President Obama’s speech on the final night of the Democrats’ convention in Charlotte will be judged not only in the context of two terrifically effective addresses by First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton, but in the context of the brief history of his own soaring rhetoric. By those standards, Obama fell short of expectations.
The excuse that it’s tricky, under the circumstances, to make an affirmative case for Obama’s reelection doesn’t stand — Clinton pulled it off surprisingly well.
For much of the speech, which began with a pleasant reminder of when Obama cut a fresh figure in his 2004 keynote address, the president tried to spot-weld his 2008-vintage rhetoric of hope and change to a recycled State of the Union Address. The words that should have been among the first notes of the speech didn’t arrive until its final third: “I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.”
You don’t say!
Obama, it was clear, is acutely aware of the tenuous grip he has on the country’s patience: “I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy. I never have. You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades.”
Equally clear was Obama’s presumption that if he does lose this election — a distinct possibility — he will have been defeated by the economy, not by the opposition. Obama amusingly derided supply-side economic prescriptions: “Feel a cold comin’ on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.” He belittled Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s lack of foreign policy experience, on geopolitical matters big (their outmoded cold war mindset) and small (“You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”)
But those sharp jabs were lost in a miasma of committee-approved boilerplate. At the head of the speech, Obama didactically warned us of the dullness of its body: “jobs and the economy; taxes and deficits; energy and education; war and peace.” It looks workmanlike on the page, and it sounded little better when spoken aloud.
The speech gained momentum in its final downhill push when Obama began sharing human anecdotes. Ending each with a declaration that “You did that” or “You made that happen” or “He gives me hope,” Obama tried to counteract his reputation for solipsism as well as mitigate the damage of his “You didn’t build that” syntactical screwup.
As it should be, Obama’s address is going to be critiqued on its own merits. But, on a final note, I think it’s important to see it as the finale of a broader package. Taken together with Vice President Joe Biden’s penultimate speech — a shaky but endearing affair — and the slickly produced video introductions of each candidate, it’s clear that the Obama campaign had a specific goal in mind Thursday night: to peel away white middle- and working-class men from Romney and Ryan. Biden’s speech focused on two big themes, each against the portrait of Obama as a decisive spine-of-steel Decider: the auto-industry bailout and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Obama himself trumpeted the Detroit bailout, spoke of a manufacturing revival, and sparked a big cheer with “three proud words: Made in America.”
This was the cosmopolitan Democrats’ substitute for driving pickup trucks and chopping wood in the Texas wilderness.
It was telling that Obama’s first direct attack on Mitt Romney was in the area of national security. I think Jim Antle was onto something this week: foreign policy is a strength for Democrats this cycle, and the Obama campaign might be smart to press it.
This speech was far from dazzling. Team Romney will not be feeling hopeless on Friday morning. But it wasn’t a dud, either.