In Closing Speech, Obama Does What He Needed To Do
President Obama didn't blow the doors off the Time Warner Cable Arena last night, but he didn't need to.
Last night’s acceptance speech by President Obama may have lacked the soaring rhetoric of his 2004 Keynote Address or his acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium four years ago, but he nonetheless closed out the Democratic National Convention with a good speech that accomplished what he needed to and closed out what has been a very successful, on message, week for his party:
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for a second term on Thursday night, making a forceful argument that he had rescued the economy from disaster and ushered in a recovery that would be imperiled by a return to Republican stewardship.
Describing himself as “mindful of my own failings,” Mr. Obama conceded the country’s continuing difficulties while defending his record and pleading for more time to carry out his agenda. He laid out a long-term blueprint for revival in an era obsessed with short-term expectations.
“I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy; I never have,” Mr. Obama told a packed arena of 20,000 party leaders and activists. “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.”
He added: “But know this, America: Our problems can be solved. Our challenges can be met. The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place. And I’m asking you to choose that future.”
The president’s appearance at the Time Warner Cable Arena underscored the tumultuous journey he and the country have been on since his first nomination in Denver. Four years after fireworks consecrated his storybook campaign to become the nation’s first black president, Mr. Obama took the stage on Thursday as a politician who had come down to earth and was locked in the fight of his life against the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.
The stirring outsider’s message had become a policy-laden appeal for continuity; the mantra of reform was now a vigorous defense of his current course. The “Change” signs waved in the audience in 2008 had been replaced with placards saying “Forward.” The word “promise,” which he used 32 times in his acceptance speech in 2008, came up just 7 times on Thursday night. Even the traditional balloon drop was missing since a last-minute site change made it impossible.
Mr. Obama issued a string of promises, including one million new manufacturing jobs and $4 trillion in deficit reductions. But he was largely making the case that he had put in place the foundation for a revived country if voters only give it enough time to work. If at times it had the feel of a State of the Union address, that was an intentional effort to jab at Mr. Romney to be more specific about how he would carry out his promises, maximizing the gulf between the parties.
“They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan,” Mr. Obama said. “And that’s because all they have to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last 30 years.”
Mr. Obama’s speech punctuated back-to-back political conventions in which the two parties, if nothing else, delivered radically different visions for how to end the economic malaise that has afflicted the country since 2008, and framed the two-month spring to Election Day.
A week after Mr. Romney sought to appeal to American disappointment with Mr. Obama, the president pressed his case that the Republican candidate is so disconnected from the struggles of the middle class that he has no idea how to address them. In sharp language, he linked Mr. Romney and his running mate, Paul D. Ryan, to what he long described as failed trickle-down economic policies that favor the wealthy, reflecting what has become a central theme.
“On every issue, the choice you face won’t just be between two candidates or two parties,” Mr. Obama said. “When all is said and done, when you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation.”
Inside the hall, the reaction to the President’s speech was quite enthusiastic, as it was to the speeches that preceded it by Vice-President Biden and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. That, of course, isn’t at all surprising given that renominating the President and Vice-President is the reason that all those delegates came to Charlotte to begin with. Of course, the President wasn’t just speaking to the 20,000 or so people in the Time Warner Cable Arena, he was speaking to the voters his campaign hopes to bring to the polls in November. That’s why we saw musical acts like The Foo Fighters and Mary J. Blige, celebrities like Scarlett Johannsen, and it’s why the Obama campaign ran an ad during the MTV Video Music Awards, which aired last night, asking people to change the channel at 10 Eastern so they could see the President speak. How the speech was received by the nation as a whole matters a whole heck of a lot more than what a bunch of Democratic activists packed into an arena in Charlotte thought, after all.
On television, the pundits seemed to give the speech a mixed review:
It was “vintage Barack Obama.” It was “probably not the best speech of the convention.” It was “one of the emptiest speeches” ever delivered on the national stage.
There was no consensus across the cable news networks Thursday night after President Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
“It certainly wasn’t a speech full of soaring rhetoric like some of his speeches four years ago,” said CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Some have been comparing it to a State of the Union almost in terms of going down the check list.”
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow called it a “big, big speech,” but added, “From this president, something we are not used to hearing: an overt request for a vote.”
Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer slammed the address as “one of the emptiest speeches I have ever heard on a national stage.”
“I was stunned,” he said. “This is a man who gave one of the great speeches of our time in 2004. And he gave one of the emptiest speeches I have ever heard on a national stage. Yes ,it had cadence, and yes, there were deceptions in it, but that’s not what’s so striking about it. There was nothing in it.”
Krauthammer called the Obama speech “flat” and said it had “no content in it.”
“It was like, this is a guy who’s the A student in the class who turns in a paper that’s clearly a C and the teacher is astonished and says, ‘How could you do this? Why did you mail it in?'” Krauthammer said.
Democratic strategist James Carville said other speeches this week “probably” topped Obama’s.
“This was probably not the best speech of the convention,” he said on CNN. “But what I’m struck by is the muscular tone and attitude in both the vice president and president tonight. This is not the mommy party on show here. This is the daddy party.”
Fox News contributor Juan Williams praised Obama as a “great speaker” and said the president delivered a “very good speech.”
“People said, ‘Well, exactly how would you accomplish some of the goals?’ But it doesn’t feel, looking at this audience, just feeling energy here, it doesn’t feel like that is what this night was about. It was about a president who has a confidence, who doesn’t look like he’s feeling any anxiety at the moment. He’s clear about who his opponent is — the vision, the values and difference,” Williams said.
Carville is correct on one point. The President’s speech was not the best speech of the convention. That title goes, without question, to former President Clinton’s rhetorical tour de force on Wednesday night. Indeed, I would say that Clinton’s speech was the best speech of both conventions this year, if not the best convention speech in recent memory. President Obama didn’t have to give the best speech of the convention, though, he merely needed to make lay the groundwork for the argument in favor of his re-election, and that’s an argument that he’s been making in bits and pieces in stump speeches for months now. In that regard, I would say that he succeeded quite nicely. He laid out a strong defense of his five years in office, combined with an, at times scathing, attack on the opposing party. He answered the the “are you better off?” question but picking up on the theme that Bill Clinton laid down last night that the problems the nation faces will take more than four years to fix. And, he made the case for why he should be the one that sits behind the Resolute Desk for the next four years. Comparing his speech to Mitt Romney’s last week, it seems rather clear to me that it was the President who did the better job.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the speech last night was when the President laid into Romney and the GOP on an issue of traditional GOP strength, foreign policy. For as long as I can remember, foreign policy has been an area where Republicans always had an advantage over Democrats. It’s a phenomenon that started, for the most part, in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Democratic Party’s embrace of the anti-war movement and nomination of candidates like George McGovern. Even after Vietnam had ended, that contingent of the party continued to exist and continued to hold sway in a manner that clearly hurt Democrats during the Reagan’s years. It went away somewhat during the Clinton years, but returned again in the wake of the September 11th attacks. That Republican advantage is gone now, though. Barack Obama took office in the midst of two wars, one of which he brought to the end and the other of which he actually increased American involvement. Among his first decisions as President was to authorize a SEAL raid that liberated sailors being held hostage by Somali pirates. For better or worse, he has increased the use of unmanned drones to attack terrorists. And, as we were reminded several times last night, he authorized the raid that led to the death of the man responsible for more American deaths than anyone since World War Two. This time, the foreign policy advantage is on the Democratic side.
Most importantly, as Daniel Larison points out, the President took the opportunity last night to point that advantage out quite starkly:
[T]he real issue, as ever, is judgment. Romney’s “number one geopolitical foe” blunder on Russia painted a giant, red target on his back for Obama to hit, and Obama did just that. Obama said:
After all, you don’t call Russia our number one enemy – and not al Qaeda – unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War time warp. You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally. My opponent said it was “tragic” to end the war in Iraq, and he won’t tell us how he’ll end the war in Afghanistan.
Obama took everything that is supposed to prove that Romney is “tough” and reliable (his antagonism towards Russia, his trip abroad, his reflexive support for prolonged wars) and showed how it proves he is unprepared and irresponsible. The Russia blunder plays into the hands of the Democrats more than any other. That blunder comes out of Romney’s knee-jerk rejectionism of current Russia policy. The arguments behind that rejectionism have no supporting evidence, which has forced Romney to ignore the policy’s modest successes and pretend that they never happened.
That one has to sting, and it’s going to make the foreign policy debate next month very interesting indeed. When it comes to that topic, Mitt Romney will walk into the hall with a distinct disadvantage.
Much of the reaction to the speech in the blogosphere has used words like “underwhelming,” but as I noted above I think that this kind of analysis misses the point. The President didn’t necessarily need to hit the ball out of the park last night, he needed to make the case for his re-election and against his opponent and he did that very well. I still have doubts about how much these convention speeches matter, and President Obama’s may not matter much at all in a short while after the August jobs report is released. On the whole, though, the President capped off a very successful convention — more successful, I would argue, than the Republican Convention — with a speech that set the tone for the next two months and laid out a challenge for his opponent. Barack Obama may not have raised the roof last night, but he did everything else that he needed to do, and if I was at Romney HQ right now, I’d be very concerned.