Obama's DNC 2012: Kneecapped by nostalgia

CHARLOTTE, N.C.— A couple hours before President Obama took the stage Thursday night, The Foo Fighters’ lead singer seemed to presage his speech with a rendition of “My Hero.” “There goes my hero. Watch him as he goes,” Dave Grohl wailed. “There goes my hero. He’s ordinary.”

The moody pop anthem could have been the soundtrack to the night’s punditry, as person after person declared Obama’s speech “pedestrian,” “not the best speech of the convention, “ C work from an A student. It was nearly universally acknowledged that President Bill Clinton was better, and even suggested—gasp!—that Obama was outperformed by the normally bumbling Vice President Joe Biden. Politico headlined its recap, “Downsizing the dream.” Ouch.

If the speech felt like falling to earth from a dream, Obama himself is partly to blame, and not just for one lackluster speech. He crafted the dreamscape himself. He made big promises, he set high expectations, he embraced those promises and expectations, and ultimately he failed to fulfill them. This week was just a microcosm of Obama’s difficulties pitching a presidency built on big promises in the harsh economic realities of 2012.

In a pleasant three-day romp designed to assiduously avoid dealing with the problems of 2012, Democratic delegates were steered dreamily through the accomplishments of any year but the past three (with the notable exception of the auto bailout). The stimulus didn’t make an appearance. The Affordable Care Act, not in Obama’s speech. Instead, even unpleasant party memories made the cut for reminiscing— Jimmy Carter spoke via video outside of primetime. A highlight of Geraldine Ferraro addressing the convention in historically disastrous 1984 revealed just how purposefully the party was cribbing talking points from itself.

“The promise of our country is that the rules are fair. If you work hard and play by the rules, you can earn your share of America’s blessings,” Ferraro’s voice boomed in the arena, echoing the words of dozens of speakers, who had been echoing her all week.

The most prominent nod to nostalgia was the presentation of President Clinton, who luxuriated in the lime light, giving an entertaining 48-minute speech that landed punches on Mitt Romney and did the requisite Obama boosting. But what it did most effectively was transport the room to the 90s, Clinton’s genial g-dropping evoking the warm-and-fuzzies of the boom before the tech bubble burst, peace dividends pre-9/11, Kelly, Brenda, Brandon, and Dylan. Even Grohl’s hair played its part, lying in an angsty Nirvana-esque fringe across his face.

The question was always whether the warm-and-fuzzies would transfer without outshining. Camp Romney faced the same question when adding Paul Ryan to the ticket, when Ann Romney spoke, and when Sen. Marco Rubio gave a rousing lead-in to Mitt’s convention speech. But unlike Mitt Romney, Barack Obama is not accustomed to the possibility of being deemed the second-most capable speaker in a room (or the “5th or 6th most interesting” person).

Obama’s ability to capture imaginations and rouse spirits with his words is central to his brand in a way it’s not to Mitt Romney’s, who’s rightly criticized for not rousing, or even Clinton’s. Clinton wears his charm as a powerful accessory to a presidency in a healthy economy and a list of bipartisan bills made possible by a mid-term tack to the center.

Clinton wasn’t just a gifted speaker but preternatural pivoter. His appearance showcased a man who has always been adept (sometimes maddeningly so) at suiting himself to the political moment, this one included. Then, he was joined on stage by a man who has proven incapable of doing the same.

Accordingly, the convention attempted to change the moment to suit Obama. Michelle Obama’s speech could easily have been given, nearly word for word, in 2008. A moving tribute to the woman who originated “Fired up! Ready to go!” was vintage Hope and Change. Obama, too, was trying to play ’08 Obama, crescendoing to soaring rhetoric at the prescribed moment. But the reality of 2012 is tough to make take flight, and it had to be addressed— “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.” The crowd inside the hall played an ’08 crowd convincingly, with weeping and worship hands. They were part of the dream and they want to keep it alive and experience it again, just as they did then.

Treating Obama’s presidency as if the intervening four years never happened is preferable to grappling with another disappointing jobs report and stubborn 8-percent unemployment, not to mention the broken promises they evoke. But outside the convention, those realities intruded, unimpeded by any speech, and waking up from a dream is never pleasant.