Obama’s Acceptance Speech: The More Things CHANGE, The More They Remain the Same

I wrote a quick post before bed last night giving my off-the-cuff reaction to Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech, arguing that, despite all the talk of “change,” it was basically a speech that Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, or John Kerry could have given.

The NYT has a six-page transcript of the speech as delivered.  Let’s skip the biography and gotcha attack lines and go through the policy pronouncements.  These are problems for which he’s blamed George W. Bush and has promised to fix if elected president.

[M]ore Americans are out of work and more are working harder for less. More of you have lost your homes and even more are watching your home values plummet. More of you have cars you can’t afford to drive, credit cards, bills you can’t afford to pay, and tuition that’s beyond your reach.

Exactly zero of these are within the power of the president to fix. Seriously, what does he propose to do about housing prices reaching equilibrium and people borrowing to live lifestyles they can’t afford?

We’re a better country than one where a man in Indiana has to pack up the equipment that he’s worked on for 20 years and watch as it’s shipped off to China, and then chokes up as he explains how he felt like a failure when he went home to tell his family the news.

So, we’re going to ban trade with China? Ban American companies from participating in the global marketplace? Radically raise the cost that 300 million Americans pay for consumer goods to keep a relative handful of people employed in sectors where First World nations have lost their comparative advantage?

We are more compassionate than a government that lets veterans sleep on our streets and families slide into poverty…

So, we’re going to return to locking up drug addicts and people with non-dangerous mental disorders? We’re going to guarantee everyone a minimum income?

We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether someone with a good idea can take a risk and start a new business, or whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off and look after a sick kid without losing her job, an economy that honors the dignity of work.

Don’t people start new businesses every day in this country? And isn’t his party the one that wants to erect regulatory barriers making it harder to start new businesses? For that matter, don’t waitresses get days off already? I’m pretty sure they do.

Implicit in this sentence, though, are the inherent contradictions in Democratic domestic policy. The more mandates we put on small businesses, the harder it is for them to succeed. Sure, it would be great if even unskilled labor got terrific benefits, including paid family leave. But somebody’s got to pay for that. If it’s the customer, it makes the product or service less attractive. If it’s coming out of the owner’s pocket, it makes hiring employees less attractive. If it’s the government, it takes money out of everyone’s pocket — including those with dreams of starting their own business. Including the very waitress who we’re trying to help. Whose salary, incidentally, will naturally go down as a result of the policy — if she’s hired to begin with.

Ours — ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools, and new roads, and science, and technology.

Now this is terrific line. It starts off appealing to conservatives and moderates and then promises a chicken in every pot. Who can be opposed to these things, after all? Why, mean old out-of-touch people like John McCain, that’s who!

But how does this translate into policy?

Protect us from harm. Keeping foreign enemies from attacking us and domestic criminals from terrorizing the innocent is the fundamental purpose of government, one could argue. But we’ve been trying to do these things since Day 1. One suspects, though, he’s defining “harm” much more broadly.

Decent education for all.
I’m for it. But isn’t that a local responsibility? The federal government doesn’t run too many schools, after all, aside from those on military bases and diplomatic outposts. And what does “decent” mean, exactly?

Are we going to have government only do “that which we cannot do for ourselves”? Or is it going to invest in science and technology?

Change means a tax code that doesn’t reward the lobbyists who wrote it, but the American workers and small businesses who deserve it.

Don’t workers and small businesses have lobbyists? And why is government in the business of deciding who “deserves” to keep the money they earned?

I will stop giving tax breaks to companies that ship jobs overseas, and I will start giving them to companies that create good jobs right here in America.

They’re the same companies!

I will — listen now — I will cut taxes — cut taxes — for 95 percent of all working families, because, in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle class.

This is another great line. It sounds very New Democrat. But, really, it’s the same old class warfare: We’re going to cut taxes for most people — even though we’ve just listed trillions in new spending programs — while raising them on those already paying the largest burden. But, hey, 19 out of 20 people will like it! Democracy! As Dave Schuler likes to say, “When you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can always count on the support of Paul.”

And for the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as president: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.

We will do this. Washington — Washington has been talking about our oil addiction for the last 30 years. And, by the way, John McCain has been there for 26 of them.

And Joe Biden 35 of them, by the way.

This is sheer fantasy. Of late, it’s become a bipartisan one, since even President Bush has spouted similar platitudes. It’s simply not going to happen.

And I’ll invest $150 billion over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy — wind power, and solar power, and the next generation of biofuels — an investment that will lead to new industries and 5 million new jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced.

Man, if $150 billion would do this Exxon would already be doing it.

I’ll recruit an army of new teachers, and pay them higher salaries, and give them more support. And in exchange, I’ll ask for higher standards and more accountability.

I suppose they’ll work side-by-side with the 100,000 new policemen Bill Clinton put on the beat.

Teachers are hired, trained, and supervised at the state and local level. Even if we federalize them, how is it that we’re going to attract better caliber people to do a job that’s often thankless and repetitive? Simply by paying them more? And what are these “higher standards”? Test scores? Democrats don’t like that measure. No Child Left Behind, Part Deux.

Granted, Clinton and others have made this promise and it’s almost certainly rhetoric that won’t translate into policy. If it did, though, we’re likely to see the repeat of federalizing airport security screeners: The same people doing the job as before but making more money and even harder to fire for poor performance.

And we will keep our promise to every young American: If you commit to serving your community or our country, we will make sure you can afford a college education.

What does this mean, exactly? If, say, you work in a soup kitchen a couple hours a week, we’ll send you to Harvard?

If you have health care — if you have health care, my plan will lower your premiums. If you don’t, you’ll be able to get the same kind of coverage that members of Congress give themselves.

So, if I don’t have a job, I get the same coverage we provide for 535 elites making executive salaries? Groovy. No scaling problems there.

I will make certain those companies stop discriminating against those who are sick and need care the most.

I think we have different definitions of “insurance.”

Now is the time to help families with paid sick days and better family leave, because nobody in America should have to choose between keeping their job and caring for a sick child or an ailing parent.

See our earlier discussion on this. Look, I’m for this. That’s a situation I’ve never been in and would dearly hate to be in. But who’s going to pay for it? A small business owner with, say, five employees almost certainly can’t afford to pay one of them for an extended period while not reaping the benefits of their work. Nor, realistically, can he afford to pay a temp to come in and do that work while paying the person he’s replacing. Large companies can probably absorb this sort of thing more easily — and many in fact do so — but, then again, large companies have more employees and therefore a greater likelihood of having to pay this out.

Or is this going to be some sort of government insurance program? If so, are we going to pay everyone on a capped basis, as with unemployment insurance? Or are we going to pay, say, an executive with a sick kid $20,000 a month while she’s out? What if her company sends good American jobs to China?

And now is the time to keep the promise of equal pay for an equal day’s work, because I want my daughters to have the exact same opportunities as your sons.

Dude, the 1970s are over.

Obama’s a bright guy. He anticipated these objections and dealt with them squarely:

Now, many of these plans will cost money, which is why I’ve laid out how I’ll pay for every dime: by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens that don’t help America grow.

But I will also go through the federal budget line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less, because we cannot meet 21st-century challenges with a 20th-century bureaucracy.

Clearly, the man has seen “Dave.”

I mean, seriously, we’re going to pay for all this by closing loopholes?! We quite literally couldn’t pay for it if we closed the entire federal government excepting the Defense Department and the Social Security Administration.

Yes, government must lead on energy independence, but each of us must do our part to make our homes and businesses more efficient.

The cameras didn’t show Jimmy Carter but I’m sure he was smiling. And wearing a sweater. While turning his thermostat down to 72.

[W]e must also admit that programs alone can’t replace parents, that government can’t turn off the television and make a child do her homework, that fathers must take more responsibility to provide love and guidance to their children.

Agreed. One small problem: They ain’t gonna.

Turning to foreign policy, the speech was actually much stronger there. I actually agreed with much of it, including some of the contrasts he drew with Bush and McCain. Two exceptions:

You know, John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the gates of Hell, but he won’t even follow him to the cave where he lives.

We have no clue as to which cave bin Laden lives. Or if he lives in a cave. Or he’s still alive.

Do we seriously believe that, if he could, Bush wouldn’t be killing or capturing bin Laden? His approval ratings would jump 25 points.

We are the party of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy. So don’t tell me that Democrats won’t defend this country. Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t keep us safe.

I agree with the underlying premise here: Of course Democrats want to keep the country safe and, goodness knows, Democrats aren’t any more reluctant to send troops into harm’s way than Republicans. One probably doesn’t want to invoke JFK here, though. Bay of Pigs. Taking us much closer to the brink of nuclear holocaust than we’ve ever been. Vietnam.

Look, I realize that I’m not the target audience here and that convention speeches are often full of platitudes and sops to the base.  My guess is that John McCain’s will be, too — and we’ll criticize that, too.   But don’t base your entire campaign on “CHANGE” and give me warmed over ideas from the Carter administration.

Obama Photo: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post. Magic pony  via Adam Stein.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Patrick T McGuire says:

    Reminds me of the old The Who song “We won’t get fooled again:

    “I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
    Take a bow for the new revolution
    Smile and grin at the change all around me
    Pick up my guitar and play
    Just like yesterday
    Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
    We don’t get fooled again
    Don’t get fooled again”

  2. Hoodlumman says:

    James, this speech was like mixing together Roosevelt’s, Kennedy’s, King Jr’s, Malcolm X’s, Reagan’s, Clinton’s and Al Gore’s greatest speeches, squaring them, multiplying them times 1000 then adding four to it awesome!

    The fact that you don’t want to fellate Obama just shows you’re a bitter partisan.

  3. sam says:

    Trenchant analysis, James. Unfortunately, the official Republican response will be something as substantial as this:

    Normal Americans [Kathryn Jean Lopez]

    Are telling me it was a “mean” speech.

  4. hln says:

    James, that may be as snarky as I’ve ever seen you get. I thoroughly enjoyed it. More ponies.

  5. Michael says:

    I watched most of the speech with my wife last night, and even though I am an Obama supporter, I thought most of his proposals were bad, and unlikely to ever happen. I fully expect John McCain to make similarly bad proposals that he can’t ever make happen.

    As I said to my wife last night, nobody can get themselves elected these days by proposing to do what needs to be done. I seem to be in the sever minority in wanting a candidate to say that I’m not being taxed too much, and that the government shouldn’t be paying for my healthcare, that oil companies making a profit is a good thing, and that maybe we don’t need more and higher paid teachers.

    I don’t believe I’ll ever hear those words from a serious Presidential candidate, though, but maybe I’m just too cynical.

  6. Hal says:

    maybe I’m just too cynical.

    Or more likely, your views are in the minority. That does tend to make one cynical, too.

  7. Michael says:

    James,
    Can I suggest a possibly entertaining series of posts, entitled “When I am President…”, in which you and your co-bloggers cover one topic per post, energy, economy, foreign policy, education, health care, etc, stating what your campaign platform would be in a hypothetical(*) run for President.

    Of course, the rest of us will post out own serious/humorous objectives in the comments.

    (*) Has anybody registered http://www.draftjoyner.com yet?

  8. Jim Henley says:

    despite all the talk of “change,” it was basically a speech that Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, or John Kerry could have given.

    Absolutely. The difference is, some cycles the public is in a “liberal” mood and some cycles it isn’t. So sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it don’t.

  9. Ace Armstrong says:

    Are you jockeying for a position with AP or Fox?
    As Gustav prepares to remind us of the abysmal response to Katrina and the elephant boys scurry about like so many rats looking for the gangplank, Jomama Obama is looking better all the time.

  10. Jim Henley says:

    Are you jockeying for a position with AP or Fox?

    My crazy, alternative take is that James is offering his opinion as a conservative.

  11. Michael says:

    My crazy, alternative take is that James is offering his opinion as a conservative.

    On the internets? What are you crazy?

  12. spencer says:

    this bit about the republicans being the anti-regulation party is wearing very, very thin.

    Do you remember Milton friedman’s WSJ editorial on the number of pages in the federal registry as a measure of regulations.

    After seven years in office the registery has 7.5% more pages under Bush than under Clinton. Bush is on course to set an all time record of new regulations.

  13. Ann says:

    Just about as mean spirited as anything I’ve read.
    Amazing how Republicans eschew all responsibility for the state of the country when it suits them.Your cynicism is profound, your insight is not.

  14. Jim Henley says:

    So James, you can totally turn Ann’s comment into a blurb with the right ellipses:

    ” . . . profound . . . insight . . . ”

    – Ann

  15. Steve Verdon says:

    And we will keep our promise to every young American: If you commit to serving your community or our country, we will make sure you can afford a college education.

    Indentured servitude? That is my reading of it. We’ll pay for your college, but then you have to do what we say for a number of years. Fits with the nanny state that Obama is promulgating. If you have a problem, big government will be there to pat your poo-poo and make it all better.

  16. Steve Verdon says:

    As I said to my wife last night, nobody can get themselves elected these days by proposing to do what needs to be done. I seem to be in the sever minority in wanting a candidate to say that I’m not being taxed too much, and that the government shouldn’t be paying for my healthcare, that oil companies making a profit is a good thing, and that maybe we don’t need more and higher paid teachers.

    Who are you and what have you done with Michael?

  17. Spoker says:

    I will — listen now — I will cut taxes — cut taxes — for 95 percent of all working families, because, in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle class.

    This is another great line. It sounds very New Democrat. But, really, it’s the same old class warfare: We’re going to cut taxes for most people — even though we’ve just listed trillions in new spending programs — while raising them on those already paying the largest burden. But, hey, 19 out of 20 people will like it! Democracy! As Dave Schuler likes to say, “When you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can always count on the support of Paul.”

    This seems like liberal code speak for “I’m going to let Peter take the blame for what I want to take from Paul.” any way to cut it, out of my pocket is out of my pocket, I don’t care who takes it.

  18. Michael says:

    Indentured servitude? That is my reading of it.

    There are plenty of scholarships that require some level of community service. Generally we call them grants, not indentured service.

    Fits with the nanny state that Obama is promulgating. If you have a problem, big government will be there to pat your poo-poo and make it all better.

    How is rewarding somebody for community service anything like a “Nanny state”? Nanny states reward people for doing nothing, not for doing something.

  19. Michael says:

    Who are you and what have you done with Michael?

    That’s funny, because there’s been a right-leaning commenter here a few times that posted under the name I usually use, and nobody every said anything.

    But really, when have I supported lower taxes, taxes on oil company profits, universal health care or anything like that?

  20. anjin-san says:

    Fits with the nanny state that Obama is promulgating. If you have a problem, big government will be there to pat your poo-poo and make it all better.

    Bush has presided over what is probably the greatest expansion of the federal government in history. Where is the objection to that? If we are going to have a large, powerful federal government, I would prefer one that puts the well being of its citizens first. Bush’s nanny wears jackboots.

  21. Steve Verdon says:

    But really, when have I supported lower taxes, taxes on oil company profits, universal health care or anything like that?

    Michael,

    It was somewhat tongue in cheek, but usually your posts are a bit more lefty. The above was almost positively center-right, IMO.

    How is rewarding somebody for community service anything like a “Nanny state”? Nanny states reward people for doing nothing, not for doing something.

    It really isn’t community service–i.e. volunteering if you are getting a reward, it is just another form of payment really. You do this and I’ll pay you. If the idea is that people are better off with college educations than not and this improvement offsets the losses associated with sending someone to college, then just subsidize the dang thing.

    anjin-san,

    Bush has presided over what is probably the greatest expansion of the federal government in history.

    FFS!

    Are you a blithering moron who sits at his computer with a long strand of drool hanging from your bottom lip? Do you find that yourself staring at something for hours on end with your mouth hanging open and a vacant look in your eyes? I mean really, I’m the guy who posted this. And you freaking commented in that thread. Are you really this stupid? Of course Bush is a nanny stater, is that your defense of Obama…”Bush does it tooo, Maaahhhhm-meee!”

    Where is the objection to that?

    See the above link dope. And the other posts of mine that note the expansion of the government under Bush on this very site, such as this one and this one.

    I know intellectual honesty is to you like garlic and the crucifix are to a vampire, but for crying out loud I’m not some Hannity lick spittle sycophant who thinks Bush can do no wrong. In fact, I’m quite disappointed with Bush.

    Jesus.

    Christ.

    On a pogo stick.

    If we are going to have a large, powerful federal government, I would prefer one that puts the well being of its citizens first. Bush’s nanny wears jackboots.

    All nanny states ultimately end up wearing jack boots because if they didn’t they wouldn’t work.