On Tuesday, Michelle Obama talked about who Barack Obama is and where he came from. On Wednesday, Bill Clinton talked about where the country and the economy have been and how we struggled to get to where we are now. As Chuck Schumer put it earlier today, those two performances teed up Barack Obama to devote tonight’s speech to talking about the future.
In a bit of a surprise, Obama’s speech — which had little in the way of soaring rhetoric and stuck to a direct and sometimes pleading tone — spent little time defending his economic record. That task has already been handled ably by Clinton, and Obama wanted the focus to be on a far broader range of issues. The centerpiece of the speech was the idea of “citizenship” and shared responsibility — a gamble that voters will not cast their vote on the current economy alone but on which candidate is offering a more compelling moral vision of America's true identity and future.
The “choice” refrain was presented through the prism of specific issues. You can choose between more tax breaks for companies that send jobs overseas or rewarding companies that create jobs in America. You can choose between policies that are raising fuel standards to maximize efficiency and are increasing the use of renewable energy, or you can choose a course that “reverses this progress.” You can choose between more investment in education or more crowded classrooms for kids, students dropping out of college, and a shortage of properly skilled workers.
Obama cast the GOP vision as narrow, out of touch with reality, and morally bankrupt. The GOP fiscal vision? “Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!” Energy? “Climate change is not a hoax." Foreign policy? “They want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly.” And open ridicule: “You don’t call Russia our number one enemy — and not al Qaeda — unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War time warp.”
I was glad to see Obama draw a sharp contrast in two areas in particular. He mounted a spirited, extensive defense of the safety net, and of the moral imperative of prioritizing it over more tax cuts for the rich. Core Dem constituencies — women, minorities, young voters — tend to respond strongly to messages about protecting the vulnerable. And he attacked Romney for wanting to increase defense spending — not something Dems have historically done — and crucially, he cast it as fiscally reckless. Voters associate war-spending’s role in driving up the deficit with the Bush years; this part of the speech was clearly targeted towards independents and college educated males, who tend to worry about spending.
In the end, Obama seemed to calculate that he didn’t need to deliver this speech on his opponents’ turf — he didn’t need to mount yet another defense of the sluggish recovery. The speech offered plenty to the base, but it also represented a gamble that true undecided voters will see this election as a big, complex, forward-looking choice on a range of issues that will determine the nature of American society and the future of the country