Media critic Howard Kurtz passes along Team Obama’s take/spin on President Obama’s speech and its tepid reaction (among professional campaign watchers, at least):
Obama and his advisers had taken great pains to avoid soaring rhetoric that might have been derided as empty.
Indeed, they extensively tested the president’s speech in dial groups, a type of focus group where voters twist dials to register approval or disapproval of specific passages, and say it tested off the charts. The reaction, they say, was more positive than to Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech in Denver.
In short, the president deliberately dialed it down, stopping well short of the altitudes he is capable of reaching. Perhaps that will prove to be a mistake, but the decision to go with a less rousing approach was carefully considered.
The problem with straddling between style and substance, as Obama’s aides characterize the choice, is that the substance of the speech wasn’t very, well, substantive. It didn’t give us a concrete sense of what he’d do in a second term. Rather, he emphatically told us what he would not do: that is, allow Republicans to cut taxes for the rich (again), fundamentally alter Social Security and Medicare, or slash spending on energy and education.
That’s not really substance; that’s style masquerading as substance.
Given the circumstances, was this such a crazy approach?
Recall for what seems an eternity how many times you’ve encountered commentary that says the key to the 2012 race is whether it turns out to be a “referendum” election or a “choice” election. The GOP wants it to be a straightforward up-or-down vote on Obama’s handling of the economy. And Democrats, in turn, want voters to recoil at the prospect of a radical Romney-Ryan agenda. How many times throughout the week did you hear Democrats utter some variation of a key phrase that appeared in Obama’s speech — “two fundamentally different visions for the future”? I don’t have an exact count, but I suspect it’s rather a lot.
In the end, Obama’s strategists adhered to what, until late Thursday night, had been obvious conventional wisdom.
The conventional wisdom, now, is that the conventional wisdom was wrong.
We pundits are a fickle lot.