To be honest, I was underwhelmed.
Obama’s acceptance speech had two apparent goals: The first was to lay out an agenda for the next four years so people feel they have something forward-looking to vote for. The second was to recapture the sense of hope that defined Obama’s 2008 campaign.
On paper, he did both things. But what the speech lacked was a coherent explanation of the nightmare this country has gone through for the last four years. Republicans are laying the Great Recession at Obama’s feet. Obama is saying that Republicans created it and, if elected, will make it worse. To win that argument, Obama needed to explain why the financial crisis happened, and he didn’t. Yes, he mocked the GOP for proposing tax cuts as the answer to every problem, but the financial crisis didn’t happen because of tax cuts. It happened, in large measure, because Republican and some Democratic politicians—blinded by free-market fundamentalism and Wall Street largesse—allowed bankers to create unregulated markets in which they gambled the savings of millions of Americans, knowing that if their bets failed, they wouldn’t be the ones to lose their homes and their life’s savings.
Obama should have told that story, and then gone at Romney for doubling down on the ideology that almost brought America to its knees. Then he should have contrasted that with his own interventions to protect people who the market has failed: whether they be auto workers or people with sick kids.
Instead, the speech felt at times like a laundry list of policy goals, at others like an overly vague call for hope, patriotism, togetherness etc. It offered a narrative of Barack Obama’s last four years: the path from fresh, hopeful candidate to a president more aware of the tragic burdens of the office. But it didn’t offer a narrative of America’s experience of the last four years. Obama is great at evoking what’s best about America, especially since he represents it. But tonight he turned out to be less good at what—forgive me—Bill Clinton does so well: telling a story that links what’s happened in people’s lives to what’s happened in the world.
Overall, the Democrats still threw an impressive convention: tough, confident, disciplined. But Obama’s speech was an anticlimax. He’s still the better candidate; I still think he’ll prove that in the debates. But after tonight, I’m a little less sure.