O’Rourke & Obama: Vague Aspirations

Written By Mick Stinelli, Columnist

Beto O’Rourke last week announced he will make a bid for the democratic presidential nomination in 2020. A media flurry immediately ensued, abound with think pieces, interviews and a Vanity Fair cover story. It’s a level of attention that has gained him comparisons to Barack Obama, and he’s even gained support from Oprah Winfrey.

O’Rourke became a presidential contender in the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections. Challenging incumbent Ted Cruz for a Texas senate seat, O’Rourke made national headlines, got a co-sign from Beyoncé and came closer to winning a senate election in Texas than dozens of Democrats before him. In the Democratic tradition, many declared his loss a victory, just as they did with Stacey Abrams’ failed vie for Georgia governor.

Now O’Rourke, a three-term congressman, seems confident he can block President Trump’s second term. But as many in the media have made clear to him, there’s more to the presidency than opposing the party in power. He’s captivating, but unpolished.

His policies are unclear. In a race where healthcare is the number-one issue, it’s impossible to nail down his stance. Just two years ago, he stated single-payer Medicare-for-all was the best form of healthcare. But this week in Iowa, he told reporters he’s “no longer sure that that’s the fastest way to get there.”

He often dodges questions about specific views by claiming he’s going to listen. On affordable healthcare, he says, “I’m open, if somebody has a better way to do this, including especially Republicans, I’m open to their vision of how to get there.”

It’s these vague proposals, along with sweeping charisma, that bears similarity to Obama. The New York Times columnist David Brooks in 2007 described Obama as “filled with grand but usually evasive eloquence about bringing people together and showing respect.” But, Brooks noted, upon further pressing Obama could offer more “small and concrete” answers.

This latter aspect – the ability to see the step-by-step process of how to achieve real policy goals – is perhaps O’Rourke’s greatest weakness. Even in his captivating live events, he pales in comparison to Obama, who exhibited unparalleled oratory and excellent speechwriting.

“I don’t ever prepare for a speech,” O’Rourke told Vanity Fair. “I don’t write out what I’m going to say. I remember driving to that, I was, like, ‘What do I say? Maybe I’ll just introduce myself. I’ll take questions.’”

It’s a nice sentiment, and helps in appearing genuine, but it’s not a tactic that will take O’Rourke very far on a national stage. The ability to speak freely and listen are welcome aspects in a presidential candidate, but they don’t constitute an entire platform.

It’s a bizarre kryptonite for a candidate who seems, otherwise, impervious to ridicule. When the Texas GOP tried to tear him down for being in a punk band, his popularity skyrocketed. When he lost his senate campaign, people pushed him to dream bigger. But when asked questions on how he feels about immigration, he can’t give you a plan.

The Washington Post summed up O’Rourke’s unclear immigration goals as “no wall, few specifics.” It’s in this arena O’Rourke will have to improve if he plans to be more than a phenomenon. In a field where candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seem to have an answer to every question, O’Rourke will need to have an answer, too.