The president’s convention speech was never going to be a make-or-break moment for him in this campaign: People already have an opinion of him, they basically know his pitch, and unless he planned to offer a major new proposal or argument it wouldn’t have been easy for him to move anyone with his convention closer. But he surely could have done better than he did. He gave the fourth best speech of the Democratic convention, and the three better ones—Bill Clinton’s, Michelle Obama’s, and (rather surprisingly, at least for me) Joe Biden’s—weren’t spectacular. And he gave a speech that couldn’t rank near the top tier of his own presidential speeches.
The basic problem for a president running for reelection in hard times is to explain how the next four years would be different from the last four without making himself sound like a failure. Obama simply didn’t do that. He offered the Left’s usual confused nostalgia for the early postwar years followed by a vague vision of hope and a set of bland goals that had to leave his listeners wondering why he hadn’t done these things in the last four years, and therefore why we should expect him to be more effective with (almost certainly) even fewer votes in Congress on his side in the next four. He offered no sense that he thinks some significant change of direction is necessary, and therefore seems set on spending the fall insisting that things are on the right track but Mitt Romney would disrupt them. I suspect that won’t be an easy sell.
The president and his speechwriters must have recognized that this would seem strange, so they gave the speech two further themes—one defensive and one offensive. The defensive theme was an attempt to roll back his “you didn’t build that” gaffe by simply asserting that he and his party do believe in individual initiative, self-reliance, and earned success. He said there were some problems the government couldn’t solve, though he declined to name them. (Later in the speech he also acknowledged that he, not unlike Abraham Lincoln, actually had some failings, though he declined to name those too.) But even as he said this he persisted in the dominant trope of this convention—and, it seems, of contemporary progressive thought: the jump from the sheer fact of human interdependence to a defense of every federal program in precisely its current form. It’s the liberal welfare state or the law of the jungle, and no other alternative is imaginable. This mental gesture—which simultaneously offers an excuse for ignoring the imminent collapse of the liberal welfare state and for ignoring what conservatives are actually saying and offering—really deserves to be thought through. It is a fascinating indicator of the contemporary Left’s intellectual exhaustion.
The offensive theme was, however, far more ably developed, and it seemed to be the only part of the speech that the president really cared about. It was in part an outgrowth of the same self-righteous progressive error—of the sense that the Republicans are offering radical individualism and a cold and selfish you’re-on-your-own philosophy of government. And to this extent it was answered by a very revealing display of the left’s tendency to collapse all of society—all that stands between the individual and the state—into the state. Different speakers this week took this up in different ways (starting with the opening video in which one of the speakers said that government is the only thing we all belong to), and Obama’s way was to say that his party’s alternative to the every man for himself philosophy of the Right is an idea of citizenship. “We believe in citizenship,” he said, “a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy.” It’s an odd claim, as the word “citizenship” doesn’t appear in any founding document (and to the extent that “citizen” does it describes a legal resident, and never seems to be assigned much significance) and the term citizen actually had a rather complicated place in the parlance of late 18th century Anglo-American politics, often used to refer derisively to radicals. Hamilton’s friends in the newspapers frequently referred to Thomas Jefferson as “Citizen Jefferson,” to Jefferson’s very great displeasure, to highlight his affinity for the French revolutionaries. For Obama, the term seemed to be useful as a way of identifying our commonality with our membership in a political community defined by its government. It is, again, a fascinating instinct, conveying at once both the best and the worst of the old progressive outlook but (it seems) without much reflection on its serious limitations. There is rich potential in the notion of citizenship, but only if it is seen as denoting membership in a society that consists of more than a government. Obama gave no real indication that the word has this meaning for him.
#more#For the most part, though, the offensive theme was a simpler matter: attacking Mitt Romney and his supposed plans to eradicate all of government while giving tax cuts to the wealthy. The president sought to use the fact that the Republicans last week didn’t have much to say about their own agenda to try to describe that agenda for the country himself. This consisted largely of some indefensible interpretations of Romney’s budget goals and a downright falsehood or two about his Medicare proposal plus the assertion that someone with no foreign policy experience couldn’t be trusted to be president (which does take some gall for this particular president). But the thrust of it, again, was to suggest that Romney wanted to decimate the government for the sake of his rich friends.
This was really the only coherent message of the speech: Romney would be bad for America. The president laid out no discernible second-term agenda of his own, and his defense of his first term bore no resemblance to what that first term had involved.
After these two weeks, I think it’s fair to say that both Romney and Obama seek to make the election a referendum on the other guy. Both conventions only got specific in their criticisms of the opposing party, and neither did much to offer a particular agenda for the next four years. This is, at least to this wonk, a disappointing fact. But it does suggest that Romney has some advantage going into the final stretch: the idea that this election is a referendum on the incumbent president will certainly seem much more plausible to swing voters than the idea that it is a referendum on Mitt Romney. If neither side offers much that is new, our unhappy electorate will vote against the status quo.
Taken as a whole, the Democratic convention was surprisingly strident and culturally liberal, while the Republican convention was mostly just very dull. But if we compare only their 10pm hours—the only ones any moveable voters probably saw—the Democrats put on a better show. At the end of the day, it’s hard to see how these two conventions taken together will move the needle much either way. Good fun for us political junkies, but not a whole lot more.