President Obama’s speech at the Democratic Convention on Thursday night was a firm declaration of the principles of his party, one that began laced with humor (of TV campaign ads: “If you’re sick of hearing me approve this message, believe me, so am I”), went on to become increasingly pointed and vehement (“I will never turn Medicare into a voucher”), and concluded with the cadences of a secular minister that left his audience cheering wildly. Plus, he must have gotten permission from Bruce Springsteen to use “We Take Care of Our Own.”
Obama’s most striking flourish was that, as he put it, “we also believe in something called citizenship… a word at the very essence of our democracy… Our destinies are bound together… ” This was a way of countering Republican criticism that his policies are all about “big government”; Obama’s goal was to flip this and cast his positions as mutual pacts made with his fellow Americans.
The President also emphasized humility, a good idea when your opponent is trying to make you out to be a celebrity-loving narcissist. Toward the end, his quotation from Abraham Lincoln was a particularly nice touch: “While I’m 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 else to go.’”
Granted, Obama was hampered from deploying a few rhetorical devices Clinton could take for granted. The freedom that Clinton has to be aggressive and sarcastic on a public stage is largely denied to Obama, both because it can be perceived as unseemly of the office he holds, and because, given the racial politics that figure into every other sort of American politics, Obama cannot become an Angry Black Man without discomfiting the more tender white liberal members of his constituency, or without playing into the demonization that the right so fervently hopes he’ll explode/implode into.
And so while Michelle could enter the convention to Stevie Wonder music and Clinton exit to Tom Petty and “I Won’t Back Down,” we knew going into this night that Obama was not going to step onstage getting on the good foot to James Brown or letting his full Al Green freak flag fly. No, he had to be presidential, which always brings out less of the stiff spine than the stiff neck in Obama, a part of his anatomy that’s often offset by his loose walk and his welcoming, take-your-best-shot grin of engaged determination.
With a humorist’s crack timing, he took a doleful pause in the middle of the sentence, “My opponent and his running mate are… new… to foreign policy.” To viewers who had watched Clinton the night before, it may have seemed that they were hearing the same subjects being phrased in different but similar-minded terms, but taken on its own, Obama’s speech delivered his message with force. Plus, he took his bows to the tune of Springsteen’s, which is what music critics call playing to the bass — excuse me, base.
Earlier, Vice President Joe Biden had hammered together a rough-hewn speech that didn’t have much distinctive to say about Obama, and the Veep struck the same notes so many others have during this convention — the reviving of auto industry; the killing of bin Laden — in a way that seemed to serve primarily to emphasize that the President has a “spine of steel.” Biden’s speech was earnest but so generic, I found myself noticing his syntax as much as his text. The man does not seem to understand the difference between “literally” and “figuratively.” At least three times he bollixed this; a couple that might have made some school teachers watching wince: “We literally stood on the brink of a new Depression” (there aren’t that many brinks in America for every citizen to stand on one, Joe) and “the direction we turn is not figuratively, it is literally in your hands” (I can’t recall the last time I held a direction).
For the first time this week, I was glad the broadcast networks were waiting until 10 p.m. to go live at the convention. Because, really, who needed to see, earlier in the night, celebs such as Scarlett Johansson, Kerry Washington, and Eva Longoria take the stage to spout their support? Is there one non- or on-the-fence voter out there who would see a star such as these and say to him- or herself, “Y’know, I wasn’t going to vote this year, but gosh darn it, if Scarlett Johansson is gonna vote, I am too!” Putting celebs onstage doesn’t do much for the Democratic party other than give Republicans ammunition to say how star-struck, superficial, and liberal-Hollywood the Democrats are.
(Of course, we all have our lines of personal demarcation: If Fringe’s John Noble had changed his Australian citizenship and came onstage to proclaim his allegiance to the American voting system, maybe I’d be singing a different tune… )