To mangle a Mario Cuomo quote, you campaign in poetry. But you campaign for reelection in prose.
In recent years, most convention speakers have dwelt in the shadow of one tremendous speech, an actual game-changer (before everything was a game-changer) suffused with rhetorical magic. It was actually quotable, as so few speeches are. It gave you Hope and Dreams and the desire to capitalize things erratically.
Every speech at a convention by an aspiring presidential contender is inevitably measured by the standard of that One Great Speech. It looms; Rubio, Castro, Condi can only aspire. Its blend of compelling personal narrative and swelling oratory was the gold standard. It was poetry. Everyone remembers it.
The trouble with that speech for President Obama is that Senate Candidate Obama delivered it in 2004.
This year there were other people giving that speech, and he had to give this one instead. It was satisfactory.
Prose is invariably less satisfying than poetry. Too promise-y. Too detail-y.
It was no Clint Eastwood’s speech. Nor was it Michelle’s speech. Nor was it, even, Condi’s speech. It did not have that luxury.
It occupied that uncomfortable zone between policy and poetry where it supplied neither enough of one nor enough of the other to satisfy everyone. The people who were going to be satisfied no matter what are already satisfied. So are the people who were going to be dissatisfied no matter what. My corner of Twitter seems pleased, but not overwhelmed, for whatever it’s worth.
And “pleased but not overwhelmed” describes generally the response to President Obama’s speeches. All but the one. It is because of the one that we have not quite been overwhelmed since.
But you campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.
And as President Obama said in the speech itself, “Times have changed, and so have I. I’m no longer the candidate; I’m the president.”
The candidate gave better speeches. But these days you seldom see people demanding more uplifting rhetoric. They want concrete ideas. Or say they do.
As written works, President Obama’s speeches are hard to poke fun at. They lack obvious rhetorical tics (“Hands!” “Literally!”); they aren’t noticeably roving or bloviatingly self-indulgent. They employ Lincoln quotations, for which I have a soft spot. As far as you can go is to point out that he keeps talking about Osama bin Laden and – after that, it’s pretty pale pottage. He seems to meet an awful lot of inspiring people from swing states.
And he delivered some decent jokes. (“Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax breaks, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning,” he joked, of the GOP’s panacea.) Then again, so did John Kerry, who has suddenly after 2004 become wild and fun. But that was not sufficient. No, what everyone demanded from the president was Plans! Plans, please! Show us your plans! Was it enough plan? Too little plan? Only the people who were urgently demanding plans can say. A whitepaper with the major policy proposals from the speech is already making the rounds.
It wasn’t transcendent. It was not trying to be. It didn’t aim for a 16.5 on the vault. Nor did it come in for a particularly awkward landing. What else did we expect? Jimmy Carter is a poet, and we know how his reelection effort went.