In all the praise that has accrued to President Obama for his oratorical skills, one thing often gets overlooked. He’s a pretty damned good politician, a fact he proved Thursday night in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention.
The eloquence is still there. “We don’t think government can solve all our problems, but we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems” and “We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense” are mighty good phrases.
But this is an older and wiser president, tempered by four years in office, running in a very different kind of election this year. So Obama chose Thursday night to lay off the lofty rhetoric for a couple more mundane goals: turning out his base and finding a new way to make points with the ever-dwindling undecideds in this election.
His first order of business was to shed his reputation as a wordsmith without abandoning it, essentially restoring the good name of hope and change. He started off by acknowledging that he’s come a long way since he first addressed Democratic convention in 2004.
A Young Man With Hope
“I was a younger man, a Senate candidate from Illinois who spoke about hope,” he said. “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, even when the odds are great; even when the road is long. Eight years later, that hope has been tested.”
Two wars, A Great Recession, and widespread public distain for the political gridlock in Washington has led to a presidential campaign this year that seems almost dirty to many disillusioned voters. “I know that campaigns can seem small, and even silly. Trivial things become big distractions. Serious issues become sound bites. And the truth gets buried under an avalanche of money and advertising,” he said.
“If you’re sick of hearing me approve this message, believe me – so am I. But 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.”
Humor and Humility
Obama went on to define that choice, turning some of his criticism of his Republican opponents into jokes. “They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan. And that’s because all they have to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last thirty years:
“Have a surplus? Try a tax cut.”
“Deficit too high? Try another.”
“Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!”
But Obama also turned introspective, almost Biblically so, as if it is okay to be a doubting Thomas because he sometimes doubts himself.
“The times have changed – and so have I. I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the President. I know what it means to send young Americans into battle, for I have held in my arms the mothers and fathers of those who didn’t return. I’ve shared the pain of families who’ve lost their homes, and the frustration of workers who’ve lost their jobs. If the critics are right that I’ve made all my decisions based on polls, then I must not be very good at reading them. And while I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, 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.’”
Tactics over Rhetoric
Obama is, indeed, very good at reading the polls. And the driving force behind the speech wasn’t humility, humor or divine inspiration. It was the hard fact that, even after $500 billion of political advertising, the polls show Obama and Romney are locked in a virtual dead heat –– and the pool of undecided voters is dwindling. So this speech was really more about tactics than rhetoric (even though there was plenty of that as well).
To reach these undecideds, Obama charted a course for his second term that included setting national goals in manufacturing, energy, education, national security and deficit reduction that, he hopes, will force Mitt Romney to talk about them in the upcoming presidential debates (where the last of the undecideds will decide). He couched his proposals in the larger convention theme of growing the economy out from the middle class. But to make sure Romney, and the media, got the point, the Obama campaign took the rare step of outlining them as bullet points in a pre-speech release of excerpts:
- Create one million new manufacturing jobs by the end of 2016
- Double exports by the end of 2014
- Cut net oil imports in half by 2020
- Support 600,000 natural gas jobs by the end of the decade
- Cut the growth of college tuition in half over the next 10 years
- Recruit 100,000 math and science teachers over the next 10 years
- Train two million workers for real jobs at community colleges
- Invest in the economy with the money we’re no longer spending on war
- Reduce the deficit by more than $4 trillion over the next decade
In the context of his address, Obama expanded on each, weaving them together into a “real, achievable plan that will lead to new jobs, more opportunity and rebuild this economy on a stronger foundation.” But it was not a strong weave, and seemed more like another political commercial than an actual plan.
You Are The Change
In the end, Obama brought his speech back around to the hopers and changers, particularly the lagging young voters this time around, who he desperately needs to turn out.
“The election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you,” he said. “You were the change. If you turn away now – if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible…well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves. Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.”
And that was the message of the night: turn out in November or we’re toast.