Obama's Clinical, Calculated Appeal

President Barack Obama waves before speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina Photograph by Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Barack Obama’s presidency began with a speech at the Democratic convention in Boston in 2004. His oratory brought him from behind in the Iowa primaries, lifted him above the Reverend Wright scandal, and may have cinched his victory in Denver four years ago. It’s a measure of how successful this convention has been for Obama that a contingent of Democrats was suggesting, only half in jest, that Obama shouldn’t even bother taking the stage. “After [Bill Clinton's] speech,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo remarked, “I don’t think anything else has to be said.”

This confidence arose from Michelle Obama’s heartfelt tribute, which bathed her husband in a warmth he has trouble projecting, from Clinton’s rousing validation of Obama’s economic stewardship and skewering of his opponents, and from Joe Biden’s emotional portrayal of a steely and resolute president (“Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive”). What Obama needed to deliver at this convention was not soaring rhetoric, but a plausible case for why Americans should grant him another term—and how, if they do so, the next four years would differ from the last four.

Obama delivered some of that, but not all. (As my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru noted, “Obama’s speech much stronger on offense than defense.” He began on a defensive note, citing the vision he laid out in his famous 2004 convention address—a vision that has since come to seem quaint, if not naive, and the basis of Republican mockery. “The first time I addressed this convention in 2004, I was a younger man,” he said. “A Senate candidate from Illinois who spoke about hope—not blind optimism or wishful thinking, but hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, that dogged faith in the future which has pushed this nation forward.”

Obama implicitly acknowledged the work he has to do before the election. His speech didn’t resemble the famous ones, but instead recalled his 2009 inaugural address in its frank delineation of the difficulties and challenges facing the country. Like that speech, it sought to cast those difficulties against the broader sweep of history, invoking the Great Depression and building on a theme of patient resolve that a restoration is coming, even if it is still a good way off. “I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy,” he told the audience. “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. It will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one.”

The contrast with Mitt Romney’s address was most vivid in the lack of detail about jobs. Obama didn’t mention the American Jobs Act that he rolled out last September and gave only the vaguest “set of goals” that he presented as constituting “a real, achievable plan that will lead to new jobs.”

Instead, he followed the same strategy his campaign has pursued all along, avoiding any focus on the grim particulars of the stagnant economy—unemployment above 8 percent, growth projections dim and weakening—both by pulling back to the bigger picture and framing the election as a choice between two vividly different candidates. That process began in the late spring with the fusillade of attacks on Romney’s character and career. It carried on through John Kerry’s brutal vivisection earlier tonight. And in an insistent and sometimes mocking tone, Obama pressed it even further. “On every issue, the choice you face won’t be just between two candidates or two parties,” he said. “It will be a choice between two different paths for America.” All told, Obama uttered the words “choice” or “choices” 21 times.

This wasn’t surprising—and neither was anything else he said. On his worst day, Obama can deliver a better speech than most politicians. This one was middling. Much of what he said was familiar to anyone who has listened to him, and for much of his time on stage Obama seemed merely to be going through the motions. He may have decided that giving only the fourth-best speech of the convention (fifth-best, after the John Kerry Comedy Tour?) was sufficient.

Toward the end, Obama stirred himself, summoning some of the old vigor. He returned to the theme of hope, which he sought to reclaim from his opponents, recasting it—with perhaps too-perfect symmetry—not as something he would bestow on America but as something Americans have bestowed on him. “As I stand here tonight, I have never been more hopeful about America. Not because I think I have all the answers. Not because I’m naive about the magnitude of our challenges. I’m hopeful because of you.”

Obama can still deliver when he has to. His conclusion was rousing and effective, and the crowd leapt to its feet. It’s worth noting that Americans who don’t plan to vote support Obama overwhelmingly. These passages seemed carefully designed to reach them—calculated, like the whole speech, to do just what is necessary.

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