In case one wonders whether the criticism of Barack Obama’s speech will get much play today, at least the Washington Post makes its displeasure known. In an editorial today, the paper scolded Obama for a lack of “hard truths,” and pointed out that the President’s pitch for a second term didn’t include, er, a plan for the hazy, gauzy goals Obama provided:
An acceptance speech is not a State of the Union laundry list of specific proposals. Its role is to set out a vision of the country’s future path. Mr. Obama was correct that he and Mr. Romney have dramatically different visions of government’s role, and that the Republican prescription of tax cuts to address any woe has left the country in terrible shape. Mr. Romney has been inexcusably vague in outlining his program, fiscal and otherwise, and he did nothing to mend this deficiency in his acceptance speech. But Mr. Obama’s speech also fell short — of his own proclaimed standards.
He vowed, “I will never turn Medicare into a voucher,” but he gave his audience no indication that his solution — controlling health care costs — might involve sacrifice on the part of seniors. He promised “responsible steps to strengthen” Social Security, which he has neglected throughout his first term. As to which steps those might be, not a word. “My plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet,” Mr. Obama said. What plan would that be? …
But the attractiveness of that vision made all the more frustrating Mr. Obama’s refusal to fill in any substance, his once again promising hard truths that he did not deliver. “They want your vote, but they don’t want you to know their plan,” he said of the Republicans. If Mr. Obama has a plan, Americans who listened Thursday don’t know how he would achieve it.
Actually, the two candidates had much different goals in their speeches. Mitt Romney had to introduce himself to the American public, especially after a summer of brutal personal attacks from Team Obama and Democrats. The Post doesn’t acknowledge that both Romney and Ryan have proposed very specific economic policies for the next four years; Ryan passed his plans twice in the House of Representatives, although he’s backing Romney’s plans now. Romney needs to continue to offer those specific policies in the campaign and discuss them at length — especially since it’s clear now that Obama won’t discuss his own second-term agenda in any detail at all this fall — but the real goal of his speech last week was to show that he wasn’t a scary, blood-sucking capitalist who wants to get rich by crippling the middle class. Based on the initial boost in favorability after the convention last week, Romney at least made some progress on that front.
Obama, on the other hand, didn’t need any introductions. He’s had the bully pulpit to himself for almost four years (with the one bizarre exception when Bill Clinton took it over in 2010), and plenty of favorable media coverage of his soft side. Obama also has had a full term in office to achieve his goals, which means he either needed to explain a new set of goals and a plan to achieve them, or a plan to accomplish the goals he failed to meet. Obama did neither, offering instead the gauzy, insubstantial slogans to which his campaign bitterly clings rather than discuss his record or his second-term agenda.
An incumbent President has to demonstrate his stature in that manner. As the Post notes, Obama failed miserably, all the more so because the context of the two speeches aren’t the same. He basically reduced his stature to a first-time challenger.
Not only that, but his team botched the expectations game as well. As late as yesterday afternoon, top officials from Team Obama were promising that the President would discuss both entitlement reform and deficit reduction in detail:
Top campaign aides to President Obama said that in his speech on Thursday night, the president will discuss deficit reduction and entitlement reform.
Stephanie Cutter, appearing on CNN’s Starting Point on Thursday, said, “I think you will hear the president lay out his plan of balanced deficit reduction where everybody pays their fair share and we cut what we don’t need and that includes entitlement reform.”
Earlier, she said: “I think you will hear him talk about the types of decisions we need to make as a country if we want to get our debt under control and do it in a way that will unleash growth and help the middle class grow.”
Obama senior campaign advisor David Axelrod said Obama will offer some new elements to his consistent theme that the way to take the country forward is by rebuilding and growing the middle class.
As nearly everyone has concluded today, Obama offered nothing new at all, not on deficit reduction and especially (as the Post points out) on entitlement reform. The media expected Obama to exploit his status as the incumbent to demonstrate his command on the issues. That made the hollowness of Obama’s speech last night even more acutely obvious, and brings up this question from the 1984 presidential campaign:
“I don’t think there’s anybody there. I really don’t.”