If they had it to do over, it’s a good bet that Barack Obama’s campaign would not have moved the final night of the Democratic convention from a cozy basketball arena to an open-air football stadium.
The change in venue, concocted back in those heady days just after June 3 when every quantitative and qualitative indicator pointed to a sweeping Democratic victory this fall, created the expectation that Obama, a man renowned for his inspirational oratory, would deliver a speech with a scope as expansive as the setting.
But something funny happened between then and now: The media started asking the tough questions that it hadn’t during the primaries and John McCain and his Republican allies began pounding away – day after day – at a caricature of Obama as smooth-talking and substance-less creation of the media, a man who knew how to make a crowd feel good for a few minutes but who hadn’t the first clue how to make their everyday lives better as president. Not only did Obama fail to build a lead over these summer months, he actually lost ground – to the point that, when the Democratic convention came to order four days ago, he had actually fallen slightly behind McCain in the tracking polls.
It is that difference – between the giddy optimism that defined Obama’s strategic thinking two months ago and the defensive, we’d-better-not-reach-too-far-here caution that these summer months have produced – that accounts for the acceptance speech Obama finally delivered on Thursday night, one whose nuts-and-bolts specifics would have been far more at home in a union hall than at an event that had the look and feel of religious revival.
But there’s a catch: This incongruity, as initially jarring as it probably was to viewers who expected to tune in and witness an update of the “I have a dream” speech, actually helps Obama, since it directly and powerfully refutes McCain’s charge that he’s all hat and no horse.
The heart of Obama’s address, after an initial section in which he framed his candidacy in historic terms, played like a State of the Union speech – example after example of the problems people face in their everyday lives and the specific ways in which government can help them.
“As president,” he said in a passage devoted to energy policy, “I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power.”
“I’ll help our auto companies re-tool, so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here in America … and I’ll invest $150 billion over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy – wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels; an investment that will lead to new industries and five million new jobs that pay well and can’t ever be outsourced.”
At other times, he spoke of capital gains tax cuts for small and emerging businesses, tax cuts for working-class families, combating the scourge of outsourcing, investing in early childhood education, health care reform, and paid sick – each with words that weren’t simply excuses to get to the part where the crowd shouts, “Yes we can!”
Obama also presented himself in as friendly terms as any Democratic nominee can to Republican-leaning voters (as opposed to Republican die-hards) – those whose loyalties just might for once be up in the air this year. He brought up abortion – not to tout his pro-life credentials, but to tell pro-lifers that “we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.”
He brought up gun control – not to demonize the N.R.A., but to acknowledge that “the reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland.”
And he dove head-first into national security, promising that he "will never hesitate to defend this country” and directly challenging the right’s portrayal of the Democrats as the party of weakness.
Before tonight, everybody in America, if not the world, knew that Obama was a world-class orator capable of lifting his audience to a state of delirium. To have mimicked one of his earlier campaign rallies, or one of his victory speeches this primary season, would have fired up his base – but left softer voters just as vulnerable to the G.O.P.’s caricaturing effort as they were beforehand.
Instead, Obama delivered a performance that undoubtedly struck many as subdued and sober. Where was the transformational sermonizing about ending war, poverty, disease and famine? Who was this guy talking about capital gains taxes? If it seemed almost boring at times, that will have been a problem of aesthetics rather than politics. Boring is sometimes the same thing as safe, steady, reliable and competent. And if voters end up seeing those qualities in Obama (on top of his ability to inspire, which they already know about), he’ll win this election – hands down.
In that sense, Obama gave the right speech on Thursday night, just in the wrong setting. But that’s a whole lot better than delivering the wrong speech in the right setting.