Better than it sounds: Barack Obama

Notes on Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the DNC; third of a series.

On the third night of the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama walked out on stage and up to the podium with a heavy burden of high expectations. According to what has now gelled into conventional wisdom, he came off the stage three-quarters of an hour later with those expectations largely unmet. I am not too sure.

A comparison of his prepared text and his actual remarks (the Washington Post version here, the more complete New York Times version here) shows some differences; he too had responded to the moment as Bill Clinton did, but hardly on a Clintonesque scale. (The instance I remember best—I was following his speech on CNN with a copy of the prepared text—was when he dumped a reference to Google in favor of Steve Jobs.)

We can get a sense of how Obama’s speech first “played” through Ed Kilgore’s live blogging—a longish, decidedly sympathetic account, and at the same time a “knowing” appreciation of the structure of a good speech:

* My wife predicts “you built that” coming soon.

* “You did that” pretty close.

Even more sympathetic was Steve Benen’s take. Kilgore’s predecessor at Political Animal thought the speech was “equal parts sober and hopeful, serious and optimistic,” and made the clearest case for the 2012 vote as a choice election, rather than a referendum.

Interestingly, Kevin Drum, Benen’s predecessor at Political Animal, thought the speech was so-so, a “decent appeal” but “nothing memorable.” The series of jabs Obama threw at the Republican Party, he also said rather memorably, was just “short collections of platitudes with no real meat behind them.”

In the New Yorker, John Cassidy called the speech a frontrunner’s “workmanlike political address,” and described Obama’s overriding rhetorical strategy as, essentially, playing safe. His colleague Ryan Lizza agreed. His piece begins: “The reviews of Barack Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention are lukewarm, and I think I know why.”

In New York magazine (I must say, its smart heads and droll subheads are positively addictive), John Heilemann makes a similar Obama-plays-it-safe call.

There was precious little loftiness or lyricism in Obama’s speech, little electrifying or galvanizing. Instead of offering soaring inspiration, it delivered a sober, somber, at times grim determination. It wasn’t a great speech by any means, but it wasn’t a bad speech, either. What it was mainly was a safe speech — the kind of cautious, competent effort that reflects risk aversion and a vast degree of confidence in the position Obama occupies vis-à-vis Mitt Romney as we head into the final two-month sprint to Election Day.

For my money, Molly Ball’s midnight post in the Atlantic was the most downbeat of the dozens of assessments I read. It also prompted me to question the standard she used to assess Obama’s speech—and begin the thinking and the research that ended up as a few paragraphs in a column in the newspaper and a series of much longer posts in this blog.

The speech was so befuddlingly flat as to make you wonder whether its lameness was intentional. Was the Obama campaign just up to something so extremely clever that an ordinary listener could not perceive it? Was the speech pitched over the press’s head, to the humble average voter who’s never heard Obama’s stump speech before? Was he deliberately “going small” in order to avoid evoking 2008 and its famous parting waters and Greek columns?

Unfortunately, Ball never did answer these questions.

The use of a journalistic standard (Is this news? Have we heard this before?) to judge a politician’s speech—the gifted Jonathan Chait touched on the matter in passing too, in his more measured appreciation of a more measured candidate.

The speech came, by and large, as a disappointment to political journalists and other campaign junkies. We have heard almost all of it before. The speech was probably aimed at undecided voters, who spend almost no time following politics. They received the paint-by-numbers outline of the election choice.

James Fallows, a favorite writer, wrote a quick post with his initial observations. The first was a discussion of the citizenship theme which Obama used, I thought to great effect. The fourth (out of five) was the first hint of a pushback against the disappointment narrative: “I don’t buy the argument that some of the home-run speeches of the convention …  ‘raised the bar’ for Obama or ‘set him up for disappointment.'”

In a follow-up post, Fallows expanded on his notion that, as he wrote on Twitter, Obama’s speech, “like Wagner’s music, was better than it sounds.” (I may have gotten a word or two wrong; I am quoting from memory.) I think Jimmy Carter’s former chief speechwriter is on to something. Especially this:

If he had been much more flowery, at a time of discouraging economic realities, he would be teed up for criticisms that “he’s out of touch,” or “he’s all talk,” or “great at speeches, bad at results.”

The Economist (in a blog post by D.R.) saw the address as a triumph, a successful tacking to the center (though the speech “began horribly,” with some “leftish pandering”—and of course it wouldn’t be the Economist if it hadn’t taken both notice and offense). The Economist also thought that the original “disappointment question (all that hope and change) was deftly handled.”

The estimable EJ Dionne Jr. focused on how the speech, precisely, redefined hope and change. Howard Kurtz remarked on how nuanced it all was; the speech was “strong, sophisticated, and policy-laden” but at the same time Obama had “engaged in a deliberate lowering of expectations.” Steve Coll put it a little differently, in a belated but positive review: “the subject of Obama’s speech was the recalibration of his own ambition.”

The historian David Kaiser (whose blog post I read courtesy of a tweet from Manolo Quezon) had a somewhat contrarian view: He thought the speech was well done, but that it augured four more years of incremental, rather than truly radical, change.

But, yet again, I thought it was Tom Junod who had the clearest analogies (Obama in 2008 as Cassius Clay), the most humanistic perspective, the most penetrating analysis.

His speech was disappointing until, with about ten minutes to go, it acknowledged disappointment, and so began its rise. “The times have changed — and so have I,” he said. “I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.” Of course, he was reminding us of his power; the fact of his presidency has become an argument for his presidency. But he was also reminding us that as a candidate who rose to power on the politics of pure potential, he is, as president, a fallen man.

Postscript 1. Among these many writers, it was only Chait who realized that the pivotal turn to the voter as the bearer of change was not something new, but rather something that Obama had already referenced in his soaring 2008 acceptance speech.

Postscript 2. On the upcoming Obama-Romney debates, James Fallows’ story in the September 2012 issue of the Atlantic Monthly is the indispensable read.

1 Comment

Filed under Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

One response to “Better than it sounds: Barack Obama

  1. Pingback: Column: Journalistic judgment and Obama’s speech | John Nery | Newsstand

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