11:15 am Sep. 7, 20121
It’s one thing to talk about your goals—something the president does with the best of them—or to explain why the opposition is unacceptable. But you also need to tout what you’ve done. Otherwise, the American people might just deem you dispensable.
Yet the president stuck to broad themes, and seemed reluctant to talk in any concrete way about his accomplishments.
Maybe this was a deliberate decision based on the determination that other speakers, notably Clinton, had done the heavy lifting, and that the president merely needed to rearticulate the convention's broad themes and make no mistakes. It's even possible that Obama was somewhat more reserved than he might otherwise have been, as has been suggested, because he knew about the underwhelming jobs report that was going to come out the morning after his big speech.
But that's certainly not the whole story. Notwithstanding his ability to produce inspiring oratory at times, Obama has never been particularly enthusiastic when it comes to convincing people of the virtues of what he's done.
His famous 2004 convention speech was more about broad themes—"There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America!”—and the 2008 campaign was largely about thematic differences between himself and his opponents: hope versus the old way of doing things. In neither scenario was a litany of accomplishments a central selling point.
Of course he didn't have as many accomplishments to sell at that point. But even now, campaigning after four years in the White House, it's the same story. Obama has seemed at home pointing out key distinctions between himself and his rival on values, and in their personal narratives, and in their visions of America's future. But little of his campaigning, pre-convention, has been devoted to discussing health care (something Obama was never particularly adept at selling to the public, either before or after he got his historic overhaul passed), or the merits of the stimulus, or the successful bailout of the auto industry.
Obama's convention speech was a natural extension of this approach. It was laden with personal narratives, with references to his grandparents making their way through America—“The values my grandfather defended as a soldier in Patton’s Army; the values that drove my grandmother to work on a bomber assembly line while he was gone”—and to his education being a gateway to his success.
It was chock full of broad themes, with extended riffs on the meaning of hope—“that dogged faith in the future which has pushed this nation forward, even when the odds are great; even when the road is long”—as well as the definition of citizenship, and the belief in an America in which everyone plays by the same rules and everyone's destiny is interconnected.
The president was also comfortable pointing out the Romney-Ryan ticket's flaws, or what America ought not to do as a country, singling out tax cuts, the rollback of regulations on Wall Street, outsourcing, and tax breaks for the oil industry.
“On every issue, the choice you face won’t be just between two candidates or two parties,” he said. “It will be a choice between two different paths for America.”
And he clearly delineated some of his second-term goals, from reducing reliance on foreign oil to boosting manufacturing jobs and increasing exports.
But when it came to explaining his record, the president was less direct. There were references to improving gas mileage, and a brief recitation of foreign policy achievements like ending the Iraq war and having "blunted the Taliban’s momentum.” But there were almost no direct references to Obamacare, and there was little in the way of the stirring explanations of Detroit or the stimulus that were delivered by Clinton and Biden.
When Obama did talk about the benefits of ending the war and requiring insurance companies to cover people with preexisting conditions, it was in the "you did that" section of his speech, which gave him an oratorical device to avoid anything that sounded like self-congratulation.
This personal quality isn't unique to Obama. Bragging is awkward, and unseemly. But it's essential for politicians to be able to do it.
Obama's speech was elegantly written and crisply delivered. It was even moving, at times. Yet it was so recessive, in terms of its assessment of the president's first term, that it only made sense as a companion piece to the more assertive speeches by Clinton, Biden, and even the first lady.
Presumably, the campaign will be seeing to it that America hears as much as possible from them between now and Election Day. Obama needs them.
Blake Zeff is a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and a former aide to Chuck Schumer and Eric Schneiderman.