Obama’s Underwhelming Speech

Photograph by Scott Eelis/Bloomberg; Illustration by Bloomberg View Close

Photograph by Scott Eelis/Bloomberg; Illustration by Bloomberg View

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Photograph by Scott Eelis/Bloomberg; Illustration by Bloomberg View

It wasn’t even the best speech of the week, never mind his career.

Instead, President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech last night at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, was a prosaic call for support accompanied by some vague plans for action. Now it is up to Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, to fill in the details that will help voters choose between them.

Convention speeches, we concede, are not policy briefings. (Though former President Bill Clinton’s defense of Obama’s record on Wednesday -- along with Michelle Obama’s defense of her husband’s character, the best speech of the week -- came pretty close.) Still, there is room for more specifics than Obama provided last night, or Romney did last week.

Obama’s greatest missed opportunity may have been his cursory treatment of the federal budget deficit: He reiterated his plan to reduce it by $4 trillion over the next decade. What no one knows -- does the president? -- is how to get there from here.

On other topics, Obama was better. His discussion of foreign policy was effective, in real terms because he has achievements to brag about, and in relative terms because Romney’s last week was onion-paper-thin (it was about four paragraphs). On climate change, even if it was a throwaway line, it was nice to hear the U.S. president state baldly that it “is not a hoax”; if he wins re-election, maybe he can reopen the issue of a carbon tax.

It would be churlish to criticize Obama too much for vagueness, given the occasion. Yet that was the curious thing about this speech: If it didn’t get down into the details, neither did it soar. The best single line was Abraham Lincoln’s -- “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go” -- and there was nothing comparable to Obama’s eloquence in his speeches at the 2004 and 2008 conventions.

Maybe we’re just spoiled. But it’s also possible that Americans this year are not looking for inspiration so much as reassurance. If that’s the case, then the argument for a more substantive campaign is all the stronger.

It may be foolish, if not naive, to hope for a wonky presidential campaign. Happy platitudes are the lingua franca of politics -- and knowing the difference between pleasingly vague and utterly vacuous is an occupational requirement for a politician. Which candidate called the U.S. “the greatest country in the history of the world” in his acceptance speech, and which called it merely “the greatest nation on Earth”? Is there a difference? Does it matter? How will they describe the U.S. tomorrow? Discuss.

Actually, let’s not. Let’s stipulate that it is often difficult to get candidates to be specific, and that they may even occasionally have valid reasons not to be. Let’s further stipulate that politicians sometimes say things (we’re being kind here) for convenience sake, and that they may even occasionally have valid reasons for changing their minds. Finally, there are the interests of the audience to consider: MSNBC and Fox News are more popular than C-Span, and probably always will be.

None of it matters. It’s not as if we have any other choice. For the past two weeks, each party has busied itself with characterizations of the other’s (apocalyptic, of course) plans. Both candidates have sketched out broad visions of where they would like to lead the U.S. It’s past time for them to start explaining more precisely how they plan to get there.

Obama and Romney are scheduled to have three debates this fall that will provide them 5 1/2 hours of serious argument over three weeks. The debates aren’t until next month, but the candidates should feel free to begin their discussion now.

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Today’s highlights: the editors on the European Central Bank’s new bond-buying plan and on why the U.S. needs to pay more attention to APEC; Stephen L. Carter on “hopefully” and other desecrations of the English language; William Pesek on a Romney presidency causing no worries in China; Jonathan Weil on how low can Facebook shares go; Steven Greenhut on why California is broken, not broke.

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