Politics & Policy

Obama’s Oratorical Trap

The delegates here want razzle-dazzle. But the voters want more.

Denver – About midway through the schedule at the Democratic convention Tuesday night, I ran into a British friend in the hallway that runs outside the main arena of the Pepsi Center. He, like me, had ducked out of the big room for a few minutes’ relief from the overwhelming tedium of the convention program.

He had an idea. “There ought to be a rule at conventions that no speaker can say anything that’s already been said, he told me. All the points would be made, but just once. “The whole thing wouldn’t last a night,” I said. “Twenty minutes,” he responded.

And even then it might be boring. The truth is, from the standpoint of style and oratory, this Democratic convention has been a bust. From Virginia Senate candidate Mark Warner’s poorly-received keynote address — with lines like “You know, America has never been afraid of the future, and we shouldn’t start now” — to Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer’s inspiring declaration that “We’re pursuing coal gasification with carbon sequestration,” the Democratic delegates who pay any attention to the podium have been forced to wage a constant battle against boredom.

The only truly rousing speech at this convention has come from a man who had to get out of a hospital bed to deliver it. Yes, Michelle Obama’s address on Monday was popular, and yes, Hillary Clinton’s speech last night was widely praised, but in those cases the crowd inside the Pepsi Center seemed to be celebrating the speakers’ presence as much as what they had to say. For every “No way, no how, no McCain” that Sen. Clinton spoke, there was an equal and opposite clunker, like “This will not be easy. Progress never is.”

This is a convention starved for a good show.

Maybe Bill “Candidate X and Candidate Y” Clinton will give it to them. But the delegates’ true hope for a great rhetorical moment, of course, is Barack Obama’s speech Thursday night, to be delivered from a “Greek theater” set on the 50-yard-line of nearby Invesco Field. But here is Obama’s dilemma. The delegates want a peak rhetorical experience. They want to be dazzled. But undecided voters across the country are dying to hear substance from Obama. They know he can wow a crowd; they want to hear more.

At a private focus group held here in Denver a few days ago, several undecided Colorado voters were asked what advice they would give to Obama at the convention.

“Make me believe there’s substance behind your charismatic rhetoric,” one said.

“I’m glad you have a dream — talk to me about reality,” said another.

“Give me less oratory and show me what you’ve done,” said a third.

You might argue that’s just a few voters, not representative of the electorate as a whole. But it appears Obama has heard the same message from his own research. Speaking to reporters in Illinois this week, he took pains to play down the razzle-dazzle. “I’m not aiming for a lot of high rhetoric,” he said of his upcoming speech. “I’m much more concerned with communicating how I intend to help middle-class families live their lives.”

“People know that I can give the kind of speech that I gave four years ago,” Obama continued. “That’s not the question on voters’ minds. I think they’re much more interested in, what am I going to do to help them in their lives? And so, in that sense, this is going to be a more workmanlike speech.”

Which is exactly what the delegates assembled here don’t really want. Although the convention arena seems always to be filled with people beginning around five in the afternoon, there are thousands more who avoid everything but the prime-time events. People are constantly circulating in the halls outside, buying bad food and searching for celebrities — Look! There’s Richard Dreyfus! — and they’re spending more and more time at parties and receptions far away from the Pepsi Center. The one show none of them wants to miss is Obama’s night at Invesco. And they want to be carried away.

Already, Obama has sent mixed messages about the night. He’ll concentrate on substance, he says, and yet seems to have gone to great lengths to create the showiest stage in convention history.

Whatever Obama does, the Democrats here will say it’s great. That’s what the party faithful do. But as his big night approaches, Obama is boxed in. He has led audiences to expect a great show. But he knows that the voters who will make the difference on November 4 want more. It’s not clear whether he can satisfy both.


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