Obama, Clinton and the "Vision Thing"

Dec 10, 2007 | Updated May 25, 2011

After Oprah Winfrey's weekend with Barack Obama, there's much talk as to how much her support bolsters his cause. I don't know the answer to this. I do know that when I saw the two of them in the same photograph, I saw two people who were powerful in the most magical way possible--the power of expansive possibility. Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama are two people who continue to surge forward and upward in their lives, breaking down walls--especially the psychological ones--shifting fixed understandings as they go.

Winfrey and Obama are brave people who risk capital on "impossible dreams," often proving that these dreams are only impossible for the timid. They walk into situations that are not guaranteed, that may be utterly foreign, or hostile, with only their faith, knowledge, and intuition to guide them. They risk, because risking is the only way to jump the tracks that others would otherwise keep them on. As Oprah pointed out in South Carolina, they don't sit nicely and wait their turn. They know that those who wait often wait in vain.

Clinton herself has tremendous personal power. I have worked many events and trips with her present, and I have always been moved by the fierce admiration and respect she inspires. She means a lot to people here and all over this world. But if elected President, will she be brave enough to leverage this personal power into significant changes for the country?

With Clinton, I see caution. I don't sense the same sort of open expansiveness as I do with Obama--that willingness to dream out loud about something more wonderful than the fact that she is a woman, and that yes she's running for President. Once or twice a month, new policy plans get rolled-out by the Clinton campaign but she has yet to articulate, or embrace, any sort of big idea that we as Americans can rally around (again, beyond the fact that she is a woman, or "wouldn't it be great to have the Clintons back in power.")

We have massive problems in this country that need the attention of bold, brave thinkers. We need a president who is willing to risk big for the chance to achieve significant change in our country. Yes, our next President must be tough and strategic, but not so hardened that he or she forgets how to dream and bet big.

For sure, Obama could do more to embrace bigger, bolder policy ideas. But I feel that this is the direction he is headed. As things stand now, I have yet to hear Mrs. Clinton articulate reasons why she should to be president that go beyond the fact that she feels she is the best and most experienced candidate (a supposition that once under assault, doesn't always hold up). Curiously enough, I have yet to hear her explain why exactly she wants the job. I always wondered how she'd do if someone posed the question, Roger Mudd style. I doubt she'd trip-up and ramble, like Ted Kennedy did in the '80 race. But the presumption that she is the smartest and most studied and somehow the best person for the job--I don't know, that leaves me colder than I wish to admit. There's no doubt that she would be a remarkable President. But with global warming, with the war in Iraq, with the health care crisis, I fear that incrementalism is not enough.

The "vision thing" is not a criticism of Clinton alone. The only contender I know who is totally behind a big idea is Al Gore, and he's not running. [How wonderful it would have been though to know that if he had run, and won, that there be guaranteed bold action regarding global warming...] Dana Milbank recently pointed out that Democrats tend to nominate laundry-list makers: smart candidates yes, but ones who lack passion. With the notable exception of Bill Clinton, the dry guys lost. For all the cheerleading I do for Obama, he too can be a laundry-list maker. Luckily for his supporters, we know that he has the power to deliver much more.

Our nominee needs the three Ps: policy; poetry; and passion. While Clinton is a policy wonk's policy wonk, I'm not sold on the idea that she can deliver on passion, or on poetry--the kind of power that can indeed move mountains. In my opinion, Mrs. Clinton would be a more appealing candidate if she offered people a big idea to believe in that is about more than her, and her alone.