Why Obama Went Low Key in His Democratic Convention Speech

The president’s more subdued rhetoric was carefully vetted with groups of voters, reports Howard Kurtz.

Jae C. Hong / AP Photo

Barack Obama’s team wanted an earthbound speech, and they got it.

While the pundits are generally calling the president’s Thursday night address mediocre, Obama and his advisers had taken great pains to avoid soaring rhetoric that might have been derided as empty.

Indeed, they extensively tested the president’s speech in dial groups, a type of focus group where voters twist dials to register approval or disapproval of specific passages, and say it tested off the charts. The reaction, they say, was more positive than to Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech in Denver.

In short, the president deliberately dialed it down, stopping well short of the altitudes he is capable of reaching. Perhaps that will prove to be a mistake, but the decision to go with a less rousing approach was carefully considered.

The campaign’s primary goal at the Democratic convention was to provide a concrete sense of what Obama would do in a second term. That was what independent voters wanted, according to the research, and that was the focus in Charlotte.

The result was a tepid media consensus that after the stirring speeches by Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton, the president had given a B speech at best.

Strategists felt they were in a box, unable to meet the twin goals of style and substance at once. To be sure, Obama wanted to excite the party’s liberal base. But his brain trust was convinced that they would have gotten killed by going with a red-meat speech that simply bashed Republicans without detailing what Obama would do in the next four years.

The speech was essentially finished on Tuesday, the opening day of the convention, with some last-minute tinkering on Thursday. No Clintonian all-nighters for this crowd.

Tone and delivery aside, Obama did more than lay out a case for investing in energy and education, slashing the deficit by $4 trillion and protecting such entitlements as Medicare and Social Security. He proffered the notion of shared sacrifice and slow progress—a more measured assessment than four years ago and one decidedly less inspirational. It also was to some extent forced by the necessity of defending a mixed record in office.

As if to validate the campaign’s decision to close the convention with a more subdued speech, new figures released Friday show that the economy created just 96,000 jobs last month, unintentionally underscoring Obama’s message that he has no quick fix for the country’s economic problems.