Three Quick Points on Obama's Speech

By James Fallows

Will try to write a "real" assessment at some point. For now:

1) Citizen Obama. The most interesting "new"-ish approach in the speech was the theme that ran through the final one-third of it, about the importance and implications of "citizenship." Viz:

As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights - rights that no man or government can take away. We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative. We're not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system - the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known. [That is: we are for individuals, and for success. And now the pivot:]

But we also believe in something called citizenship - a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations. [And on to explain the ramifications.]

The reason this is interesting: It is a way to deal with the GOP's out-of-context "you didn't build that"  meme not by (1) matching its out-of-context-ness, with an offsetting "like to fire people" theme (as some DNC speakers did); nor (2) directly making the case for the value of public/private interactions, as Bill Clinton effectively did last night, but (3) attempting to change the terrain, or the game, with a new definition of terms. More later on the implications, but a very interesting re-casting of the debate.

2) Mockery rather than anger. Ronald Reagan's "there you go again" line was so damaging against Jimmy Carter because it was amused-and-dismissive sounding, rather than angry at all. Obama managed to strike a similar "there you go again" amused/dismissive tone in talking about Romney's London-Olympic missteps and his team being "... new [after a pause, and with a grin] to foreign policy."

3) How "false equivalence" works. My mailbox is swamped with messages from Republicans asking when "the media" will get on Joe Biden's speech tonight with the same list of factual errors they/we produced after Paul Ryan's "post-truth" convention speech last week. Also, when Biden will be attacked the way Ryan has been about his marathon claims.

The answer to the second question is: Biden had his version of this problem back in the 1980s, when he got in trouble for appropriating anecdotes from a Neil Kinnock speech as if he'd experienced them himself. But people at the time didn't think that they had to find equal criticisms of, say, George H.W. Bush or Dick Gephardt; Biden attracted the criticism because he had created the problem.

The answer to the first question is: If someone comes up with illustrations of Biden mis-stating facts as grossly as Ryan did in his speech, then he will deserve and get comparable grief for them. But the expectation in most of these notes, interestingly, is that it shouldn't matter whether there is any objective difference in who is bending the truth at any given time. If you point out problems "on one side," then you'd better find some equal and offsetting problem on the other, or else the game is rigged. Whether or not the problem is there.

3A) On the speech overall: I thought it was not one of his best but that it did the job. "The job," in this sense, was having the party leave the convention feeling as if they had a case to present. I don't buy the argument that some of the home-run speeches of the convention -- by Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Deval Patrick, Julian Castro, Andrew Tobias, and others including in their particular ways John Kerry and Joe Biden -- "raised the bar" for Obama or "set him up for disappointment." At the Republican convention last week, speakers like Chris Christie and Marco Rubio were outright auditioning to be the candidate in 2016. That ambition depends on Romney's failure this year. Everyone at the DNC was pulling to get Obama and Biden across the line this year; each speech built on the others rather than competing with them for attention.

And, OK, 4): Nice to hear a plain statement that climate change "is not a hoax." That is it for now.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/09/three-quick-points-on-obamas-speech/262088/