Obama's Speech: Not Transformational, But Still Powerful
President Obama's acceptance speech to the DNC last night was bound to be a disappointment in a lot of ways, because the buildup (especially Michelle Obama's speech, followed by Bill Clinton's) was so sensational that he had almost no chance of pulling off anything that could be spectacular. After all, we've gotten accustomed to his presence these past four years; there's little he can do now to surprise us.
Naturally, this left the Jennifer Rubins of the world gloating, as though the GOP's tawdry affair in Tampa stood up to any kind of comparison to the past week in Charlotte, enough to give Republicans like Rubin comfort. As though.
There were a lot of different reactions, making the speech something of a Rohrschach test: Kevin Drum thought the president phoned it in. Ed Kilgore thought it set just the right tone, especially for its intended audience:
The only thing I’m really confident about is that the “enthusiasm gap” we’ve been told about the entire cycle may have largely dissipated. The Democratic Convention did about as good a job as anyone could reasonably expect in highlighting both positive and negative reasons for Democrats turning out to vote. And the Democrats in the hall responded powerfully. The hatefulness they (or at least those living in battleground states) are about to see pouring from every television screen once the 504(c)(4) and Super-PAC ads let the pursestrings rip will likely reinforce that enthusiasm, regardless of their effect on the tiny band of swing voters they are aimed at.
Thereisnospoon at Hullabaloo thought likewise:
The President had a singular task tonight: take a message of hope and change, and adapt it to the reality of the struggling economy. Attack Romney while looking presidential, not punching down, and remaining statesmanlike. Show empathy without showing weakness.
And I think he accomplished those goals very well, in one of the most progressive speeches I've heard him give. It wasn't the greatest speech he's ever delivered, but that's because the message is hard and doesn't lend itself to the most soaring rhetoric.
He made it clear that the American people (and, I would argue, the citizens of the world) are in a project together, and that we can only succeed in that project if we have faith in it and in one another, without "othering" groups or allowing selfish cynicism to take hold. That's a daring message for a U.S. president.
There's a lot of wriggle room in there, and quite a few straw men, but if you read it literally, he specifically promised not to slash those programs in exchange for tax cuts. What he didn't do was promise not to cut those programs in exchange for tax hikes --- which is what the Democrats are seeking.
He won't agree to tax cuts for millionaires. That's a good thing. But will he agree to cuts if the Republicans agree to raise some taxes? We don't know. But we do know that David Koch's on board with that.
His speech was disappointing until, with about ten minutes to go, it acknowledged disappointment, and so began its rise. "The times have changed — and so have I," he said. "I'm no longer just a candidate. I'm the president." Of course, he was reminding us of his power; the fact of his presidency has become an argument for his presidency. But he was also reminding us that as a candidate who rose to power on the politics of pure potential, he is, as president, a fallen man. "And while I'm proud of what we've achieved together, I'm far more mindful of my own failiings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, 'I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.'"
This was where the speech turned, and became, in its statement of humility, a statement of rousing power. "I ask you for your vote," he said, and his commonplace words had a beseeching quality that put them outside the realm of political performance. He had failed to transform his office, and failed to transform our politics, but he sounded fully aware that he had been himself transformed.
He had started out as the Cassius Clay of our politics, brash and blinding, with an abilty to do things in the ring that no one else had ever thought of — with an ability to be untouchable. Now he stood inside the ring of stars on the blue carpeted stage of the Democratic National Convention as the Muhammad Ali whose greatness was proven after he returned to boxing bigger, slower, harder-hitting but also easier to hit. Oh, Ali got touched, all right, and since he lost his skill at avoiding punches he had to find the skill of taking them. He became a prodigy not of otherworldly gifts but rather of sheer will, and so it was with Obama in his speech on Thursday night. At an event that paid endless tributes to our wounded warriors, he rebranded himself as something of a wounded warrior himself; and at the very moment when those who remembered 2008 hoped he might say something that no one had ever heard before and maybe even reinvent, one more time, the possibilities of a word as hackneyed as hope itself, he instead completed his hard-won journey to convention.