Sobered Up

09.06.12

Obama’s DNC Speech: A Sober Call to Arms

The president delivered a substantive address that conceded real change will take years. Howard Kurtz on his more nuanced message of hope.

President Obama invoked FDR in making his case for a second term on Thursday night, replacing his hope-and-change mantra with a more sober challenge for a “harder” path to economic prosperity.

In an acceptance speech seemingly aimed at critics who said he has been short on substance, Obama coupled a call for $4 trillion in deficit reduction—the deal he failed to strike with the Republicans—with a pitch for investments in energy and education while protecting middle-class benefits.

After stirring speeches by his wife and Bill Clinton, Obama faced a more daunting challenge in both rallying his base and spelling out why the next four years would be more successful than his difficult first term mired in economic malaise.

It was a strong, sophisticated, and policy-laden speech by an embattled president, not a passionate newcomer making blue-sky promises.

In fact, Obama engaged in a deliberate lowering of expectations, a sharp contrast to the “Yes we can” frenzy of 2008.

“I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy,” he told the Democratic convention. “I never have. You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades.”

Obama seemed almost apologetic about what happened to his fervent promises of hope: “the cost of war,” “political gridlock,” campaigns that “can seem small, even silly.” Even his most optimistic assessment—"Know this, America, our problems can be solved"—had a flat, plain-spoken quality that dispensed with any inspirational flourish.

Joe Biden, who teared up during his nomination, offered an emotional contrast to his reserved boss. He said his father was a car salesman and that Obama had the “guts to stand up for the automobile industry,” while Mitt Romney, son of the head of American Motors, took “the Bain way” and “was willing to let Detroit go bankrupt.” The vice president went over the top at times, shouting that Obama has “courage in his soul” and “spine in his steel,” but finished with a rousing if overly long testimonial to the president.

In his own address, moved from a Charlotte stadium by the threat of rain, Obama laid out what he called “a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.”

He took no personal shots at Romney but portrayed him as peddling the same old GOP nostrums of lower taxes and less regulation that has been party orthodoxy for three decades.

Obama sounded echoes of two previous Democratic presidents, with a Clintonian call for “common effort, shared responsibility,” followed by “the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one.”

Perhaps conscious that conservatives view him as a New Deal liberal, Obama hastened to add that we “should remember that not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington.”

The 44th president invoked the 42nd by name, saying he would restore taxes to Clinton-era levels rather than slash middle-class programs to cut taxes for millionaires. And in a direct shot at Paul Ryan, Obama vowed not to turn Medicare into a voucher program.

At times the speech had a laundry-list, State of the Union flavor, with lines about creating “600,000 jobs in natural gas alone.” in a brief section on foreign policy, the  president said he had ended the Iraq War, was winding down the one in Afghanistan, and “Osama bin Laden is dead.”

The Democratic convention here in Charlotte seemed to arouse more passion than the Republicans in Tampa, and perhaps reminded people of certain achievements the president has failed to sell.

It was not Obama’s greatest speech, nor his most passionate. It was, instead, a grown-up speech, a substantive speech, one that hit high notes but never soared to the heights. Whatever afterglow it created may soon fade as voters again confront the realities of the shaky economy, and the fresh unemployment figures due out Friday morning.