Obama's Convention Anticlimax

In a perplexingly lifeless convention address, the president fails to live up to his reputation as a brilliant orator.


CHARLOTTE -- Democrats were having a very good convention. Michelle Obama made America fall in love, Bill Clinton made voters believe. On the final night Thursday, Senator John Kerry, of all people, delivered a stirring call to arms ("Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off than he was four years ago!"), and the oft-ridiculed Vice President Joe Biden went on only slightly too long, with a soft-spoken seriousness that rose above the political.

And then President Obama got up and just sort of didn't do anything special.

The president, that legendary orator, vaunted crowd-mover, well-known sweeper-away of audiences in general and political conventions in particular, gave a warmed-over rehash of his stump speech, right down to the exit music, Bruce Springsteen's "We Take Care of Our Own," that generally plays him out at campaign events.

The theme -- stop me if you've heard this one -- was hope. Obama began and ended by invoking it, giving the address the neat circularity of a high-schooler's five-paragraph essay. Eight years after his 2004 convention debut, he said, "that hope has been tested -- by the cost of war, by one of the worst economic crises in history, and by political gridlock that's left us wondering whether it's still possible to tackle the challenges of our time."

Was he going for lofty, getting the old hope-and-change band back together again to reawaken supporters' dormant affection? But no, the speech quickly detoured into some pedestrian tropes: the ritual bemoaning of the smallness of the campaign, followed by the Laying Out of the Choice Between Visions and the Gentle Mocking of Republican Insufficiency. ("Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!") Then ensued a laundry list of familiar proposals. There were wind and solar and clean coal; there were gains in math and reading scores. There were roads and bridges, tax reform, and fixing the deficit. There were even improvements to human rights in Burma and Libya and South Sudan. For most of this, the bulk of the delegates on the floor were sitting down.

And for the grand peroration, when one hoped all this stuff would finally be elevated into a new and glorious revelation, there was You.

"The election four years ago wasn't about me. It was about you," Obama said. "My fellow citizens -- you were the change." The past tense -- a shift from Obama's 2008 exhortation to "be the change," in the future -- was intensely jarring. "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," he said. "Only you can make sure that doesn't happen. Only you have the power to move us forward."

The speech was so befuddlingly flat as to make you wonder whether its lameness was intentional. Was the Obama campaign just up to something so extremely clever that an ordinary listener could not perceive it? Was the speech pitched over the press's head, to the humble average voter who's never heard Obama's stump speech before? Was he deliberately "going small" in order to avoid evoking 2008 and its famous parting waters and Greek columns?

"America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won't promise that now," Obama said. "Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place. Yes, our road is longer, but we travel it together."

If anything, the speech seemed engineered as a series of defensive moves. Mitt Romney and the Republicans gave speeches conspicuously light on policy, so Obama gave a speech weighted down with it. They ridiculed his cult of personality, so he took himself almost entirely out of the picture. They said he was out of touch, so he strained to descend to earth and focus on minutiae.

The speech also seemed to reflect the Obama campaign's theory of the election. While Clinton's speech was a masterpiece of persuasion, the Obama camp's model relies not on conversions but on turnout. It's not about winning new people over -- it's about getting the disaffected to vote, the only way they ever would.

But to do that, you have to inspire. And for Barack Obama, this time, the inspiration went missing.