While accepting his party's nomination for President of the United States, Barack Obama defended his record of doing things and renewed his commitment to doing things in the future. If elected, we can be assured of four more years of things. He also has people killed.
It was a good speech, but saying so damns with faint praise. We set the bar for good political speeches so low that a couple jokes, solid elocution, woodenness-avoidance and evidence of non-sociopathic affect suffices to elevate modern American oratory into the pantheon.
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's writers do good work. Aside from being called upon to tell lies so un-rigorous that they seem one-eighth-assed, they write good narrative and dish out bumper-sticker pitches. What Obama's speech showed was how those writers suffer by writing for a simpering Thomas Nast cartoon and a carrion bird someone nursed back to health in a Brooks Brothers. Obama doesn't need to be a great speaker to be better than those guys: he just needs to not be them.
Obama went in battling high expectations. The night before, Bill Clinton delivered a bravura performance that might be one of the greatest convention speeches of all time. Wonks who had the luxury of listening to him for eight years could forget how good he always was; it was easy to get spoiled. But comparing his prepared remarks with his ad-libs—seeing him teasing out a better phrasing from an already impressive written line, elaborating on a theme with humor and drama—recalled the Salieri line about Mozart's uncorrected first drafts, that they looked like he was taking dictation from God.
Clinton sometimes leaned to one side in a taken-aback posture. He put his hands up to his chest in amazement, a bad little boy stunned by put-ons greater than his own. He joked. But what he did best—what he always did best—was conversationally explain politics in a way that elevated a broad audience. Obama's appeal as a rhetorician lies in elevating the high-minded beliefs we hold, in putting a gust beneath the lofty things we already want to feel. He's probably better than Clinton in this respect. But while Clinton ended speeches on similar high notes, he walked people through a fuller process of grasping policy. Clinton made people feel good by not only confirming that they believed good things but by convincing him that they could understand smart things.
You could see it in the tone-shifting asides on Wednesday, like, "Y'all got to listen carefully to this; this is really important," and the ad-lib clarification that Paul Ryan cut the exact same amount from Medicare as Obama (although from different parts of the budget), "It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did." Nobody would ever buy a comedy sketch of Obama giving an impromptu policy lecture via McRibs. That's just not who he is. Clinton scratched the policy chore off the Democratic family's to-do list—outlining the crises in Medicare and Medicaid and the Democrats' superior record of job creation—leaving foreign policy and the road ahead.
Joe Biden, who was chosen as vice-president for his foreign policy experience, covered the former about as well as you could expect, considering his brief of amping up the crowd for Obama in general. He could have done better, but his speech was larded with bro-love anecdotes that stopped short of shirtless shower exchanges of teeth snapping and "YOU'RE DANGEROUS," with a concluding hug and, "YOU CAN BE MY WINGMAN ANY TIME."
Aside from the now-requisite overweening tribute to the Platinum Citizens™ Club of U.S. veterans, Biden laid it on especially thickly when it came to talking about whacking Osama Bin Laden. To borrow a phrase from another writer, "Some major organ is thoroughly rotten... if the one 'big thing' America can accomplish is the tawdry, soul-sapping killing of a dilettante porn-addicted rich killer."
The joke here should be obvious: that the courageous decision, the tough decision, would have been Abby Carmichael getting Bin Laden's ass remanded to Riker's with a public defender, the Law & Order "doink doink" ringing out, and Jack McCoy's turkey wattle and big beak shaking in outrage that he bought a pig in a poke that might blow up on the stand. Justice, in a nation ostensibly governed by the rule of law, comes equipped with an entire system. But Biden was just so thrilled to whip out the Democrats' newly re-engorged War Boner and celebrate "justice" via a double-tap to the brain of a sclerotic masturbating whitehair and his family, in the dead of night, by trained killers. There's no time to get irony when it's time to get hard. At least he didn't mention the war on whistleblowers or all them drones. The system worked!
With the numbers and the bloodlust down, Obama had an opportunity to lay out a substantial map for the future, and he didn't. While he reframed the Democratic Party's vision as one of a community of "citizens," he came up short of Clinton in delineating policy and short of Elizabeth Warren in articulating the working of a social contract versus a Wall Street "rigged game." Although he did mention American cars, which, spiritually and existentially, manifest as an anti-Bin Laden.
Obama echoed Clinton and Warren, crowed about Bin Laden again, and laid out a vision for the next four years that seemed at best a tug of war between the amorphous and the impossible. He will reform the tax code (he can't), and reanimate our spirit of togetherness (whatever that means), one supposes via the bully pulpit (mostly ineffectual). What he won't be able to do is control the House of Representatives, which will almost assuredly be dominated by Republicans, and which is the place where the money comes from.
What he especially couldn't say is that he has shown a willingness to preemptively concede cuts to social programs before even beginning negotiations with Republicans, failed to prosecute anyone responsible for the Great Recession, staffed his cabinet and advisors with the same clowns who engineered the economy's destruction, hugged the former president who repealed Glass-Steagall, prosecuted a war on whistleblowers that immunizes the executive branch from citizen outcry and accountability, vastly increased a drone war that now targets funerals and the first responders that try to aid its victims—and that, with GOP control of the House, we can look forward to four years of acrimony, wheel-spinning, gridlock and misery.
Obama couldn't say those things, of course, because his most effective trope, the heaven-high song that resonates fullest, is the confirmation of our optimism, our innate possibility, ourselves. Without the Clintonesque mastery of conversation, there is only the aria. The exigencies of procedure, of precedent—of the brutish cacophonies that are real history—quash it, leaving a stagebound mute, moving his mouth in such a way that he hopes you can divine the words it forms.
Instead, hope and change have given way to experience and lessons learned, with new synonyms for community and new generic ambitions without any plan to enact them. We got his most conventional speech to date, one that will be replicated ad nauseam in the coming two months—one that doesn't substantially differ from the generic-ambition speech delivered by Mitt Romney the week before, except in one way.
Barack Obama's speech lucked out and could only be delivered by Barack Obama. Mitt Romney's speech was stuck with Mitt Romney, and there was no getting out of that.