The president’s recent speeches have not always lived up to his reputation for dazzling oratory. But his U.N. address exceeded expectations. John Avlon on why this was one of his best.
President Obama can be, if anything, overrated as an orator. Some of his heavily hyped speeches—such as his Charlotte convention address—fall flat or fall short.
That was not the case with his U.N. address Tuesday.
Certainly, the stakes were high—two weeks after the murder of the first American ambassador since 1979, his killers still at large, and the hope of the Arab Spring given to shadows and fog.
Against this backdrop, while world leaders met yesterday at the General Assembly, the president seemed in campaign mode—making time for the ladies of The View but not for Prime Minister Netanyahu or Egypt’s newly elected leader Mohammad Morsi. Moreover, his administration’s statements in the wake of ambassador Chris Stevens’s death have been confused and at times contradictory.
President Obama speaks at the U.N.
But President Obama’s fourth speech to the United Nation’s General Assembly rose to the occasion and to the heights to which he is capable. It was a vision and values speech grounded in the tumultuous facts on the world stage today, using the legacy of the slain Stevens as a narrative frame for the American spirit and the spirit of freedom that extends beyond borders.
Today we must reaffirm that our future will be determined by people like Chris Stevens, and not by his killers. Today we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our united nations.
Barack Obama addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations on Sept. 25, 2012, in New York. (Brendan Smialowski, AFP / Getty Images)
They've been both relentlessly courted and politically sidelines for years. But two new books show how voters who reject both Democrats and Republicans can become a force. By John Avlon
In the final stretch of this play-to-the-base presidential election, it is strange to say that the 40 percent of Americans who identify as independent are currently close to an afterthought. With so few undecided voters left, even most independents have chosen sides by now.
But some day this election is going to end, and if the next president and the next Congress hope to break through the hyperpartisan stalemate, they are going to have to find ways to appeal to the largest and fastest-growing segment of the American electorate.
Two timely new books—Mickey Edwards's The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans and Jacqueline Salit’s Independents Rising offer valuable insights into the impulses that have inspired a record number of Americans to reject the two parties and demand something different.
The two authors come to some of the same conclusions from very different perspectives. Edwards is a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, a member of party leadership during the Reagan era and now a vice president of the Aspen Institute. Salit is a New York City–based campaign strategist, third-party founder, and political activist who was raised part of the professional left and now runs IndependentVoting.org. Their two books reflect their very different personal experiences in politics, but they identify some of the same problems and solutions.
Edwards’s book takes a decidedly more national perspective, reflecting his congressional career and understanding of the way Washington really works. It makes his prescriptions particularly powerful because they are practicable, if not a little ambitious.
The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans is an urgent and engaging look at how American politics have become the founding fathers’ worst nightmare. Not content to simply criticize, Edwards also proposes solutions to the hyperpartisanship currently corroding civil discourse and resulting in the paralysis of Congress, a serious threat to the American experiment in self-governance.
Balancing stories from different eras in American politics with his own experience as a member of Congress, Edwards makes a compelling case that the current congressional division and dysfunction is the result of an incentive structure run amok. Procedural rules and election laws have been rigged to reward hyperpartisanship, thereby trapping otherwise well-intentioned people in a system that rewards intransigence, treating members of the other party as the enemy.
Fear merchants like Pamela Geller are exploiting the First Amendment with hateful public messages. If they’re trying to save ‘civilized man,’ why must they promote such incivility?
This Monday, 10 subway stations throughout New York City will be adorned with this welcoming message: “In any war between civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” It is paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, the funding vehicle for anti-Islamist activist Pamela Geller.
In this Sept. 11, 2012 photo, anti-Islamic blogger Pamela Geller, speaks at a conference she organized entitled; “Stop Islamization of America,” in New York. (David Karp / AP Photo )
The ads have been posted at the order of a judge after one year of legal wrangling with the MTA. U.S. District Court Judge Paul A. Englemayer concluded that when “as a reasonable person would, the AFDI ad plainly depicts Muslims… as savages.”
But of course, our civilization has freedom of speech, even for conspiracy entrepreneurs and fear merchants like Geller and her lawyer, David Yerushalmi, who make their living trying to freak people out about the nonexistent rise of Sharia law in places like Oklahoma.
By way of background, Geller positioned herself front and center at the now slightly surreal Ground Zero mosque protests in the summer of 2010. Some of her fellow travelers in the anti-Islamist beat were wrapped up in the “film” that was used to spur attacks on our embassies in the Middle East, more or less exactly as intended. Extremes feed off each other.
To get an objective sense of just how far out Pamela Geller is, take a look at the daily teeth-gnashing on her website Atlas Shrugs or just listen to her interview with Erin Burnett on CNN’s OutFront Thursday night, where Geller dismissed the Anti-Defamation League by saying that no one who loves Israel “takes them seriously.”
For their part, the ADL describes Geller’s group as “an anti-Muslim activist group, and you don’t have to be anti-Muslim to be pro-Israel.” This has the added advantage of being true.
No other presidential candidate has racked up unfavorable ratings this high during a campaign, according to a Pew Survey. Why is Romney so disliked? It’s not personal, it’s business.
Less than 50 days from the election, it’s still Mitt Romney’s biggest mystery.
Mitt Romney during a campaign event on January 25, 2012 in Miami, Florida. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
He is an exemplary husband and father—the kind of man you would want as a member of your church or would trust to run your business.
So why do so many people find it hard to warm up to Willard?
His “47 percent” comment resonated because it reinforced the negative narrative about Mitt as an out-of-touch member of the superrich with little feeling for policy, politics or people—a million miles away from W’s “compassionate conservative” mantra. He comes across as an awkward mix of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller, without any of the redeeming qualities. And it’s arguable which is worse—whether Romney essentially believes what he said at the $50,000-a-plate fundraiser, or was simply pandering to the well-heeled audience.
At least three Republican Senate nominees—Scott Brown, Linda McMahon, and Dean Heller—quickly distanced themselves from his comments, followed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich and condemnations from a half-dozen high-profile conservative columnists, including Bill Kristol and Peggy Noonan. According to a new Pew Survey, no other presidential candidate’s unfavorable ratings have been as high at this point in a campaign.
Newsbeast discusses Romney's latest blunders.
His problems are compounded by an open secret in Republican politics—no one who has ever run against Mitt Romney walks away liking the guy.
The Obama iconography stood out because it is almost impossible to imagine Mitt Romney inspiring that kind of grassroots passion, writes John Avlon.
The two-week convention caravan is now at rest, and Tampa and Charlotte are in the rear-view mirror. So how did the two conventions compare, seen up close and side by side? Well, sometimes stereotypes ring true: Republicans fall in line, while Democrats fall in love.
Conservatives are primarily united by the prospect of unseating President Obama, while at least among liberal conventioneers the love affair with him still seems to be going strong.
On the airwaves, this is a definitively post–Hope and Change election, with both campaigns trying to motivate their base by any means necessary to vote against the other guy. Positive pitches or policy plans have been basically MIA on television, where most Americans are viewing the campaign.
The nomination of Paul Ryan has invigorated Mitt Romney’s appeal among the base and strengthened his campaign’s policy credentials, for better or worse. The carefully selected center-right convention speakers—otherwise known as the 2016 bench—criticized President Obama with a studious sadness, a script aimed at giving disaffected centrist voters permission to give their team a chance.
But there are limits to the appeal of an essentially negative agenda—kicking the other guy out rather than rallying around the prospect of President Mitt Romney. As the anemic one-point bump out of Tampa shows that enthusiasm hasn’t yet spread to swing voters.
The contrast in Charlotte, N.C., was clear: convention-going Democrats are motivated to vote for their candidate rather than just against the other guy.
Covering this election, the optimism of the Obama 2008 campaign is hard to conjure up. If, as Mario Cuomo said, “you campaign in poetry but govern in prose,” the prose offered by the Obama administration has been uninspiring—especially against the backdrop of a still-sluggish economy. President Obama’s sober-rather-than-soaring nomination speech essentially conceded that fact.
“Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
Patrick Semansky / AP Photo
This is literally the most anticipatable question for a presidential re-election—and the fact that Governor Martin O’Malley got caught flat-footed on it is a cause for head-scratching, if not concern, given his otherwise stalwart performance as a Obama surrogate.
If there is cause for the stumble it is because the unemployment rate remains higher than when Barack Obama took office. Add to that fact so many underwater homes and under-employed workers and it seems callous to crow about improvements. And “It could have been worse” is a definitively uninspiring re-election slogan.
The right answer to the question is this: "Americans are better off than they were three-and-a-half years ago."
Obama took the oath of office in the midst of an economic freefall, during which our country was losing 750,000 jobs a month. The fiscal crisis began, of course, in September 2008. And the freefall was still accelerating four months later. Unemployment jumped to 8.3% in February of 2009 and 8.7% in March – heading toward 10% in October of 2009. The stock market hit its low on Day 50 of the Obama administration – and has more than doubled from that low water mark since. That’s a 100% improvement under this supposedly socialist, anti-business president. (The fact that Main Street and Wall Street’s fortunes seem increasingly de-linked is a larger problem for another column).
The Obama administration stopped the economic freefall and reversed the momentum from job losses toward job creation, however slow. Compared to the economic courses taken by other European nations, the stimulus seems smarter in the short run than austerity. We are going to need to get our deficit and debt under control—and President Obama has failed to lead on this issue to date (maybe that should be a cornerstone goal of a second term)—but investment toward economic growth should come first.
Bottom line: We are better off than we were once the Obama administration began to act in office. That’s not partisan spin, that’s objective fact.
In his nomination speech Thursday the GOP nominee needs to cite core facts of his life that helped shape his character, and offer signs of struggle and success Americans can be inspired by, whether it is his Mormon faith or time as a missionary in France.
Mitt Romney’s nomination speech is receiving final edits as you read this—examined to make sure every essential theme is included, every phrase shined and sharpened.
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012 in Powell, Ohio. (Evan Vucci / AP Photo)
But Romney has an additional burden in this nomination address—he needs to fill in the missing character narrative at the core of his campaign.
JFK had the searing experience of PT 109. John McCain survived years in a Vietnamese P.O.W. camp. Bill Clinton stood up to an abusive stepfather. George W. Bush overcame the temptations of drink and found a fortifying faith.
We expect our presidential candidates to come with a character narrative, however big or small, a hero’s journey of suffering and redemption that informs their judgment, arming them with empathy and wisdom once they reach the Oval Office.
Mitt Romney’s blessing is his curse in this regard. He has lived a life of privilege and discipline animated by ambition. He was the son of a CEO and governor. He famously protested in favor of the Vietnam War but never served. He got a JD/MBA from Harvard and soon found extraordinary success in private equity, which would snowball into a quarter-billion dollar fortune, made meaningful by a lifelong love and five healthy children.
He has lived a life of great success but little suffering, at least on the surface. He has been tested, but in the boardroom rather than the battlefield.
This missing character narrative compounds his core problem of relate-ability. After five years of running for president, Mitt Romney has not put forward a character narrative at the core of his campaign biography.
There’s been a lot of GOP spin about how this convention is Mitt Romney’s chance to “introduce himself to the American people.” This is ridiculous: the man’s been running for president for five years. If polls show he has a likability deficiency at this point, it’s his fault, not the public’s lack of attention.
Republican vice-presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), center, works on the speech he will deliver at the Republican National Convention on Aug. 28, 2012, with senior adviser Dan Senor, left, and senior aid Conor Sweeney. (Mary Altaffer / AP Photo)
But for one person at the convention podium, this is a real opportunity to introduce himself to the American people—and that, of course, is the VP nominee Paul Ryan.
Beloved by conservatives, Ryan has invigorated the Romney campaign. As in 2008, the Republican running mate may again be more popular than the nominee among the party faithful. This time, though, it’s for reasons of substance as well as style. Ryan is the anti-Palin: a policy wonk rewarded for his political courage in putting an actual budget behind conservative rhetoric about reforming government. It is the first time a presidential candidate has essentially outsourced policy to his vice presidential pick.
But if Ryan is a rock star among wonky Republicans, he is still a House member, unknown to the nation at large. Tonight’s speech is the equivalent of his major-label debut after a series of critically acclaimed independent albums.
He is the first sitting congressman to be tapped as a vice-presidential nominee since Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and the youngest nominee since Dan Quayle in 1988. He has never run for office outside his Wisconsin congressional district. Now he is running nationwide—but what resonates in the ideological echo chamber often does not translate to a broader audience.
That’s why his primetime talk tonight is arguably the highest-stake speech of the convention. Romney is building on an established foundation while Ryan is essentially crafting his profile in public with his speech tonight.
Sarah Palin’s convention speech was an instant classic, written by former Bush speechwriter Matt Scully. It established her, like her or not, as a scrappy political talent. Scully has also been working with Team Romney on the key speeches of this convention. Unlike Palin, Paul Ryan comes with a firm personal and political philosophy, and he is already an expert at articulating it. When it comes to conservative communicators, the key is to talk about economics in a way that resonates with people at home about their own lives—to talk about the dangers of deficit and debt in terms of personal values. And Ryan can do it.
UPDATED 6:54 PM—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s keynote address is the substantive center-piece of this first night of the Republican Convention. But contrary to expectations that he will play the traditional role of attack dog, the former U.S. Attorney will instead lay out a positive Republican vision of change for the nation – rooted in policy, biography and his surprisingly bipartisan accomplishments in the Garden State.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
In fact, Chris Christie is so intent on not playing the attack dog at tonight’s campaign, that his speech will not mention President Obama by name.
It is a surprising and savvy move from a political figure who opponents sometimes accuse of bullying his critics.
There will be none of the expected fire and brimstone – instead Christie will offer a positive vision of Republican philosophy focused on governing and treating American citizens as adults who understand hard truths, such as the need to reform entitlements to ensure the long-term fiscal stability of the nation.
Christie will spend much of the address on his own New Jersey-born and bred biography – advice he extends to the Republican Party in a bid to encourage them to tackle the hard issues and earn the respect of the electorate accordingly.
Among the areas he will advocate for such ‘tough love’ solutions is dealing with the deficit and debt, entitlement reform and education reform – building common ground on the idea that Republicans have faith in people to reason together rather than to react to fear or narrow self-interest at the expense of the national interest. As in his speech at the Reagan Library, Christie will use his experience negotiating with Democrats in Trenton as an example of ‘principled compromise’ that is at the heart of democracy – gently pushing back on those in his party who would demonize cooperation across the aisle as collaboration with the enemy.
Christie is no stranger to controversy and he clearly relishes conflict – a characteristic he shares with many former prosecutors turned politicians, including my former boss Rudy Giuliani. But as a Northeast Republican, elected in a state where registered Independents outnumber Democrats or Republicans – and where Democrats control the State Senate – he’s been forced to find a way to work across the aisle to get things done, even on controversial measures like education reform and reducing the budget deficit without raising taxes.
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
Tampa. In August. At the height of Hurricane season.
Out of the 16 cities that bid for the privilege of hosting the GOP convention, Tampa won. No, it was not Michael Steele’s final punking of the party he briefly led. In fact, there was a method to his madness.
Mladen Antonov / AFP-Getty Images
There are roughly 2.4 million registered independent voters in Florida now—up five-fold from some 430,000 in 1992. With 29 electoral votes—more than Nevada, New Hampshire and Virginia combined—Florida remains the biggest swing-state prize in the presidential race. It’s hard for either team to cobble together a winning political map without it.
And Tampa is at the heart of the biggest swing state’s swinging-est district. Tampa’s Hillsborough County and its St. Petersburg-based neighbor Pinellas County sit at the center of the state and at the end of the I-4 corridor that serves as the Sunshine State’s political main artery.
Both counties went for Obama in 2008, but in 2004, Kerry carried Pinnelas by a razor-thin 226-vote margin – 225,686 to 225,460 – while George W. Bush won CentCom's home in Hillsborough County by a seven percent margin. Both counties were Reagan Country in the 1980s and turned into Clinton Turf in the 90s. Bottom line: If you win Tampa Bay, it’s likely you’re going to win the state.
This election will be decided by swing voters in swing districts of swing states. And while the selection of Paul Ryan may make Florida a longer-bet that Steele could have imagined back in 2010, Tim Russert’s immortal rejoinder—“Florida, Florida, Florida”—still applies.
Last week's tragic fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, has brought the issue of government regulation back to the forefront. On Friday night's Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Beast's Political Director John Avlon denounces deregulation rhetoric.
The strange, opaque world of politically minded nonprofits. By John Avlon and Michael Keller.
Obama’s appointment of Clifford Sloan to head the Office of Guantánamo Closure has many hoping the president finally means business. Miranda Green on whether Gitmo’s days are numbered.