I’m not on President Obama’s payroll, no matter what Stephen Colbert says, so I can say this without fear of being fired: I didn’t get that speech. It felt subdued and clichéd. It felt like it was a few speeches stitched together. It felt like, after overpromising in 2008, he was determined to underpromise in 2012. And it all led up to a final ask that seemed baffling: “If you share that faith with me — if you share that hope with me — I ask tonight for your vote.” You’ve been President for four years! Is mere hope still the best reason to support you?
I don’t want to say too much more before I reread the speech, because as always there were nice moments — about the reality of global warming, about the Republican obsession with tax cuts, about the little girl from Phoenix whose insurance company is going to have to pay for her heart surgery. It’s no secret that I think Obama has a powerful story to tell about the change that’s happened over the past four years, so I was happy to hear him brag about saving the auto industry, doubling renewable energy, raising educational standards, ending the war in Iraq and killing Osama bin Laden. I even liked his notion that “you did it.”
Maybe I’m just sick of convention speeches. I actually liked this one better on the page, which is pretty unusual for a Barack Obama gig. I could see how it made him look serious and presidential. But it still seemed to be a compromise between White House factions who couldn’t agree on how much to brag about Obama’s record and how much to focus on the future, how much to bash Republicans and how much to reach for a more uplifting tone. “If you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible, well, change will not happen,” Obama said. “If you give up on the idea that your voice will make a difference, then other voices will fill the void.” But wait: I thought change did happen. Why would we want to give up?
I don’t entirely trust my snap judgments about these things, but the speech felt like a downer, hope and all. Joe Biden made a better case for his boss, and Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama made much better cases. Obama made a persuasive argument that returning power to Republicans could be a disaster for the country — it’s not a hard argument to make — but he didn’t make four more years of Obama sound like much fun. “Yes, our road is longer, but we’ll travel it together,” he warned us. “We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind.” Sounds like a tough slog.