"What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal -- that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will," Obama said near the end of the 14-minute long address. (Read the full transcript here.) "That’s the country our parents and grandparents and generations before them built for us. That’s the tradition we must uphold. That’s the legacy we must leave for those who are yet to come."
It was a speech that fit more neatly into the Obama of the 2008 campaign and the first term of his presidency -- heavy on inspiration and imagery, relatively light on details and depth. It's the sort of address Obama is both best at and most comfortable giving. The idea of what makes America America -- particularly in the face of the unique challenges that the 21st century poses for the country on the domestic and international fronts -- is something he has quite clearly spent significant time thinking about.
The 2008 edition Obama we saw tonight is also, not coincidentally, the version most beloved by the base of the Democratic party. And, in truth, that's who the speech was really aimed at. The politics of immigration are such that there were no words Obama could (or would be willing to) utter that would drastically reshape the coming fight over the issue.
But, if the 2014 election taught Democrats anything, it's that you don't go anywhere without an energized base. Obama's speech -- and the subsequent rally he has planned in Las Vegas Friday -- are aimed at firing up many of the same Democrats who stayed home when the nation voted 16 days ago.
There's another reason that Obama went 50,000 feet rather than 50 feet in his speech. The technical and legal process he is using to issue this executive action isn't all that popular. An NBC-WSJ poll released Wednesday night showed 48 percent of respondents opposed Obama's decision to address the immigration issue via executive action while 38 percent supported him doing so. On the other hand, the broader idea of doing something about the millions of people in the country illegally -- up to and including offering them some sort of path to citizenship, which Obama is not doing -- is far more popular.
Given those political realities, a speech that spends almost no time on how the sausage is made and almost all of the time on the supposed deliciousness of the end product is more likely to be received well.
Obama's address is the first skirmish in a massive fight coming over his executive action. If the speech is any indication, Obama's strategy will be to go big, rhetorically speaking, in hopes of avoiding being dragged into the weeds. Easier said than done.