As it turns out, Bill Clinton ended up overshadowing Barack Obama — and it wasn’t even close. The President had an opportunity to craft a new message outlining his specific agenda for a second term at a moment when Obama had the attention of the entire nation. Failing that, he could have offered a ringing defense of his first term, talking specifically about how his signature efforts — ObamaCare, the stimulus package, and Dodd-Frank — not only addressed liberal wish lists but had improved the economy. Instead, he didn’t do either, but offered a State of the Union speech with fewer specifics, more platitudes, and less personal investment.
The last day of the convention had gone much smoother for Democrats than the first two. Abortion-Palooza had been dialed down, the speakers improved, and Joe Biden had set up Obama with a rousing, old-school populist stemwinder that had its batty moments (“fallen angels”?) but a significant emotional appeal — the kind of speech Obama used to give. In fact, Biden offered a more personal viewpoint on Obama’s behalf than Obama did for himself. Obama had a stage primed for a dazzling display of oratory, and certainly had an audience expecting it. Instead, he offered what Jake Tapper recognized as a retread of his old speeches, like a recording artist who tries repackaging oldies for a few extra bucks:
— Rick Klein (@rickklein) September 7, 2012
Salena Zito came to the same conclusion, and wondered whether Obama really wants to win re-election:
I can name the cities and states that I have heard chunks of this speech for the past 3 years #nothinghaschanged
— SalenaZito (@SalenaZitoTrib) September 7, 2012
Never believed that HW Bush wanted his re-elect (fire in belly) in 1992 and tonight makes me consider that Obama feels the same way
— SalenaZito (@SalenaZitoTrib) September 7, 2012
Even James Carville was underwhelmed in his initial reaction last night:
Charles Krauthammer pronounced himself “stunned” by Obama’s lack of specifics, and his lack of the sense of the moment. He called the speech “one of the emptiest I’ve ever heard on a national stage”:
“I was stunned,” Fox News Contributor Charles Krauthammer began. “There was nothing in it … there was nothing in there that tells us how he’s going to go from today to tomorrow.”
The syndicated columnist, reacting to President Obama’s DNC speech shortly after it was delivered, went on to say that the president “…pulled numbers out of a hat … What we heard from Obama was a vision … He doesn’t say how he gets from point A to point B.” Krauthhammer added, tongue in cheek, “I have a vision of America where there’s no disease and everybody has a private airplane. But unless I tell you how we get there, I’ve said nothing.”
Don’t just take the word of conservatives for it. The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky declares the speech “pedestrian” and “overconfident,” and wonders whether Obama just let the air out of the balloon:
Let’s be blunt. Barack Obama gave a dull and pedestrian speech tonight, with nary an interesting thematic device, policy detail, or even one turn of phrase. The crowd sure didn’t see it my way. The delegates were near delirium; to what extent they were merely still feeding off the amassed energy of the previous two nights I can’t say.
And swing voters watching at home? They probably weren’t as bored as I was, but it seems inconceivable that they’d have been enraptured. This was the rhetorical equivalent, forgive the football metaphor, of running out the clock: Obama clearly thinks he’s ahead and just doesn’t need to make mistakes. But when football teams do that, it often turns out to be the biggest mistake of all, and they lose. …
The night’s big thematic device, the “it wasn’t me, it was you” business, sounded like a somewhat forced attempt, frankly, to come up with…something. He was trying to re-inspire the Obamabots of 2008. But it felt very superficial to me. Nothing in this speech was developed, nothing given hard thought, nothing that built to a great moment. Jeezy peezy, did Mitt Romney give a better speech last week? Not quite, but almost.
The question is, did he let the air out of the balloon here? Lose the momentum that gathered with such undeniable force over the previous two nights? I suspect he may have. If he comes out of this convention with under a three-point bounce, that will constitute a horrible missed opportunity. This thing was teed up for him to build a five-point lead. If there’s little movement in next week’s polls, then there’s also little doubt whose fault it is.
Air out of the balloon? More like the cat out of the bag.
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein attributed the lack of urgency to confidence as well:
This speech felt very safe to me. It’s the speech you give when you think you’re winning.
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) September 7, 2012
Well, maybe, but “confidence” hasn’t been the key adjective used in describing the Obama campaign lately. They’ve already become whiny about being outspent in the fall after far outstripping Romney in ad buys during the summer. The tone of their fundraising letters has hit panic levels, and for good reason. Polls have Romney and Obama in virtual ties after a failed attempt to toxify the Republican over the last four months. If Obama thinks this is a good time to play a Cover-2 prevent defense, he’s got to be the only one who thinks so.
The inescapable conclusion from this speech is that Obama has nothing left in the tank — policy-wise, intellectually, and rhetorically. The second-term agenda is vaporware, and so is his defense of the first-term agenda. The only effort Obama can muster is to talk anecdotes and attack the ideas of his opponents through the erection and demolition of straw men, and to recycle old speeches to vainly search for new magic. The theme song for the Obama campaign should be Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty.”
Addendum: I’ll address the fact checks in another post.
Update: Barack Obama managed to avoid talking about a lot of specific problems with his policies, but BuzzFeed’s Zeke Miller catches a huge omission, especially considering today’s jobs report:
President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention Thursday night didn’t include language targeted at the nation’s unemployed.
Despite boilerplate language about the job losses four years ago and his plans to create jobs, Obama did not specifically address the millions of Americans still struggling to find a job or a job that meets their needs.
Obama’s speech also avoided any mention of the unemployment rate, which is still above 8 percent and fell in August because 368,000 Americans left the workforce. Obama was briefed on the August jobs report yesterday afternoon, hours before he took the stage in Charlotte.
He did make 16 mentions of “jobs,” but Miller’s right — it’s as if the problems of chronic and acute unemployment ceased to exist.