Dr Tim Stanley is a historian of the United States. His biography of Pat Buchanan is out now. His personal website is www.timothystanley.co.uk and you can follow him on Twitter @timothy_stanley.
Obama's speech was a disappointment. Aggressive yet artless, it won't distract from the economy
President Obama's speech couldn't match a standard set so high by others
Barack Obama’s biggest problem on Thursday night wasn’t unemployment, debt or his poor approval ratings. It was having to top a week of speeches that just couldn’t be topped. The convention had reached the emotional peaks of a family reunion. Mother Michelle spoke of poverty and hard work, grand-daddy Bill reminded us of the good ole days when he was President, and even Joe Biden (who uses the word “folks” like punctuation) played the blue-collar Catholic that any man would be proud to call “uncle.” By the time the President reached the podium, expectations were running unreasonably high. Perhaps inevitably, he didn’t quite match them.
The President’s message was this: I need more time. He compared America’s economic problems to the Great Depression of the 1930s, dubbing it the Great Recession (which implies that it’s bad but not insurmountable). To overcome the challenges ahead will require “common effort, shared responsibility and the kind of bold persistent experimentation” that Franklin D Roosevelt once made the Democrats famous for. In its philosophy, this was a strikingly liberal speech. Although he conceded that “government [can’t ] solve all our problems,” the Prez dismissed blaming “welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group.” He lambasted the Republicans as a party that cherish “a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism,” and his best zinger was this medical parody of the Ryan Plan: “Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.” As an alternative, Obama offered a breathless shopping list of policies – green energy, support with college tuition, healthcare reform, education etc. America, it would seem, is turning the corner. It is poised to be even greater than before, and anyone who believes otherwise is a heartless Right-winger.
There are some facts that need to be checked. All evening, the Democrats touted the President’s claim to have “saved” the automobile industry. True, General Motors and Chrysler took a bailout and are running a profit. But it was George W Bush who initiated the rescue package, not Obama. And while the President happily reported that America is “making things again,” low-paid work has outstripped higher paid new jobs by a ratio of 3-1, with retail picking up much of the slack. Meanwhile, debt is mounting and unemployment stuck over 8 percent. Folks living abroad watching edited highlights of Obama’s speech may wonder why this man doesn’t enjoy a double digit lead. The reality of lingering recession, foreclosure and pessimism about America’s future are all to blame.
But conventions aren’t about substance, they’re about style. On this count, we might have expected Obama to shine. Instead, he seemed to misjudge the moment. His speech was heavy on policy and obviously aimed at the base: presidential, but not in the warm Reaganite way that everyone can identify with. Although he made a plea for compromise, Obama gave little sense of what he was happy to negotiate over. In fact, his partisan jabs were rather cruel, suggesting that in this war of “two visions,” the Republicans are essentially un-American and mean. His observation that Mitt Romney lacked foreign policy experience was peculiar given that the USA didn’t exactly elect Henry Kissinger in 2008.
[On a side note, Obama referred to Mitt insulting America's "closest ally." Thanks to the Republican candidate's insults about the Olympics, the White House seems to have decided that it now loves Great Britain. Mitt Romney is a diplomat after all.]
Most of all, there was a notable absence of the personal. Its “getting down to business” tone was more appropriate to a State of the Union address. Perhaps he felt that enough biographical information had been covered by Michelle, or that he could coast on his already high likability ratings. But with the election so close, that may have been an unwise gamble.
We should expect a moderate bounce in the polls from the Democratic convention. It was far better choreographed than the Republican event, which had all the emotional charge of a power-point presentation for a pyramid scheme. But Obama’s speech won’t have the impact of 2008, which raised such hope for change that it nearly eclipsed the inauguration itself.
A better comparison might be with the convention of 1980. That year, the economy was poor, the party platform was remarkably liberal and the convention witnessed a number of great speeches (the most famous was by Ted Kennedy). So good were those speeches that they overshadowed the weary effort of incumbent Jimmy Carter. Like Obama in 2012, Carter calculated that he was better off energising the base than reaching out to the middle. So he promised jobs, gender equality, peace and plenty – and savaged his opponent’s conservative philosophy. The convention as a whole put Carter into the lead in the polls that followed. But he still went down to a heavy defeat in November. A bad recession combined with declining personal appeal were too difficult to overcome. The convention’s bounce was an illusion.
In short, nothing Obama did on Thursday night was either new or effective enough to be called a game-changer. Americans will vote on jobs and debt, not tepid rhetoric.