I’ll probably have more considered reactions to Obama’s speech a little later, when I’ve had time to consider it. But for right now, count me as underwhelmed at best.
Here’s the section that, for me, was emblematic of what annoyed me most about the speech:
So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change.
You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can’t limit her coverage. You did that.
You’re the reason a young man in Colorado who never thought he’d be able to afford his dream of earning a medical degree is about to get that chance. You made that possible.
You’re the reason a young immigrant who grew up here and went to school here and pledged allegiance to our flag will no longer be deported from the only country she’s ever called home; why selfless soldiers won’t be kicked out of the military because of who they are or who they love; why thousands of families have finally been able to say to the loved ones who served us so bravely: “Welcome home.”
In other words: the last election wasn’t about me. It was about you. And how important it was that you voted for me.
Look, I am down with responsibilities as well as rights. (Indeed, I have been known to flirt with the notion that there are no such things as rights, only reciprocal duties.) I am down with saying that freedom without love or charity, duty or patriotism, “is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”
I am down with saying, effectively, when you vote, you have an obligation to vote for what you believe is best for the nation as a whole, and not just what is best for you individually (or, heck, for your religious, ethnic or generational cohort).
But I am really, really not down with reducing a communitarian ideal of citizenship to the act of voting, wherein I virtually participate, and can pat myself on the back for so participating, in all kinds of great progressive achievements by pulling the right lever. Not to belittle voting – do it early and often! – but it isn’t the be-all and end-all of politics, and politics isn’t the be-all and end-all of our mutual obligations as citizens.
The point of voting is to elect people who will do a good job protecting and promoting our collective interests. I want the incumbent to come to me and say, “I did this and this, and this is why, and I will do these other things if you reelect me, and my opponent will do the opposite, and I am right and he is wrong and that is why you should vote for me.” I’m hiring him to do things that are wise and not do things that are dumb. Not to enable me to do heart surgery by metaphysical proxy.
The whole speech was wrapped in this sacramental progressivist cotton candy goo that leaves me just wanting to wash my hands.
It also struck me as surprisingly defensive, and defensive about the wrong things.
That whole business about “the last election wasn’t about me” – well, duh. I know it’s a standard attack line that Obama is only interested in himself (and I think there’s some truth to that line), but defensively responding by saying, “no, really – you might think this is all about me, but the election actually matters for the country” only lends the charge more plausibility.
And then there was this:
I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention. The times have changed – and so have I.
I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the President.
So, you’re more qualified than your opponent because you’re the incumbent? Or are you suggesting that you take seriously Republican charges that you are woefully inexperienced, and are rebutting them by saying, “well, yeah – I was woefully inexperienced, but I’ve learned an awful lot in four years.”
These were just very strange defensive notes to hit. I expected some defensiveness – but I expected it to show up in the discussion of high unemployment, or the ballooning debt, or Washington gridlock, or one of the other problems the President has been unable to solve. I didn’t expect it to show up in response to implicit attacks on Obama’s character, attacks which, really, he should just be able to laugh off. (Whether or not they have some force, laughing them off really is the only effective response.)
Finally, there was the ending peroration:
America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now. Yes, our path is harder – but it leads to a better place. Yes our road is longer – but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that Providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on Earth.
Forgive me, but that sounds an awful lot like you are suggesting that the lousy economy is just tough medicine we have to take. Is that what you believe, Mr. President? Not that I expected Obama to promise a rose garden – and I’m glad he didn’t – but he seems to be suggesting that if we went with the GOP, things would get better quicker, but not for everyone, or not as lastingly, or something. And that seems to me to be conceding way, way too much territory to the other side, and for no good reason.
There were good things in the speech, of course. The foreign policy attacks on Romney were strong – hard-hitting and convincing. I enjoyed the “take two tax cuts and call me in the morning” line – and, more generally, framing the GOP agenda as “spending cuts to pay for upper-income tax cuts” strikes me as a no-brainer.
But I thought the speech as a whole was exceptionally weak. Not a sale closer – not by a long shot.