CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For all the talk in the punditocracy that bad news was coming to President Obama Friday in the form of a poor monthly jobs report —only 96,000 jobs added against expectations of at least 130,000 — the Democratic National Convention just concluded has to be counted a success.
Ironically, that success was accomplished in the manner of the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no ears to hear it, inasmuch as the four holdover national networks — NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox — opted this year to broadcast only an hour each evening of proceedings, a practice they also followed for last week’s Republican National Convention.
The result in Charlotte was that some of the better, more energized moments — like a barn-burning opening-night speech from former Ohio governor Ted Strickland or another rouser delivered early on Thursday night by former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm — went unobserved by any but the most dedicated of C-SPAN and online political junkies.
In general, each night, from the first well-organized event ‘til the last, contained more informational content and general firepower than had been customary even during the small window of ‘50s and ‘60s televised conventions, when everything was shown gavel-to-gavel to a rapt national audience. Those years, of course, were the last in which real contests took place at conventions, generating the kind of drama doled out these days by ersatz national “reality” shows.
That’s one irony of the 2012 DNC. Another is that the star of the show, President Barack Obama, embodiment of the Promised Land to which the whole three-day trek across national consciousness had been leading, turned out to be something less than the sum of the parts which had preceded him.
It is doubtful that anyone would reckon the President’s speech as possessing the power, eloquence, factual reach, and sheer charisma of the monumental 50-minute address by former president Bill Clinton on Wednesday night. That speech, which set out to buttress Obama’s case for reelection and to debunk virtually every claim and accusation made by the opposition Republicans concerning this year’s set of issues, was a genuine marvel. Who could remember ever hearing a speech containing so much wonky data — and one longer than a month’s worth of Baptist sermons —coming off with such humor, panache, and persuasiveness?
Then there was the righteously intense and perfectly modulated oratory of the oft-underrated Vice President Joe Biden immediately preceding the President on Thursday night.
Talk about “Fired Up and Ready to Go!”
That phrase, a holdover from Obama’s victorious 2008 campaign, became a crowd chant several times during the 2012 convention, and the fact of its being reprised underscored one of the weaknesses of the President’s situation as he faces the nation’s verdict on his reelection.
Too much of what he has to vend this year is a repetition of his foot-in-the-door sales pitch from four years ago.
Yes, the President has accomplishments, all of them dutifully noted by speaker after speaker at the Democratic convention.
He tracked down Osama bin Laden and avenged the outrage of 9/11. He has, in ways that don’t get sufficient attention, simultaneously removed American troops from harm’s way, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, while stepping up the prosecution of other kinds of military and paramilitary efforts — drones, anyone? — against America’s enemies abroad.
His stimulus efforts, though much scorned by Republican orators, are generally credited by serious economists with having stemmed the tide of incipient depression and prevented an absolute economic collapse.
He can lay claim to having saved and revivified an American automobile industry whose obituaries were already beng written by means of targeted loans and mandated restructuring.He has protected and expanded women’s rights, veterans’ benefits, and scientific research. He has protected Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare (one of Clinton’s profound services to the President was his takedown of the GOP claim that Obama had ‘cut” Medicare, a claim disingenuously made by those, notably Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who would dismantle the vintage health program established during Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and now a national staple, depended on by seniors of every political persuasion.
Rather famously, Obama has also secured the passage of the Affordable Health Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) which, clearly, will survive only in the event of his reelection. For all of its defects, the plan is a means toward guaranteeing a high level of health coverage — not quite universal but getting there.
On the social landscape, Obama has done what he could to shore up women’s health rights, and he took the fateful and perhaps inevitable step of officially countenancing same-sex marriage as a right and something to be thought of in terms of the equality and liberty guaranteed by the Constitution.
He has expanded efforts in both the technological and environmental spheres.
All this — and more — was attested to by speakers and presentations at the DNC.
Where Obama has not succeeded — either in his first term or in his somewhat muted Thursday night acceptance speech, which largely recapitulated the talking points made by every speaker who preceded him —is in rekindling the very sense of national rebirth that was spoken to by his 2008 slogan of Hope and Change.
He can make the claim that he has delivered on both parts of that slogan, but, if so, he has done so in a way that has yet to influence the job rate or the economic bottom line much. He can blame Republican congressional intransigence, and there is no doubting that such a thing existed and blunted many of his good intentions, including the 2012 Jobs Act which died a-borning.
But how much of that blunting was made possible by the President’s inexperience at administration and his failure to find the leadership means to accomplish his goals? In his last two volumes on the career of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro has made it clear that implacable opposition and what would appear to be insuperable odds can be overcome if a political leader is resourceful enough.
Besides being merely and mainly a reminder of talking points made by others earlier, the President’s acceptance address was less a summoning of the nation to answer a vision, no new version of which was articulated by him, than a brief against what damage the Republicans might do if given new license, a plea to voters to prefer him to a worse alternative.
“On every issue, the choice you face won't be just between two candidates or two parties,” Obama told the nation “It will be a choice between two different paths for America. …a choice between a strategy that reverses …progress, or one that builds on it.”
Clinton perhaps said it better in summing up the GOP’s implicit appeal this year: ““We left him a total mess. He hasn't cleaned it up fast enough. So fire him and put us back in.”
Clinton made many parts of Obama’s case better. Arguably, so did Biden. And so did Michelle Obama, for that matter. All of them injected more emotional content into their speeches than did the President with his “in conclusion” debater’s remarks.
There was nothing wrong with what he said. But what he said lacked the force and inspirational spirit of his great orations of 2004 and 2008. “Yes, we can,” he said then. And maybe he still can. But he has to prove it against the obstacles of a still intractable economy and an opponent, Mitt Romney, who may not be quite the pushover Democrats optimistically want to believe.
“This is our moment,” Obama intoned grandly in 2008. He’ll have to work hard to keep that verb from going past tense.
Meanwhile, other opinions of the President’s performance are certainly possible. Here is the close of his speech Thursday as seen from a place in the rafters of the Time Warner Cable building by my son, Justin Baker of Atlanta, who was simultaneously seeing his first convention and making his maiden effort with a video-cam.
This version has a few truncated frames, but it preserves the passion and emotion of the occasion, enough of it to substantiate more upbeat views of the President’s performance and the reaction to it.