Looking at this, it’s clear who is offering more details on their plans. Whether those plans are good, I’m not evaluating. I’m simply trying to debunk this myth that Obama is not offering details, and is instead simply a great orator. Why is this myth being propagated? Probably because he is a great orator.

“I’ve not observed every speech he’s given, obviously, but they are singularly lacking in specifics.”–McCain

“Obama’s message is ‘I am something extraordinary – gaze upon me and everyone will be great. By the mere fact of electing me, we will have transformed the stale politics of the United States.’”–Mark Salter, McCain’s speechwriter

Maybe, in their struggle to find his weakness, they begin these statements with the one thing that everyone knows to be true–”He’s great at giving speeches”–in order to open up the listener’s mind to the words that follow: “but is there anything more to him?” (See Chart 1 for answer).

If the recent trend continues, I’ll come back and do a similar evaluation of McCain’s site. Should be easy. He’s got five total paragraphs on the environment, each of them vacuous.

Update and reactions

I thought this post deserved a wrap-up. So here it is.

  • The day after this post, Obama started injecting more details into his speeches. Meanwhile, Clinton continues to use the “Talk vs Solutions” approach (which I think makes her sound like a management consultant).
  • In comments, Syphos corrected me on Clinton’s civil rights content. Then we had an interesting back-and-forth regarding my selection of the issues in the table. The issues in this table, he pointed out, are not necessarily representative of people’s concerns, and, if I were inclined, I could have targeted issues that I knew Obama was thick on, while not dedicating rows to some of Clinton’s less visible causes. True. However, the issues I chose were those that the candidates themselves identified as their priorities on their respective Issues pages. If they didn’t give an issue a special spot, neither did I. Some would say, “But anyone can just post reams of policy details on their Web site. That doesn’t mean anything.” Well, when you’re saying that candidate isn’t providing policy details, it certainly does.
  • In thinking more about why I wrote this, I became able to verbalize it better: Clinton is saying that “words mean nothing,” trying to suggest that Obama has no details. But what she’s really doing is exploiting the fact that many Obamanians (can we use that word now?) are ignorant of his finer policy agenda and are simply enraptured by his speeches. While this is probably true, she is attacking Obama for something that’s out of his control. And that is what bothers me. He is providing details, and if his fans don’t know what they are, it’s not his fault. Afterall, he’s doing a better job at making them available than anyone else, which takes me to my next point…
  • weighing_in argued below that “Platform statements that cover EVERYTHING are notoriously suspect to most politic watchers. Obama is trying to be everything to everyone…” I agree with the first sentence, but not the second. If you read the site, you’ll see that Obama isn’t hedging (“Guns/immigration/privacy/abortion/giving you lots of money and a hot wife is an important issue that I care about and promise to sort of think about while I’m president.”) but is instead putting his cards on the table. While he does cover lots of issues, the language regarding those issues is very clear. The pages tell you exactly where he stands. That’s very ballsy. He said very unequivocally in a recent debate that he is going to raise taxes on the rich to pay for his health care plan. There: he is no longer everything to everyone.
  • The best counterargument I’ve heard was over on Metafilter: “I didn’t see the part on Obama’s site where it says “This site created and maintained by Barack Obama.” He ain’t writin’ this stuff. Methinks he wouldn’t pass the quiz on it either.” I agree, he ain’t, and he wouldn’t. But if he read it, would he agree with it? Absolutely. There is no way they would put anything on here that wasn’t closely vetted. But again, it’s off-point: Did Clinton write her site? No. Obama’s site is a representation of him, and it provides more details than Clinton’s. Regardless, I would prefer a candidate who does not claim to know everything about everything, but instead asks opinions of true experts and then uses his/her judgment to create a prudent policy based on their input. (Credit this to my personal hero.)
  • Did I just imply that I prefer Obama? A radio show interviewed me about this article today. She asked me straight-out if I’m an “Obama supporter,” which I interpret differently from “Obama fan” (something I disavow above). I take this stuff seriously enough to write a screed on it, so I usually support someone, even if I’m not a fan of them. I have doubts about whether Obama can realize a lot of his goals, but I like that he’s going to try. I think he’s the best of the ones we’ve got left. So, yes. I’m an Obama supporter.I realize that some of you (especially the Clinton fans) will regard me as a weasel, as disingenuous, what have you, for not saying this at the outset. I hoped to stay away from any mention of my preference, given my work for the government, but there it is. (Thanks, XM Radio!) For some time, I was an ardent fan of another candidate, and now that he’s gone, I’m still bitter about having to choose among the remainders. I am honestly torn about who would eventually do a better job as president. Clinton has some things going for her that Obama does not. But, forced to choose, I will do so (indeed, I have). Most of you couldn’t care less about this paragraph, but I thought complete transparency was warranted.

Categories: Essays

Upgrading Congress For the Future » « Everything I Know About Giving Presentations I Learned from the Government


  1. This is exellent…am sending it to everyone I know. Thanks.

  2. This is all well and good, but where is Obama’s track record of moderate liberal legislation – created and passed? Obama will lose to McCain in a general election, because he has not had his negatives exposed by the press. The GOP attack machine will make “Mr. Vision” look like “Mr. Smooth Talker” by the time the campaign is over.

    btw, Obama can’t win the red states and mountain states that he won caucuses in – tat’s GOP territory. He loses FL to McCain, because Latinos and seniors will flock to McCain. McCain has more than an even shot in S. Califormia (on a precint bases, drilling down deep), so he may very well take CA against Obama.

    I think a vote for Obama (now) is a vote for a McCain Presidency. Hillary’s negatives – like McCain’s – are known. That’s not true of Obama, so there will plenty of oportunity for the GOP attack machine to distract the polis.

    I fear for America if Obama gets the nod – either way. First, because it may give us a more moderate GOP Prez, who is very conservative on some social issues, like abortion. He will appoint Supremes that resonate with his position. Or, in a McCain-Obama duel, should Obama get the nod, there is no way that he will lead “change” within the structural mess that Bush leaves behind.

    So, by 2012, we will see blowback to another neocon.

    We need a moderate liberal in the White House; that’s Hillary. She will not disappoint the way Obama would – sholud Obama win the Oval Office.

    Also, expect a series of one-term Presidents – there’s too much instability ahead for America’s future. We have to reinvent ourselves.

  3. btw, Platform statements that cover EVERYTHING are notoriously suspect to most politic watchers. Obama is trying to be everything to everyone, which is one more reason he will disappoint in a major way, if he makes it to the top.

    I have yet to see any one candidate receive more favorable treatment by the press; they’ve been “gloves off” since the beginning. Obama is their story; he sells newsprint, going up.

    Once the general election gets going – if Obama gets the nod (I hope he doesn’t) – the press will sell even more newsprint as Obama takes the elevator down, after the GOP attack machine takes off the gloss.

  4. “but where is Obama’s track record of moderate liberal legislation…”

    First of all, a Clinton supporter shouldn’t be calling out opponents’ lack of Congressional experience. She was a rookie until last year.

    “Platform statements that cover EVERYTHING are notoriously suspect…”

    Again, I wrote this not as an endorsement of Obama’s platform, but to address his opponents’ claims. I don’t think I can be any more clear about that.

  5. “The Clinton campaign’s new strategy is to cast Obama as an orator, and nothing else.” Obama is TALK. This website’s methodology looks at candidates WEBSITES. Most supporters are watching the new’s or listening to soundbites. INVALID. QED

  6. There’s more discussion about this happening over on Metafilter, as well:

    But, yeah — I’ve heard this talking point about Obama not having the deets on several occasions, now. I’m glad you point this out.

  7. This is a most excellent post. I’m sending it to everyone I know, and will link to it on my blog. Thanks.

  8. A mutual friend led me here and this is right on the money. However, all the comments about Clinton/McCain in the general election seem to miss the part where Obama inspires independents and Democratic voters to come out and vote and Clinton inspires Republicans to come out and vote. Republicans aren’t thrilled about McCain but we’ll hold our nose to vote down Clinton.

  9. Matt,

    The next talking point you need to cover is the “the Obama campaign is like a cult” one.

    (What, I ask you, could possibly be more cult-like than this?: )

  10. Clintons Good: Are you saying that Hillary offers more solutions through the mainstream media than what her website would lead us to believe? Can you point to media that her campaign has generated that was picked up by the mainstream media that is more thorough of a solution than what Obama has offered on his site, but that *isn’t* on her website? In other words do you believe Clinton has offered more solutions that are only available through the mainstream media?

    Matt’s point is the web is an ideal medium to convey more information about “solutions” and Hillary’s campaign is either at best failing to realize this or at worst actually has less “solutions” than Obama’s campaign.

    Either way Clinton’s comment reeks of dishonesty in light of Matt’s research when it would have been trivial for her to provide just as much, if not more information on her “solutions” to the Internet community. She shouldn’t be claiming to have more solutions than speeches if she hasn’t made the obvious step of providing those solutions in a cheap and valuable medium such as the Internet.

  11. Selective aggregation and disagregation is questionable, especially given the footnotes in the foreign policy section. It is an interesting attempt, but not convincing. I went to the first issue and was curious if Hillary really had no substance on civil rights on her website, despite having a specific memory of her discussing such details:

    Oh I see. That looks like more than 0.

  12. Syphos,

    Fair enough. The chart has been changed. Everyone else is free to point out errors as long as the claim isn’t based on redundant information or fluff. However,

    How does my forthrightness in the foreign policy section translate into “selective aggregation”, especially when I gave that category to Clinton?

  13. First, I wasn’t expecting a response, so that’s good and realize that my initial comment might have been a bit snarky. I just came to the first issue and was thrown off by it and have not evaluated any of the other codings.

    I would suggest to have someone else to try and replicate your study here for inter-coder reliability, but they ought to do it blindly (given the instructions/categories, but not your results). Though, that’s work and doing this much on your own is more than most people are willing to do.

    On aggregation of issues:

    Yes, selective aggregation. If you wanted to aggregate in a less selective matter, we can have one category that is “domestic policy” and another that is “foreign policy”, instead, you expand domestic policy (rightfully so), while keeping foreign policy collapsed, except in one case in which you can claim an Obama victory (the Iraq war is not foreign policy?). A better assessment would expand the foreign policy category and you will have more diversity in your chart.

    If you believe the global issues do not deserve their own category (global aids < disability? Nuclear proliferation < rural?), then I guess that would warrant such a strategy.

    This, naturally, would inflate Clinton’s count of “in-depth” issues, but I don’t think this is an artificial inflation since these are important issues with serious implications for home and abroad. Also, not all of these issues will go to Clinton from my brief reading. Obama, though vague on the specifics, will win a foreign policy category on proliferation/nuclear weapons as he actually takes a stance on the issue and Clinton does not (except a few lines in speeches) from my readings.

  14. “If you believe the global issues do not deserve their own category (global aids < disability? Nuclear proliferation < rural?), then I guess that would warrant such a strategy."

    That's true. Here's how I chose the issues: I went to the Obama site, wrote down all the issues listed on the Issues page, then went to the Clinton issues page and wrote down those. For all the matches (including the qualitative ones, such as Obama:Economy::Clinton:Middle Class), I dedicated a row to them. Then I dedicated a row to each listed issue that had no match (eg, Clinton's Women, or Obama's Civil Rights–which is why I didn't notice the Clinton press release, which, you have to admit, is hard to find.)

    You mention that Obama has lots of details on his nuke policy. I'm sure it's there, given the attention that issue had a few months ago, but I didn't run across it during my survey. So there are errors on both sides, owing, as you said, to the time it takes to do this.

    I agree that nuclear proliferation ! *, and that Energy > Economy + Health. The categories listed above reflect the CANDIDATES’ prioritization of issues (given their prominence on their sites), not mine.

    Thanks for the feedback. This is interesting stuff.

  15. Just look at their plans for America that you can download as .pdf files. Obama’s is 64 pages while Clinton’s is 14 pages. Seems like a lot more solutions can be found in those 64 pages!!!!

  16. Claiming that legislative know-how trumps brilliant speechmaking is fatuous. The primary task before each candidate right now is to win contests, and if Senator Clinton is failing to do that, where is the evidence she will be better at executing her legislative agenda. The best, albeit most unfortunate example of this is George W. Bush. He was better than Gore and Kerry at dispatching even the most obvious objections to his candidacy and he was able to roll back environmental standards, cut taxes and start a war. The beauty (and danger) of electoral politics is that the best test of a candidate’s executive acumen is whether he or she can win the election!

  17. obama is all talk right now. granted. this is an election. as his supportors, we fully realize that, but deeply feel that when he is thrown into the fire of things of which he has no experience with, he will realize the gravity of it all and NEVER act like bush did but INSTEAD surrond himself with INTELLIGENT and DIVERSE expertise and find a way to START to solve the incredibly COMPLEX situations he will have to deal with. but when making decisions, he will be driven by PRINCIPLE, not the pollitics of the time (AKA hillary 2003 Iraq)

    This is why he has our VOTE.

  18. What has each candidate done in thier careers to help the people?

    Experience is what gets the job done,ever wonder why jobs want that more than pieces of paper or talk?

    Bill Clinton got this Economy on it’s feet and I know his wife will do the same,you know she discusses things with him.

    I have a gut feeling that Obama will not be the “savior” like the gullable people think he will be,mock my words.(if he gets elected)

    I had the same feeling with Bush.

  19. Yeah, I suggest we rate their plans by the page quantities in their PDFs.
    He has no idea what he is doing though. You can extemporaneously write, just as you can extemporaneously speak.

    Currently, Obama says ‘buy American’, which is the same protectionist policy that fucked us in the previous depression. If you don’t buy foreign, foreigners won’t buy your goods. It’s the same for real life. Accusing China of manipulating currencies (Geithner) is also a terrible diplomatic strategy. Why should you insult the other superpower? China’s market is the largest in the world. Carrefour is now losing dramatically because of their support for Tibet. There is talk of boycott in China. Frankly, if you are smart, you don’t try to play with the Tiger. The Tiger composes a fifth of the world’s people, and it is getting stronger and stronger.

    Oh by the way, Geithner doesn’t pay his taxes properly. Considering he is our Treasurer, I have a hard time believing why you, the people who voted for him, are not insulted. He might as well appoint a 3 time convict to be a Supreme Court Justice too. Will you get it then?

  20. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

  21. Moderate liberal is not what we need. We need a real liberal like Russ Fiengold for President. Hillary is no better than Obama.

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