Reading Obama

I didn’t get to watch President Obama’s acceptance speech last night, but I did read the transcript today. It wasn’t one of his best — his 2008 acceptance was underwhelming, too — but that doesn’t mean its themes won’t be important in the campaign.

Grammar and style were problems for most speakers at both party conventions, alas, but a bipartisanship of low standards is not good. The president said, for example, “when you pick up that ballot to vote [what else would you do with it?], you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation.” Strike “of any time,” please. I’m reminded of his speech a few years ago when he hailed ordinary Americans’ “doing their business.” He meant “attending to.” Has he never walked that expensive dog of his?

As for its larger themes, the speech showed a president very much on the defensive. One reason it didn’t soar is that he had to insert many proleptic passages, reassuring his audience that despite what the Republicans are saying and what an innocent listener might gather, he’s all for inalienable rights, responsibilities, individual initiative, free enterprise, citizenship, Israel, and God. Amid such an elaborate smoke screen, little in the way of offensive operations could be conducted.

Connected to his defensiveness was his new false humility. His old false humility recalled the classic joke about conversing with an egotist. “But enough about me,” says the egomaniac. “Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?” I’m the indispensable leader, Obama used to say, but I depend upon you the people to hope that change is possible, and so follow me. Together, we will be the change we’ve been waiting for.

In the new version, the mood is significantly darker and the choice starker. The people face “two fundamentally different visions of the future,” and if they don’t choose the right (Left) one, it’s not his fault. He admits he, like Lincoln, is not perfect. But the choice is clear. “My fellow citizens,” he says, “you were the change,” in the past tense, notice. But “if you turn away now, if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible, well, change will not happen. . . . Only you have the power to move us forward.”. In other words, don’t blame him if the country goes to hell under Romney-Ryan.

Finally, his discovery of “citizenship” deserves a more extended discussion. It’s his retooled version of what he used to call community or unity, as in “a more perfect union,” the theme of much of his 2007–11 rhetoric. Citizenship is a concern of the American founders, and particularly of the so-called republican or communitarian interpretation of the founding. But as Obama employs it, it has little to do with the original understanding of the term. For him it implies the “basic bargain” at the heart of his and the liberals’ America: that hard work and responsibility not only should be rewarded, but will be rewarded, by the State if necessary, and in Elizabeth Warren’s America, boy, is it necessary. When the State gets involved, then even shirkers and irresponsible millionaires turn out to deserve and get government benefits. On these and related contentions outlined in Obama’s speech, the 2012 race will likely turn. 

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