When an incumbent president runs for re-election, Rule One is never to underestimate the resources he can bring to the battle. Rule Two follows from the first: Sitting presidents gain tremendous partisan advantage by creating the impression of non-partisanship. Barack Obama confirmed the salience of both rules tonight.
The president delivered what was, viewed strictly as theater, the speech of his life. He looked and sounded presidential, taking every dirty, rotten, cheap advantage of the prestige and good will generated by the great office he holds. He came down hard on bankers, oil companies, and millionaires (safe bets all), inveighed against partisan gridlock (read “those self-serving Republicans”), told some whoppers about his accomplishments to date (e.g., his health-care scheme and regulatory-reform record), and proposed a carload of new special-interest programs that, he said, will lead the nation out of the economic wasteland he inherited (read “Bush did it”). He even had the brass to wrap all this in the mantle of American exceptionalism — this from the man who has spent most of his political life decrying or apologizing for America’s example and influence in the world. With the exception of the last point, which is new, these have been Obama’s standard tropes from the day he took office, and they will be reiterated in increasingly strident fashion between now and November. If the GOP allows the battle to be waged on these grounds, the president looks like a winner.
Mitch Daniels, in reply, sounded exactly the right note — one that has been almost entirely lost in the childish cacophony of the Republican primaries to date. He sounded like a grown-up. He pulled the veil back on Obama’s sunny description of America, reminding the voters that the nation’s fiscal condition remains very perilous indeed and has been made worse in every respect by the president’s policies. The burden of Obama’s profligacy, he added, would crush the middle class (and generations yet to come) unless the government changed course by reducing spending and regulation, holding the line on taxes, expanding the private sector, and being honest about the true cost of entitlements. All in all, a first-rate performance by Daniels; he packed a lot into a short space and gave the promise of more to come. His speech had most of the elements necessary to put Obama on the defensive by changing the terms of debate. That’s the only way the Republicans can hope to win. Everybody here for a brokered convention, raise your hand.
— Michael M. Uhlmann teaches American law and politics at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College.