Why Obama's Great Speech Fell Flat

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The president achieved everything he wanted to Thursday -- but convincing voters he has a plan will be a long process.

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Reuters

With a poet's pacing, President Obama assured anxious Americans that "our problems can be solved" with his gauzy agenda for more jobs, lower deficits, and leadership they can trust. It was a great speech -- and yet, it fell short.

Obama still has work to do with the vision thing. Convincing voters that he has a credible, practical plan to turn the nation around is a process, not a speech.

Humbled by four tough years in office, the president asked for more time as he braced the country for more pain. "I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy," he said in a speech that drew sharp contrasts to the GOP agenda. "The path we offer may be harder but it leads to a better place."

"The times have changed," he declared, "and so have I."

Voters already knew Obama could deliver a stemwinder. His rhetorical skills were never in question. In fact, his lyrical promises of hope and change and a post-partisan in 2008 raised expectations so high that Obama was destined to fall short. Especially after the economy collapsed before he took office, forcing Obama to expend political capital on a salvage effort.

And so now voters should be expected to wonder whether the goals he laid out Thursday night will be -- or even can be -- achieved.

Knowing he faces a skeptical, hard-bitten electorate, Obama sought to cast GOP rival Mitt Romney as an empty-suit candidate without a plan. "They want your vote," he said of the GOP ticket, "but they don't want you to know their plan."

It is true that the GOP convention last week in Tampa lacked a specific battle plan to turn around the economy. And, yes, the Obama campaign released Thursday night a six-page agenda labeled "President Obama's Goals for America."

But it wasn't a blueprint as much as it was a collection of lofty goals and promises -- more than Romney put forward last week, less than voters may demand.

To be clear, Obama accomplished almost everything he set out to do Thursday night. And because the speech was so well delivered at the end of a smartly produced three-day convention, Obama now has two months to make the case that his agenda isn't built on mere hope.

He might want to consider offering more details in the debates, policy speeches, and ads.

For now, voters must settle for prose -- like this chestnut channeling both Abe Lincoln and John F. Kennedy:

"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 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."

Before the networks began their convention broadcasts, Obama's surrogates stirred the partisan crowd with attacks on Romney and his message. But Obama himself mainly hewed to the high road, mindful of polling that shows swing voters weary of negative attacks.

He did contrast Romney's approach to his on health care, education, taxes, and national security, an issue the GOP once owned. "A new tower rises above the New York skyline. The economy is on the path to recovery and Osama bin Laden is dead," he said.

Indeed, Obama and his strategists know that Thursday night's speech -- no matter how well received -- is highly unlikely to change the nature of a closely fought race.

But they hope that the positive, forward-looking vision he put forth (even with a lack of specifics) sets the tone for the fall.

Obama will be negative; disqualifying Romney is a key to his strategy. But now he has a positive flip-side.

The bar was much lower for Romney last week. Still little-known by most voters, the GOP nominee's mission in Tampa was simple: Introduce himself to Americans, giving them a sense of his values, his character, and his plans for the nation.

Obama had a higher climb. Voters know he can make pretty promises, but they have doubts about whether he can keep them. Most voters like the president but they do worry about his ability to get the job done.

It's the same knock voters had against Bill Clinton two years into his presidency: Nice guy, ineffective.

Obama won the presidency on the strength of his message and the skills of the messenger. Now the talk of hope and change feels out of tune when so many Americans are out of work, over-mortgaged, and worried that life will be even tougher for their children.

"That hope has been tested," Obama conceded as he cast himself as a leader willing to make hard choices.

"You didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth," he said. "And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve the challenges that have built up over decades."

The road ahead is hard. And the president once hailed as a savior cast himself as the country's simple shepherd.

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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