After a contentious day in which the Democrats were on defense about whether we are better off than we were four years ago, more economic bad news and an open fight with Jewish leaders over platform language on Israel, Democrats got to sit back and enjoy the first lady’s tribute to her husband. She has higher approval ratings than her husband and, like all effective political wives, can talk about her husband in his best light.
Following a series of hyper-partisan speeches and an entirely forgettable keynote by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Michelle Obama’s speech was the first of the convention that arguably could have appealed to undecided voters or wobbling Democrats. During non-primetime, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) harping on Mitt Romney’s tax returns, repeated turbo-charged feminist battle cries, tributes to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and use of the tea party as an invectives were aimed at the base, not the swing voters in battleground states.
Michelle Obama did not disappoint the faithful, but it is not clear that she helped with swing voters or recapture those disillusioned with the president’s performance. Ann Romney has MS; Michelle told about her father’s MS. Ann and Mitt Romney started off life simply; Barack Obama picked up his future wife in a car so rusty you could see the ground below. As a wife, Michelle has every prerogative to stroll down memory lane, but it is hard to see why re-introducing an already personally popular president is going to make a difference to voters. You either love the guy or you don’t.
The least effective part of her speech was when she got to the presidential years. The reality is so starkly different than her description that you wondered at times if we couldn’t have as president the Obama she described rather than the real Obama for the last four years. “He didn’t care whether it was the easy thing to do politically — that’s not how he was raised — he cared that it was the right thing to do.” Really? After avoiding the big fiscal questions and turning a blind eye to atrocities around the world, the president doesn’t much resemble the courageous figure she evoked. Her basic message was that her husband is perfect and he means well, so vote for him again. I’m sure diehard Democrats will do exactly that.
I am not sure what, if anything, the first day of the Democratic National Convention accomplished for the president. We don’t yet know what Barack Obama's second-term agenda, if any, will look like. We don’t yet know how he will deal with the widespread impression that we are in fact not better off than we were four years ago. Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul put out a statement that summed up the problem with a convention night sorely lacking in substance: “On the first night of President Obama’s convention, not a single speaker uttered the words ‘Americans are better off than they were four years ago.’ Instead, there was a night full of tributes to government as the solution to every problem, even going as far as to say that ‘government is the only thing that we all belong to.’ But government belongs to the American people — not the other way around — and the American people will hold President Obama accountable for his record. Our country deserves real solutions and a plan to turn our economy around. Mitt Romney offers a clear alternative to President Obama’s record of disappointment and failure.”
The danger for the Democrats is that in essentially ignoring the economy and expressing very little concern for the ongoing suffering of the American people (What happened to the party of empathy? Why so little discussion of jobs?) the Democratic National Convention winds up projecting a self-absorption and callousness, which is off-putting to average voters.
It was not a night to win over independents or to answer the question: How will a second term be any different? We will see if we find out more today.