Obama Did Offer Hope -- to Republicans, Too

This is the last of a series of reports from Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Margaret: Of course the president gave a great speech. He’s so good at talking that it’s one of the main counts in the Republican indictment against him.

It’s a delicate matter on such a momentous occasion to take down your opponent without soiling yourself. Obama went light. He criticized Mitt Romney’s trip abroad, where Romney was unable to hold it together as a tourist much less commander in chief ("insulting our closest ally"), and poked fun at Romney's one-size-fits-all solution to our economic problems ("try a tax cut"). He even dealt with campaign fatigue, saying that “if you're sick of hearing me approve this message, believe me, so am I."

There was little other lightness to the night, not even the traditional balloon drop. (Once the venue was moved from the outdoor stadium inside because of rain, there was no time to get them.) It fit with the tough love. "I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy," Obama said. "I never have. You didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth."

There are terrible burdens of incumbency: presiding over an economy that hurts people,  deploying drones that kill not only the enemy but innocent civilians as well, sending soldiers to war, allowing children to go to bed in homeless shelters. But when ticked off one by one, Obama does have a list of accomplishments. GM is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead, as Joe Biden reminded everyone for the umpteenth time; your health care is better; the innocent children of illegal immigrants can come out of the shadows.

Obama’s challenge was to reset expectations, to acknowledge -- without bringing everyone down -- that he hadn’t changed the world or the economy. Usually, the nominee's speech is the high point of a convention, but this crowd had already been wrung out emotionally by Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton. Even through the message that the last four years have been a long, hard, sobering slog with prospects of more of the same, the crowd was thunderous and grateful, weeping and whooping.

There was more energy in the hall on any night this week than on all the nights in Tampa combined. The parties have changed places: Romney never mentioned the troops, but every speaker in Charlotte wrapped his or her arms around members of the military and their long-suffering families. Democrats were organized and choreographed, without any ghastly gaffes like Clint Eastwood and his empty chair, and their stars shone -- Clinton spectacularly, but also San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. The mood managed to be both sober and joyful.

Obama shouldn’t win. Against all that is rational if he does, it will be because of nights like last night.

(Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)

Ramesh: The president gave a little more hope to nearly all the Republicans I’ve heard from since his speech last night (although they know the path to unseating him will be hard). That’s because he didn’t provide hope for anyone else, just -- as you say, Margaret -- “prospects of more of the same.” It was a stay-the-course message for a country that is deeply dissatisfied with the country’s condition, a celebration of job growth it rightly finds grossly inadequate.

The president, you’re right, got in some solid punches last night. The Democrats are really enjoying being ahead on national security, understandably after so many decades behind. It would have been incompetent not to take advantage of Romney’s terrible neglect, in his own speech, of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I wonder, though, if Obama did not spend too much time on foreign policy last night. I don’t think he made the case that Romney fails to meet the threshold test of being ready for the presidency: a case that is not a natural for someone with Obama’s career anyway. If Romney passes the test, the issue doesn’t do much for Obama.

You’re right also that there’s been a role reversal, and not just on national security. The incumbent party ran a challenger party’s convention. Both of us praised Michelle Obama’s speech -- which was much better than her husband’s -- but even it struck a discordant note: She spoke as though she were introducing Barack Obama to us. Voters know him, and by and large know what they think of his performance in office. That’s why the president is at his best when he’s talking about Romney.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)


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