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.
Excerpts from former President Clinton's nomination address at the DNC:
Ostensibly, I'm here at the Democratic National Convention to help my father, Flyer columnist Jackson Baker, by throwing in a word or two here and there, shooting some low-rent video, and taking a few photographs, some of which have ended up like this:
Hey, I never said I was Annie Leibovitz; I'm a software development manager on vacation from Atlanta to hang out with my dad.
In the absence of dazzling video or still photographs in this post, allow me to share my thoughts on the state of the Tennessee Democratic Party as viewed through the prism of a disoriented IT manager from Georgia.
The scene: Wednesday morning at the Oasis Shriners' headquarters building in suburban Charlotte. The Tennessee Democratic delegation has rented meeting space here for the week. My dad and I amble into a sparsely appointed, gymnasium-like room as the group is finishing their breakfast. I scoop up the last of the hashbrowns from a serving platter, and I listen to Steve Cohen at the dais as he applauds the diversity of this year's state delegation. I'm pleased that he gets in a few Memphis Tigers basketball hurrahs toward the end of his address.
As I go for a second cup of coffee, a delegation official runs through some of the logistics of the day's schedule of events. What sticks out to me in particular are his comments about the placement of the Tennessee delegation on the floor of the arena. It's probably not a surprise that Tennessee, certainly out of reach for Obama in November, is placed far in the back on the arena floor, stage right. The official reminds the group to watch out for those pesky New Yorkers, as they've been muscling their way into the Tennesseans' assigned seating. There's not much you can do about it, he says, what with their sheer numbers and legendary resolve.
As breakfast wraps up, a partition is pulled away from a back wall, revealing the swankier furnishings of the Ohio delegation's meeting room next door. Throughout breakfast I can't help but notice their robust cheers bleeding through, at times almost drowning out the proceedings in the Tennessee room. Perhaps this video, the most passable of my videos so far, captures the contrast better than I can express it in writing:
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There are all kinds of obvious reasons why national political conventions do not draw huge television audiences on mainstream television anymore — the proliferating number of other TV-watching options, especially on cable; the growth of social media for real political junkies; and much else in the technical realm, along with the fact that these quadrennial spectaculars long ago surrendered their original claim to viewership, a sense of drama based on legitimate suspense.
They are just coronations now, all their results pre-arranged, everything to be said and done scripted to fit a talking-points line, the sum total of which is redundancy writ large. As an example, now that the Democratic Party has toed up and decided to officially endorse same-sex marriage, every speaker on the Time Warner Cable Arena stage on opening night of the Democratic National Convention was outfitted with some basic variant of the phrase “whom they love,” as in “The Democratic Party believes that people should be judged by what they do, not by whom they love.”
The committee-vetted phrase and its variants are liable to become as ubiquitous this election year as “a woman’s right to choose” was in 1992, the year that Democratic nominees Bill Clinton and Al Gore (both recent converts to the pro-choice position) made a point of articulating the party’s freshly entrenched consensus on abortion. (In the vice-presidential debate that year, Gore taunted Dan Quayle to join him in proclaiming such rhetoric. “Just say it, Dan: ‘a women’s right to choose.’” I wondered at the time how Gore would have reacted if Quayle had summoned enough mischief to ask, “Choose what, Al?”)
Despite all the predictability of convention rhetoric, despite what would seem a near-certain guarantee of tedium, despite the dramatic audience fall-off since the days of contested conventions, despite the common-sensical decision by the networks to forgo all but an hour a night for a maximum of three nights for these affairs, there are still occasions when the public is cheated by not having full access to around-the-clock, gavel-to-gavel coverage in the old style.
Such a night was Tuesday, the DNC’s opening day, opened by a call to order from Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chair, and ending with an address by First Lady Michelle Obama. Even in the scrappy years smash-mouth contests at conventions, first days were rarely much to write home (not text, not tweet). But Tuesday at the DNC was well worth an extended look.
Among other things, useful videos about Jimmy Carter and the Kennedy family were shown to delegates in the late afternoon and early evening. History buffs, even diehard Republicans, might have enjoyed those. And as evening deepened, the fare became ever richer. (As my son Justin, in the arena watching with me, observed, the fact that Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a media-certified cutting-edger, was relegated to an early spot raised expectations about what was to come.)
One of the ways Democrats attempt to distinguish themselves from Republicans is by calling attention to what they see as a greater diversity.( Tennessee Democratic chairman Chip Forrister asked the members and guests on hand at Tuesday’s delegation breakfast to look around the room and see for themselves “the most diverse delegation in Tennessee history,” one that, in fact, was still predominantly white, though there was a liberal proportion of African Americans, along with a balance of genders and one certifiable transgendered person.)
So the dais on Tuesday night would include blacks, whites, Hispanics and various other ethnicities, women’s rights advocates, spokespersons for same-sex equality, laborites, farmers, big-city mayors, owners of small businesses, what-have-you.
Who would have thought that a former governor from Ohio named Ted Strickland would ignite fireworks. Yet Strickland, a kind of Gerald Ford lookalike with the same high-pitched voice, went out of the mold and delivered an old-fashioned Fourth of July partisan stemwinder. There were laughlines like “Mitt Romney never saw the point of building something when he could profit from tearing it down. If Mitt was Santa Claus, he'd fire the reindeer and outsource the elves” and passionate avowals like “President Barack Obama stood up for us, and now by God we will stand up for him,” and Strickland had the crowd buzzing.
After him came effective presentations from the likes of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, the fiery former Chief of Staff for Obama; Massachusetts governor Duval Patrick; and Lily Ledbetter, the homespun worker lady who inspired the bill, pushed hard by the President, which mandated equal pay for equal work.
There were emotionally powerful presentations by a family whose lovely little daughter will require several rounds of open-heart surgery, a necessary ordeal made feasible by the Affordable Health Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) which GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is sworn to repeal, despite its close resemblance to the plan Romney sponsored as a one-term governor of Massachusetts.
(At the Tennessee delegation’s lunch on Wednesday morning, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen made a point of thanking Romney for his having supplied such helpful guidance and drew appreciative laughter. It was a serious point, though, and Cohen made note even of Richard Nixon’s relative liberalism within a Republican Party that in more recent times had stretched hard line conservatism to its limits.)
The keynote speech belonged to a fetchingly wry Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio, who was introduced by his twin brother Joaquin, himself a political personage as a current candidate for Congress.
But the spotlight finally settled on Michelle Obama, and she delivered a version of herself that, in terms of likeability, was at least the equal of that which was achieved in Tampa last week by Ann Romney, and came off as somewhat more earthy and accessible.
There was talking-point stuff, to be sure: “Barack knows the American Dream because he's lived it...and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we're from, or what we look like, or who we love.”
But there were also authentically homey touches like this: “You see, even though back then Barack was a Senator and a presidential candidate...to me, he was still the guy who'd picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger side door...he was the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he'd found in a dumpster, and whose only pair of decent shoes was half a size too small.”
And, after a litany such remembered moments, Michelle Obama made it sound authentic when she said her husband’s definition of success was not about how much money you made but how much you could contribute to society.
Ultimately the First Lady replicated Ann Romney’s feat of making her man — often, like Romney, characterized as somewhat remote personally — seem deserving of affection as well as respect.
On the bill for Wednesday night was a widely anticipated appearance by former president Bill Clinton, someone who has never been characterized, by friend or foe alike, as remote. It loomed as a big-ticket affair, almost as big as the climactic one on Thursday, when Barack Obama will deliver his acceptance address.
Bad news, though, for some of the throngs on hand in Charlotte: The President’s address, originally scheduled for the relatively spacious Bank of America stadium, has been moved indoors to the much smaller Time Warner arena to accommodate weather concerns. Ad hoc credentials will be at a premium, and somebody’s parade is going to get rained on.
The award to Wharton was announced this week by Barbara Moore, executive director of rhe DMO, whose board includes Memphis city councilman Myron Lowery.
Moore describes the background of the award thusly:
The Susan Burgess Memorial award was established in 2011 to honor the late Susan Burgess who served proudly as Chair of "the mighty DMO" and as Mayor Pro-Tem of the Charlotte zCity Council. Mayor Chris Coleman (St. Paul, MN) received the 2011 Award.
Burgess, a Democrat and at-large member of the Charlotte City Council, was first elected to City Council in 1999. In November, voters returned her to City Council for a fifth term. She was also the most popular candidate in the 2009 city election, receiving more votes (59,862) than winning mayoral candidate Anthony Foxx (55,265).
Burgess was a past president of the North Carolina League of Municipalities and Women in Municipal Government. She represented North Carolina on the Democratic National Committee and was on the board of trustees for the National Housing Conference.