A tale of two Obama acceptance speeches

November 7, 2012

The crowd was smaller, warmer, yet still electric with the thrill of victory, even if it seemed more like a shared sense of relief more than an aura of limitless possibility. The victory was bigger, perhaps, than expected, but not nearly as big as the time before. And the newly elected president, the man delivering the speech, was older, wiser and once again soaring in his rhetoric—but also noticeably chastened in his expectation for change.

For those who stayed awake for President Obama’s acceptance speech, which was delivered just before 2 a.m. on the East Coast, many heard echoes of 2008, calling it “the best speech Obama has given since the 2008 campaign” or wondering why the president hadn’t delivered this speech at the convention. He offered a familiar, full-throated and passionate vision for the country, one that was praised as “Lincolnian in its cadences” and that had been trampled during the campaign by poll-tested practicalities and on-message talking points.

Indeed, the speeches had remarkably similar refrains. Both mentioned red states and blue states. Both included references to this country’s opportunities, no matter whether “you’re back or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight.” (That was from 2012; it was only the order that was different four years before.) Both even had references to the dogs he would (2008) or would not (2012) buy for his daughters.

But to compare the two speeches is to see a leader who has learned much about how divided the country stands and how difficult change can be. Obama may have included plenty of references to hope in Tuesday night’s remarks, but he was also careful to say he wasn’t talking “blind optimism” or “wishful idealism.” He only used the word “change” once, and this time it invoked what won’t change: the controversy and political opinion that “won’t change after tonight, and it shouldn’t.”

It was a far cry from “change has come to America” and the “true genius of America: that America can change,” both memorable moments from the 2008 speech. There was plenty of truth to those statements, but also an element of presumption.

This time, the rhetoric was tempered with realism. Rather than invoking “a new spirit of patriotism” and reminding us that Lincoln said “we are not enemies but friends” who “must not break our bonds of affection”— lines from the 2008 speech—Obama repeatedly acknowledged the painful realities of divisive politics. In 2012, he called political arguments “a mark of our liberty” and admitted “we will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how to get there.” His tone was positive, hopeful, but also restrained and sober about the challenges he’ll face.

Conservative opinion writers are again calling Obama’s 2012 win one of “hope over experience.” But after four years of trying to lead a country so bitterly divided, it’s clear from the two acceptance speeches that this is a leader who has learned something from his four years in office. Changing our political dysfunction is less about ending our differences or stopping our political acrimony, the president seems to know now, and more about leading the country toward some semblance of common ground. He now faces the extraordinary challenge of helping us find it.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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