President Barack Obama’s speech to the 2012 Democratic Convention was one of the best he has given, and one of the best in recent history. It was an almost word-perfect defense of the liberal idea and American exceptionalism. I just wish he’d meant half of it.
The grudging early praise for the speech from the commentariat has been picayune, even silly. President Obama’s speech was not only brilliantly conceived and written, and delivered with impeccable timing, it accomplished something, which is a very rare thing indeed for a speech to do.
What the president’s address—what the whole evening of Democratic speeches—did was to utterly diminish the Republican ticket, not to mention the perpetually furious and paranoid party behind it. Deftly pivoting to foreign policy, hitherto all but unmentioned in Charlotte, one Democratic speaker after another cast Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as the parochial, pandering neophytes that they are. The Republican ticket is “new” to foreign policy, as Obama said, perfectly skewering two men on a single word. They are “the most inexperienced foreign policy twosome to run for president and vice president in decades,” as Sen. John Kerry bludgeoned them in the speech of his life. “Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago,” he continued—and a thousand bumper stickers were held aloft around the hall, spelling it out for anyone who might have found Kerry’s words overly nuanced: BIN LADEN IS DEAD! GM IS ALIVE!
What my co-blogger Jack so aptly calls the “pearl-clutchers” among the talking heads tsked and gurgled over such indecorous language. Other criticisms included the complaint that Obama did not give us sufficient details about exactly what he would do to move the country forward and how he would do it. But a convention capper is not a State of the Union address, nor a message to Congress. It is not Charles Evans Hughes addressing the philatelic society. Politics is a diverse and improvisational business, and the skilled politician keeps at hand an old-time surgeon’s tray of instruments. Here is a scalpel, there a meat cleaver, and there a mallet or a saw. Obama brandished all the tools on the tray in dissecting the Republicans and their candidates.
They had it coming. When you put out that many lies, and filthy, dangerous lies at that, you are begging for someone to take you apart. Obama does not run around the world apologizing for America. We should not be looking to drum up two, five, six, eight new wars (I lost track halfway through John McCain’s speech). Breaking teacher unions is not “the civil rights issue of today” (sorry, Condi). Simply eliminating (unnamed) regulations and slashing taxes (yet again) on the very wealthiest will not by itself trigger sustained economic growth, much less a decent society. Some 99 percent of the world’s scientists are not involved in a colossal, costly hoax against the American people and the world. Women’s bodies do not kill the sperm cells of rapists.
Dismissing Republicans with a few stinging quips was the most gracious way the Democrats could have found to send them to their rooms. Obama demonstrated beyond doubt that he was the adult in this race. But he didn’t do it only by shooing the children from the room. He went on to lay out a reasoned, eloquent defense of not just his more progressive initiatives thus far, but the entire liberal tradition of engaging with the world. It was, in fact, a remarkably liberal speech, remarkably well-reasoned. It only made one wish that he could have come into office at a time of right-wing disarray, with an impassioned grassroots movement at his back and large congressional majorities to support him.
Oh, wait. That already happened, and Obama squandered each of these advantages, sometimes quite deliberately. The saddest lesson of the past four years is that this president doesn’t believe much of what he says to galvanize his base. All the evidence is that, in a second term, President Obama will preoccupy himself almost exclusively with striking a “grand bargain” on the budget deficit, so dear to commentators’ hearts. Considering the opposition, any such compromise will likely be an unmitigated disaster for the liberal cause and the country. Such a deal is the only major thing that is likely to happen—indeed, that is possible—given “four more years.” That, and a few more quiet trade deals that will offshore still more American industrial jobs—such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) being negotiated in Virginia even now—or perhaps some terrible foreign policy overreach on Obama’s part, such as, God forbid, an invasion of Iran.
The Democrats I talked to by the bushel down in Charlotte, delegates and nondelegates alike, are almost universally unaware of this agenda. They are in for a rude awakening. Talks on some sort of grandiose ten-year budget deal will likely start even before the next inauguration, forced by the arbitrary congressional “debt ceiling.” In light of what Republicans in the House and Senate are likely to demand—and what the president is likely to give them—my greatest hope for the next four years is stalemate and deadlock; for Barack Obama to leave for his presidential library-raising as another Bill Clinton figure, an inadequate and often nebulous protector of the commonweal, but one who sure as hell beat the alternative.
There is, though, another alternative—one the stray community-organizer gene in Obama pointed us toward. As the writer—and truly astute political commentator—Bruce Shapiro pointed out in an email, “Obama solved the dilemma of disappointment in his presidency by framing citizen action—rather than some change in policy or leadership—as the key to a better second term.”
Both Shapiro and the president are right. We are the change we have been seeking. Only our mass action will spur this essentially conservative president to action and—more vitally—create the sort of country and political environment where enthusiasm, good will, and hard work are never again wasted on such an unresponsive figure, however good a game he talks.