How good was President Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National
Convention? In many ways, he’s hurt by the same thing that hurts all exceptional
people of color who have done extraordinary things. You’re always hampered by
such high expectations. And no one is expecting you to get there, again.
With Obama, we’ve been to the oratorical mountain top so many times before. But
his acceptance speech this time around was just slightly different.
At least, no one is struggling to offer such tepid praise like “it was as good
as he could do,” as people did with Mitt Romney.
No, Obama gave a fine speech. But in Charlotte this week, his convention
surrogates just happened to give a slightly better political speech (Bill
Clinton), and a slightly better personal speech (Michelle Obama).
Considering what came before him, the president wasn’t on the ropes. He didn’t
have to wow us in Day Three’s finale.
But his message had to be a little different than the others, too. He is, after
all, the incumbent Commander-In-Chief (which he reminded us matter-of-factly,
mostly by honoring our troops throughout his speech, something the GOP failed to
do at its convention).
So here was Obama’s mission of the night: In a political season where the
overriding issue is a philosophical one about government, its size, and its
commitment to its people, President Obama simply had to make the case for
government and our democracy.
More than just a policy speech, he was giving the civics lesson for our time,
making the case for no less than liberty and justice for all–not the Republican
idea of liberty and justice for some.
It became the framework of the speech, as the president laid out an “us vs.
them” choice “between two fundamentally different visions for the future.”
Said Obama: “Ours is a fight to restore the values that built the largest middle
class and the strongest economy the world has ever known, the values my
grandfather defended as a soldier in Patton’s Army; the values that drove my
grandmother to work on a bomber assembly line while he was gone.
“They knew they were part of something larger–a nation that triumphed over
fascism and depression; a nation where the most innovative businesses turned out
the world’s best products, and everyone shared in that pride and success–from
the corner office to the factory floor. My grandparents were given the chance to
go to college, buy their first home, and fulfill the basic bargain at the heart
of America’s story: the promise that hard work will pay off, responsibility will
be rewarded, that everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share,
and everyone plays by the same rules–from Main Street to Wall Street to
“I ran for President because I saw that basic bargain slipping away.”
The basic bargain is Obama’s New Deal.
But we all have to believe we’re in this together and “part of something
larger.” It was a sense of community you got from just looking at such a diverse
and inclusive convention.
For Asian Americans, you could see it in the crowd. We were a part of this. And
then there was Konrad Ng, the president’s Asian American brother-in-law, on
stage at the end looking for someone to hug. You didn’t see anything like that
Nor did you hear anyone talk like the president did last night in a message to
all Americans about what it means to be a citizen of this country.
The president went down his bullet points, from business (“I’ve signed trade
agreements that are helping our companies sell more goods to millions of new
customers–goods that are stamped with three proud words: Made in America”); to
energy policy (“I will not let oil companies write this country’s energy plan”);
to education (“Help me recruit 100,000 math and science teachers in the next ten
years, and improve early childhood education”); to foreign policy (“My opponent
and his running mate are new to foreign policy…” drew a big laugh).
But Obama’s bargain rings truest on the deficit. “You can choose a future where
we reduce our deficit without sticking it to the middle class,” the president
said, suggesting he could do so by $4 trillion. “Last summer, I worked with
Republicans in Congress to cut $1 trillion in spending–because those of us who
believe government can be a force for good should work harder than anyone to
reform, so that it’s leaner, more efficient, and more responsive to the American
Government is good, but it could be better.
Of course, we could take the other path and make bigger tax cuts and offer fewer
regulations, cut health insurance, and hope you don’t get sick, as the president
But as the president reminded us, “That’s not who we are. That’s not what this
country is about.”
To make the point, he first acknowledged the common ground shared by
“As Americans,” the president said, “We believe we are endowed by our Creator
with certain inalienable rights–rights that no man or government can take away.
We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative.
We’re not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor strivers, the
dreamers, the risk-takers who have always been the driving force behind our
free-enterprise system–the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world
has ever known.”
Then he showed the choice.
“But we also believe in something called citizenship–a word at the very heart of
our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country
only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future
He threw Republican rhetoric back at his opponents: “We don’t want handouts for
people who refuse to help themselves, and we don’t want bailouts for banks that
break the rules. We don’t think government can solve all our problems. But we
don’t think government is the source of all our problems–any more than the
welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any
other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.”
“Because we understand that this democracy is ours. As citizens, we understand
that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done
by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of
In a do-it-yourself era, Obama modernized government for a “me first” world.
He put the responsibility back on us.
“So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me,” said the president.
“It was about you. My fellow citizens–you were the change.”
The line played to the hall. But by putting the responsibility of government
back on the people, he was also serving up rhetoric that even a self-serving
egotistical Republican could love. You mean, I was the change? Yeah, sure.
The president used personal examples to bond the point. “You’re the reason a
young immigrant who grew up here and went to school here and pledged allegiance
to our flag will no longer be deported from the only country she’s ever called
And then he offered the fatal choice for the doubters in the hall, and at home.
Said Obama: “If you turn away now–if you buy into the cynicism that the change
we fought for isn’t possible…well, change will not happen. If you give up on the
idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the
void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks
who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you
to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control
health care choices that women should make for themselves.”
“Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us
The president’s speech was a brilliant sales job. Let them close
themselves. But it wasn’t a con job. The truth was in there–the hard truth. It
didn’t come wrapped in the folksy style as Clinton displayed the night before.
It came in the president’s own style, with confidence and calm, mixed in with a
lot of humility.
“While I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of
my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, “I have been
driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place
to go. But as I stand here tonight, I have never been more hopeful about
America. Not because I think I have all the answers. Not because I’m naïve about
the magnitude of our challenges. I’m hopeful because of you.”
That was true confession time, a rare thing from a politician. But the perfect
time for one to do what politicians do: ask for your vote, which he did in
typical Obama flourish.
The last five graphs of the speech deliver the speaker riding a big rhythmic
wave of civic goodness with a crescendo at the end.
“If you reject the notion that this nation’s promise is reserved for the few,
your voice must be heard in this election.
“If you reject the notion that our government is forever beholden to the highest
bidder, you need to stand up in this election.
“If you believe that new plants and factories can dot our landscape; that new
energy can power our future; that new schools can provide ladders of opportunity
to this nation of dreamers; if you believe in a country where everyone gets a
fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same
rules, then I need you to vote this November.
“America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now.
Yes, our path is harder-but it leads to a better place. Yes our road is
longer-but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We
pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our
mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that
Providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the
greatest nation on Earth.”
When it was over, I had to think about the president’s words.
Not really his greatest oratorical moment, but still, without doubt, I’d say
If the general election were a speech contest, there’d be no choice.
But the president laid it out for us. His vision of America’s basic bargain, vs.
the Republicans’ little government and discount democracy.
You can watch President Obama’s speech here.