On Obama's 'Disappointing' DNC Speech

I said last night that Barack Obama's acceptance speech, while not as flashy as some others in his past and several others at the convention, "did the job" he needed it to do. It was solid, serious, and under- rather than over-emotional -- traits shared by his strikingly low-key inaugural address  -- and in that sense was a better bet for the president than going all-out to repeat his "Yes we can!" performance of four years ago.

- If he had been much more flowery, at a time of discouraging economic realities, he would be teed up for criticisms that "he's out of touch," or "he's all talk," or "great at speeches, bad at results." Those would have been at least as burdensome as the "too downbeat" criticism he is getting instead.

- Instead he was sober, meat-and-potatoes, going into as much detail as a convention speech (vs. a State of the Union) allows. Anyone complaining that there was "not enough substance" in his talk needs to go look at some past nominees' convention speeches. It is possible to go too light on the details, as Mitt Romney must now regret doing in his failure to talk about Afghanistan. But Obama served up about as much policy as normal convention speeches will bear.

- It's important to stress that it doesn't matter if Obama "fell short" of the emotional level of his wife's speech, or the crowd-command of Bill Clinton's. The rank-the-speakers derby had an entirely different edge for the Democrats than for the Republicans. Bill Clinton is no doubt savoring every story saying that his speech was the highlight of the convention. But for Obama, all that matters is that Clinton is now doing his best to pull the nominee across the line. (Think how history would be different if Al Gore had asked Clinton to do this 12 years ago.) At the RNC, by contrast, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio were "helping" Romney --  sort of. To spell it out: they're better off if he loses this year.

- In retrospect, the most dramatic tonal moment of the speech may have been this brief passage near the end. Obama was indirectly addressing the difference between the Hope-and-Change aura of 2008, and the Doing-Our-Best-and-Hoping-for-Better realities now. But with the final three words, he made several points at once:

I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention.  The times have changed, and so have I.  I'm no longer just a candidate.  I'm the President.

To me, that final sentence came across not as boasting or preening. Instead it had a startling spare, understated drama. Obama used it as the transition to a line about the burden of wartime leadership. ("That means 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.") But I heard it as also conveying, Let's get serious here. I'm the President, so I know how hard these trade-offs are. I'm the President, so there are some things I won't joke about. But also: for all of you who think I'm a Muslim, an alien, a socialist, a fraud, here's a reminder. I'm the President.

- Also in retrospect, the most important "content" part of Bill Clinton's speech may have been his argument that things were about to get better, economically. In case you've forgotten:

[Obama] has laid the foundation for a new, modern, successful economy of shared prosperity. And if you will renew the president's contract, you will feel it. You will feel it.

(Cheers, applause.)

Folks, whether the American people believe what I just said or not may be the whole election. I just want you to know that I believe it. With all my heart, I believe it.

(Cheers, applause.)

Now, why do I believe it?

I'm fixing to tell you why...

Now, two messages from readers who object to the media's pooh-poohing of Obama's speech. First, from a male reader in the South:

I liked the speech. I especially liked its personal humility and the references to "citizenship." Don't know if he used the word "honor," but it's a similar kind of word. It's the kind of word your fantasy of a 50s dad would use. He fit himself right into the role of a more professorial version of Biden's dad. "I'm going away for a while, Joey, there's jobs there. But, remember things will be all right." It was the optimism of sacrifice. In our mythology, a dad conveys that, even though mother more often live it today.

He was playing Bambi's dad. Tom Hanks.

The entire convention was about asserting the "traditional values" of an untraditional American political coalition of tribes that has not before wielded real power. Nothing is more symbolically key to those traditional values than a wise, disciplined father.

For as long as I've been following politics, dems/liberals/etc. have been -- pardon the crudity -- the pussies. The people asking the power to be nice to them and complaining when it's not. Or maybe the kids. The powerful, world-weary father is the ultimate antidote to both of those perceptions. Dems have been fond of referring to themselves as the adults for a long-time. I think they're finally really projecting it.

I think that's what Obama was after. Obviously, we'll see if it works.

And, from a female reader in California:

First, the speech reminded us he is the adult in the room.   The MSNBC moderators wondered why people cheered when he said "I am the President."  It resonated deeply to my husband and me.  He is the MAN.  And we were touched when he asked for our vote.  You can't close the sale unless you ask for the money.

It was a measured speech, spoken with gravity and humility, with the strength to tell the hard truths about the Republican nominees (the foreign policy takedowns in particular).  The new theme of citizenship was invigorating.  It's not just that it echoed the false notes of Citizens United, but it UNITED people around a concept that again was neither red state nor blue state, to paraphrase his 2008 speech and swept up in its embrace the DREAMERS.   

I marveled at the craftsmanship in which he emphasized again and again, without shouting it out, I am an American, I love America, I am a man of faith (it took Rev. Al and Melissa Harris-Perry to enlighten me on the biblical quotes and themes...but I was raised Buddhist).  The way he re-framed the Hope and Change argument, reminding us that the path is long but it leads to a better place, my gosh, that made everyone want to dust off their Hope posters (take that Paul Ryan) or tack up a new one.

I think he also did a very good job reminding us that progress and change are personal.  Our family is personally better off than Election Day 2008.  Our  25 year old son got to join my husband's health plan. Same son got a good paying job this summer with the company of his dreams. My husband's company (Japanese auto) has been able to hand out pay raises and bonuses for the first time in years.  I can get a wellness check for free.  The value of our 401Ks, which had been decimated by 30%+ in 2008, have rebounded and grown, the value of our home is again rising.  My daughter (a college junior) will someday benefit from the Lily Ledbetter Act and no co-pays for contraceptives.  The war is over in Iraq and I can't remember the last time a friend in the Reserve has been called up. Gay friends can marry...

Pundits tend to be obsessed with the aggregate numbers of unemployment and rising gas prices.  But they forget that the gut-wrenching fear of losing everything and the feeling of powerlessness in the face of rising prices (not just gas but CPI in general) are gone.  We remember when prices were high under George Bush, but now there are more hybrid cars available, as well as improved public transit and bike paths and new towns that can be walked not driven.  There is a growing internet economy that helps many with cheaper prices and opportunities to earn money outside the old-line corporate/small business/farm model.  Have you been to a swap meet lately?  Positive change has happened these past 4 years and it can't be denied...

Taken as a whole, the DNC speakers walked all of us up to President Obama's speech.  The passion, fire, focus, MATH (as Jon Stewart marveled), were brought forth by the First Lady, Pres. Clinton (listen!) and Vice President Biden.  My Facebook friends said they saw the speech and donated. I will too.  That speech got me fired up and ready to go.

Update: See The Atlantic's Garance Franke-Ruta to similar effect just after the speech.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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