Given that Barack Obama is in a fair bit of trouble, you’d think he’d have given a better speech to last night’s Democratic National Convention. Instead, he just trotted out his greatest hits. “Forward, not back,” etc. Like Mitt Romney last week, he gave a workmanlike speech and like Romney was outshone by his wife. He didn’t mention Obamacare, which is odd given that this is the signature achievement of his presidency. In fact, he hardly mentioned any achievements. He avoided the concrete and focused on the abstract which, if you’re an Obama believer, would delight you. If you’re an Obama sceptic, this would confirm why you’re unsure about him. His strategy seems to have been to reawaken his base, rather than win sceptics over.
I’d like to quote his main points at greater length, but there weren’t really any. This was a speech of soundbites - a laundry list of the familiar and the obvious. “I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.” Really? “The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place. And I’m asking you to choose that future.” His path is also a lot more expensive, but he didn’t make the case for the extra money, as even Blair did. “So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you.” A nice notion, which was in pretty much every one if his 2008 speeches. “If you reject the notion that this nation’s promise is reserved for the few, your voice must be heard in this election.” A decent point which Scarlett Johansson made better, earlier.
He warmed up in the last ten minutes. Perhaps his best line was accusing the Republicans of being unimaginative.
“Now, our friends at the Republican convention were more than happy to talk about everything they think is wrong with America, but they didn’t have much to say about how they’d make it right. They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan. And that’s because all they have to offer is the same prescriptions they’ve had for the last thirty years: ‘Have a surplus? Try a tax cut.’ ‘Deficit too high? Try another.’ ‘Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations and call us in the morning!’”
A good charge (which David Cameron also makes against his critics). But the offer of a tax cut will hardly be unpopular in a hard-pressed America. And is it unimaginative to argue that power needs to be passed from government to the people? This is what ‘tax cut’ means.
For those who wanted to nitpick what he did say, there was plenty. “I never said it would be quick,” he said about the recovery, but he did make specific promises about what his stimulus would do, and these goals were missed. He didn’t mention the stimulus in the speech. Where are the jobs he promised? He didn’t say, he just promised a million more manufacturing jobs by 2016 – which would take America back to where it was in November 2008. A funny kind of “forward”. He blamed Bush for plenty things but took a bow for various achievements negotiated by the outgoing Bush regime: the Iraq withdrawal and trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea which he said he “signed”. He did, but the Bush administration negotiated them. The 2004 Obama would have made this point. The 2012 Obama is an unrelentingly divisive figure, spiking his speech with attacks. His base loved him more than Romney’s did.
Obama is perhaps the best orator of our times, which is why I felt disappointed by last night’s speech. It was as if he was in one of those competitions where you have to speak for 40 minutes and say nothing. Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and Michelle Obama all gave better speeches from the Convention podium this week. Even Eva Longoria had a memorable point:-
The Eva Longoria who worked at Wendy’s flipping burgers: she needed a tax break. But the Eva Longoria who works on movie sets does not.
Where were Obama’s memorable points? Either is saving some serious ammunition, or Romney really does have a chance.