Missed Opportunity

09.07.12

Obama: A Pedestrian and Overconfident Speech

Let’s be blunt. Barack Obama gave a dull and pedestrian speech tonight, with nary an interesting thematic device, policy detail, or even one turn of phrase. The crowd sure didn’t see it my way. The delegates were near delirium; to what extent they were merely still feeding off the amassed energy of the previous two nights I can’t say.

And swing voters watching at home? They probably weren’t as bored as I was, but it seems inconceivable that they’d have been enraptured. This was the rhetorical equivalent, forgive the football metaphor, of running out the clock: Obama clearly thinks he’s ahead and just doesn’t need to make mistakes. But when football teams do that, it often turns out to be the biggest mistake of all, and they lose.

I didn’t like the lack of specifics at all. The thing I loved most about the Clinton speech was the specifics. The 24 vs. 42 million jobs created under Republican and Democratic administrations, the explanation of why Romney “restoring” that $716 billion would deplete the Medicare Trust Fund more quickly: that’s great stuff. And especially important, I think, in an election like this one. When you’re running against people to whom facts are irrelevant, the way you kill them is with facts. Not with rhetoric that’s vague and too subtle.

The main exhibit here was Medicaid. Again, Clinton showed the way. He spelled out how Romney-Ryan would devastate Medicaid, and explained how Medicaid has become now more a middle-class entitlement than a poor people’s one. Medicaid is, or can be, as David Frum wrote this morning, a huge Democratic weapon in this election. But unlike Clinton, Obama didn’t even mention it by name. Social Security and Medicare, yes, although even with those, he uttered mere vague sentences. But his not even mentioning Medicaid stunned me. Third down and 12, let’s run it up the middle, boys, take no chances.

Video screenshot

Watch a clip from Obama's speech.

The only sentence I really liked was the one about citizenship. It makes my heart happy to hear a president use the word, because a lot of them don’t very much, especially Democratic ones, who are probably warned that the word might offend the non-citizen community. So that felt like it might be the start of something interesting, but it too just sort of floated out the window.

The night’s big thematic device, the “it wasn’t me, it was you” business, sounded like a somewhat forced attempt, frankly, to come up with…something. He was trying to re-inspire the Obamabots of 2008. But it felt very superficial to me. Nothing in this speech was developed, nothing given hard thought, nothing that built to a great moment. Jeezy peezy, did Mitt Romney give a better speech last week? Not quite, but almost.

The question is, did he let the air out of the balloon here? Lose the momentum that gathered with such undeniable force over the previous two nights? I suspect he may have. If he comes out of this convention with under a three-point bounce, that will constitute a horrible missed opportunity. This thing was teed up for him to build a five-point lead. If there’s little movement in next week’s polls, then there’s also little doubt whose fault it is. Michelle did her job, and Clinton more than did his.

Joe Biden wasn’t very good either. His delivery was solid. His attacks were better than Obama’s were. But largely it was another play it safe speech. I don’t know what makes these guys think they can afford to give speeches like that. They’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of attack ads coming at them starting with this weekend’s football games, an onslaught such as we’ve never seen. They’re hardly in a position to play it safe. The people in the hall loved it, or strived to make it appear that they did. They feel protectively toward him. Swing voters, not so much. He's going to have to do much better than this.