Obama campaign faces delicate balance at Democratic National Convention

Chris Cillizza
Reporter September 2, 2012

In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama went big — very big — at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Everything at the quadrennial gathering was meant to affirm that Obama represented a clear and major break with the way politics had been practiced in the past — right down to holding his acceptance speech in the 76,000-seat Invesco Field, replete with (much-mocked) Greek columns onstage.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

Obama’s rhetoric was meant to convey a momentous time, too.

“This election is our chance to keep, in the 21st century, the American promise alive,” Obama said at one point. At another, he said: “Change happens — change happens because the American people demand it, because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time. America, this is one of those moments.”

The question before Obama and his political team as the Democratic Party gathers in Charlotte this week to renominate the president — under drastically different circumstances — is whether bigness remains the order of the day or whether a scaled-back vision of Obama’s America is what’s called for.

“Given the mood of the country, the Obama campaign will be sensitive to appearances of overpromising and being overaspirational — especially given that this election will be won on the basis of who voters trust more, which is why Obama is where he is in the race to date,” Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said.

There’s little question that Republicans will seize on any bit of rhetorical flourish from the president to help build the narrative that he talks a good game but doesn’t deliver.

Mitt Romney signaled as much during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week.

“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family,” Romney said in his biggest applause line of the night.

(Obama made those comments during the 2008 Democratic primary. The exact quote was, “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”)

And, unlike four years ago when Sen. John McCain attacked Obama as “the biggest celebrity in the world,” there’s some reason to believe that the all-hat-no-cattle attack on Obama could have more salience this time. Even as his favorability numbers have stayed solid, his job approval numbers — particularly on the economy — have flagged considerably, a split that suggests that while voters still like Obama, they have fallen out of love with his policies.

So, what’s the incumbent and his political team to do? That depends on whom you ask.

While most Democratic strategists agree that revisiting the tone of the 2008 convention could be politically dicey, there’s no consensus on the proper mix of big rhetoric and visuals and more tempered language and smaller promises.

“It’s tough to get small in a football stadium,” said Clinton White House veteran Matt Bennett, noting that, as in 2008, Obama will accept his party’s nomination in a large outdoor arena. “I think they will stage it a bit more traditionally, but he will still look — and be greeted — like a rock star.”

Stan Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster, suggested that rather than play down the bigness of Obama the president, his party should embrace it. “Obama wins if the battle is an aspiration for the future,” Greenberg explained. “The bigger Obama is in his vision for America, the smaller will appear Romney’s whole offer.”

Given Obama’s natural bent as a speaker and his team’s belief in him as a transformational president, it’s hard to imagine him going totally small — either in his acceptance speech or during the convention more broadly. But so, too, is it difficult to envision a convention along the same lines of 2008, given all that has happened in the intervening four years.

Going (slightly) smaller could well be Obama’s ticket to success at the Charlotte convention — a recognition that things have changed (and not in a good way) since 2008 but that the country still needs a leader with a big vision to run it.

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