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Impossible To Pigeonhole

Barack Obama's speech tonight answers critics who argued that he needed to lay out a clear agenda for voters. "Let me spell out exactly what that change would mean if I am president," he said.  And then he did.  In its depth and detail, his speech resembled a State of the Union address more than a typical stump speech.

The speech once again demonstrated why Obama is so hard to pigeonhole ideologically.  He forcefully pressed classic Clintonian themes of government reform and personal responsibility, far more effectively than John Kerry ever did.  And he also dipped down to "second-tier issues" like family leave and bankruptcy (especially nice to hear after Joe Biden -- who supported bankruptcy reform -- joined the ticket), issues where "small" fixes can make a big difference.

But at the same time, Obama also made clear that "now is not the time for small plans."  He offered a sophisticated defense of government, arguing that "what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves."  And he went on to outline an agenda for health care and energy more ambitious and activist than Democrats have heard from their nominee in years.

The speech also had a serious populist edge.  Based on a quick count, Obama mentioned "companies" and "corporations" eight times – all but once (helping auto companies retool) in a critical tone.  In contrast, Bill Clinton mentioned them only four times in two speeches in 1992 and 1996. 

The striking shift over time, not surprisingly, is that energy has replaced education as a top-tier issue.  Education and schools were mentioned 27 times in 1996 and 20 times in 2000, but only eight times in 2004 and 10 times tonight.  At the same time, the words "energy," "oil," and "gas" were not mentioned at all in the 1990s and only once in 2000, but they were used six times in 2004 and nine times tonight.

--Robert Gordon and James Kvaal