Friday, August 29, 2008


Mile High & Rising

Given the immense challenges he faced -- including some self-imposed added weight -- Barack Obama acquitted himself quite well. His speech was definitely more prosaic than those given in the past.

But that was a good choice. He has been hammered as sound and, uh, fiery, but signifying little. In short, that he was a man of style more than substance. For those so inclined to look, the substance has actually always been there: It just happens to be a more liberal substance than either conservatives or many moderates/independents might be comfortable with. That said, his most significant speeches have tended to emphasize more soaring, elegant, rhetoric than on concrete policy.

By contrast, most Hillary Clinton's speeches are the laundry list of a devoted policy wonk.
So, tonight, it almost seemed like watching an All-Star pitcher known for his fastball, decide to go with a "steady diet" (as the sportscasters say) of off-speed pitches. Well, if you can get the opposing line-up out that way, go for it.

And Obama did with an assertive speech and performance of principle, passion and, yes, patriotism.

A recurring theme during this year has been whether the Democrats have found "their" Reagan, i.e. a charismatic figure who can make a previously rejected political philosophy palatable to the broad middle of Americans. Obama may very well have done that tonight. Whereas Reagan made a powerful critique showing where big government had hurt the average American's capacity to achieve the American dream, Obama has turned the argument around:

"Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves...".

That line comes after a recitation of what Obama sees as government failing during the Bush years -- most notably [sitting] on its hands while a major American city drowns before our eyes."
(Yes, the government failures during Katrina were also at the local and state levels, but unfortunately "Heckuva job, Brownie" has become a mark of Cain which the Bush administration can't remove.)

Speaking of marks that can't be removed, exactly how much does John McCain love Phil Gramm -- whose permanent gift were the phrases "mental recession" and "nation of whiners"? Gramm left the campaign shortly after making those comments. Alas, McCain is stuck with them.

For an acceptance speech, Obama was remarkably restrained toward John McCain. That's not to say that he didn't criticize him -- and the Bush record -- but he engaged the military service/sacrifice issue head-on with more seemingly sincere praise than one usually finds in such a setting. It was relatively absent of personal attacks: After hearing about McCain's houses all throughout the convention, Obama didn't mention them. His critique on the economy was delivered in a tone of "more in sorrow than in anger": "It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it."

Despite my comments a couple of days ago, the setting worked very well. With all the blue carpeting and bunting, the columns hardly looked like any "Greek temple." Far from it: Instead, the sight of 80,000 ordinary folks vigorously waving their American flags in the clear Denver night was wonderful to behold; that it was at a Democratic convention was all the more endearing.

Obama adroitly tossed back McCain's "celebrity", by comparing the lives of people he's met along the campaign trail with those he worked with in his life as a community organizer -- and even his own grandmother. In doing so, he manages a two-fer: First, he answers his opponent's ads: "I don't know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine. These are my heroes." Secondly, he is indirectly speaking to those working class voters that Hillary Clinton was attracting and saying, as a certain former president would have, "I feel your pain.

Finally, Obama deflected the focus away from him: "What the nay-sayers don't understand is that this election has never been about me. It's been about you." Initially, that sounds like a reworking of the classic break-up line, "It's not you; it's me." But this is something different: Barack Obama is not yet asking Americans for their vote (as one would expect in this sort of a speech). Instead, he's asking them to become part of a movement of change that is made of everyday people.

But, artfully, this statement makes things rather dicey for Republicans next week. If they hoped that their convention was all about tearing apart Obama personally and contrasting him with John McCain, Obama has almost prepared the viewers for it -- and inoculated himself. The GOP could end up sounding like it's about making its convention only about Obama and McCain, rather than an overarching vision.

I don't give Obama quite a full A (in fact, my initial "grade" was a B+), because one slight negative came through over the last week: Obama is not nearly as unflappable as he seemed throughout the primary campaign. Given the enormity of the task in front of him going into this week, some nerves are understandable. But each time he appeared in a major setting, he made a verbal or mental miscue. If he wasn't such a powerful speaker, you wouldn't normally notice it. But, because of his verbal acuity, these errors seemed a bit jarring.

1) He introduced Joe Biden as the "next president, uh, vice-president of the United States."
2) On the opening night of the convention, he announced he was in St. Louis, when he was in Kansas City (possibly an error based on all the travel -- he corrected it a little later when his daughter asked, "What city are you in, Daddy?"

3) On Wednesday, when he came out following Joe Biden's speech, he garbled one of his signature lines -- and ended up saying, "change comes from the top down," before correcting himself.

4) At the most significant line in his acceptance speech, he said, "I accept your nomination for presidency of the United States." [sic] A "the" was dropped.

Individually, all of these were minor, but, again coming from a rhetorical master, they seemed like a champion dancer losing his balance at inopportune moments.

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