It’s on now.
Barack Obama’s speech tonight was a good one – not a great one, and keeping in mind that these speeches are really easy to do well at, but a very solid effort nevertheless.
It was actually two speeches in one. Both, in fact, cashing in on the rhetorical openings Tampa gave him.
The first half sounded – as several people noted on Twitter, at least – exactly like a State of the Union speech. Yes, it was a relatively boring, theme-less laundry list of accomplishments to brag about and programs to sell. My read of that is simple: it was a direct, if only implied, rebuke to the policy-free Republican Convention, and particularly the policy-free speeches of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. It builds on the old insight of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign team, which is that people don’t actually like focusing on the complex details of public policy, but they like the idea that their politicians are focusing on the complex details of public policy.
Of course, it served too a double and triple purpose or more, firing up the audience in the arena with specific proposals that they like, appealing to discrete constituencies across the country, and providing specific answers to questions about what Obama has done for the last four years and what he plans to do for the next four. After all, when people in movie theaters are being told that the president has some secret agenda that he’s going to reveal after the election, it’s not a bad idea to fight that by having a specific set of nice-sounding but entirely nonthreatening agenda items to knock down that idea.
The second half? Part poetry, and part, as they say in the business, comparative. Especially strong, I thought, was the flat-out assertion that Romney and Ryan are “new to foreign policy” – a fair claim, but a fairly vicious one, too. As was quoting Romney’s line that those starting out in life should “borrow from your parents” to get ahead. That’s one that I think really stings for a lot of people.
And the rest — most of the poetry — was a response to the basic claim of the Republican Convention: that things weren’t going well in the United States because Barack Obama doesn’t believe in the American Dream, that business won’t thrive because he has contempt for business. It’s an easy claim easy one to knock down, and Obama was certainly up to the task of telling people that in fact he did very much believe in the American Dream, after all.
Again, as I said last night about Bill Clinton’s speech, one shouldn’t fall for the fallacy that political campaigns are rhetorical jousting matches and that after one candidate answers the other, it’s all over. That’s not how it works. The Democrats that we heard about last week in Tampa were nowhere in evidence in Charlotte, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t re-appear on your TV screen (and any other screen that money can buy, I suppose). There’s no referee to step in and tell voters who pay little attention to these things that, hey, that charge was already made and answered, so don’t give it any heed now.
However, what conventions can do is remind voters who are probably inclined to vote for a candidate exactly why it is that they would do such a thing. I’m not sure whether the Republicans in Tampa did quite as much of that as they could, and the polling indicates they probably didn’t. I’m pretty confident that the Democrats in Charlotte took much better advantage of their opportunity. They didn’t convince anyone inclined to vote for Romney to switch; you can’t do that. But I suspect that they did an excellent job of rounding up whatever there was to be rounded up.
All in all, a first-rate convention by a party which has been pretty good at staging them over the last couple of decades, and a solid if not spectacular nomination speech from a candidate who is probably pleased right now about how the last two weeks have gone.