In the Arena

Obama Argues for a Second Term Without Closing the Deal

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Callie Shell for Time

First Lady Michelle Obama greets her husband, President Barack Obama, in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 6 2012.

The President gave a fine speech Thursday night. His vision of the country is much closer to the place where I live — and, I daresay, where most Americans live — than Mitt Romney’s. It is an America that includes truck drivers and teachers and autoworkers as well as Romney’s beloved entrepreneurs. Obama laid out the case against Romney’s constricted vision in a very effective way: “If you have a cold, they say take two tax cuts and roll back some regulations and see us in the morning.” He was, of course, defter, funnier, more profound than Romney. He told basic truths like “global warming is not a hoax.” He made no absurd promises. He recognized the difficulty of our situation. He acknowledged mistakes. But he did not close the deal. The speech disappointed me, and I’m not quite sure why.

(MORE: Full Text of the President’s Address)

Perhaps it was the absence of detail. The only propositional statistic I remember is his calling for 100,000 more math and science teachers. I wanted him to say: Here’s what we did that worked; here’s where we need to work harder; here are a few things we’ve learned we have to do differently; here’s what I hope we can do. In a way, he was hamstrung — as Romney was — by his personal distaste for tooting his own horn. I actually liked the details in Joe Biden’s speech better, the stories of Obama saving the auto industry and making the decision to whack Osama bin Laden. But even there, Biden didn’t quite deliver: he did not, perhaps could not, say it was really ballsy to go into Pakistan without their permission, and that our generals were advising the President to bomb the compound rather than send in the SEALs who were able to retrieve all sorts of valuable information that has led to the death or capture of many more al-Qaeda leaders. President Obama defied the generals and achieved a better result than they were willing to imagine.

But I still wonder: What is he going to do with his second term? What are the next things we need to do as a nation? Why did he limit his defense of the Affordable Care Act to a sentence or two about a girl in Phoenix with a pre-existing condition? Why didn’t he say more about the revival in manufacturing that seems to just be beginning? Why didn’t he get more specific, and dreamy, about the whiz-bang new energy products that are being developed by basic-research government agencies like ARPA-E? He talked about goals; why did none of them seem big? Why can’t I remember any of them? Why didn’t he talk about the world’s largest solar farm, under way in Nevada? Why didn’t he envision an America — happening right now, by the way — where people can put solar tiles on their roofs, take care of their own electrical needs and sell the surplus to their local utilities? Or something else. Whatever. Something to hang on to and aim for.

(MORE: A Tough Slog: Obama Asks America to Go on Hope)

I suppose he was being realistic. I suppose that given the Republicans’ fanatic assault on government itself — the use of government as an epithet — it’s not too wise to dream big anymore. Is it possible to understand that and still be disappointed? Back in 1992, I remember George Stephanopoulos saying to me, “Specificity is a character issue this year.” He was speaking about Bill Clinton — and we saw Clinton’s native  specificity, his ability to make facts come alive, on display last night. In terms of sheer candlepower, Clinton and Obama are the two smartest politicians I’ve ever covered. Given what I saw of Clinton’s handling of the military and foreign policy in the 1990s, though, I don’t think he could have made the crisp, subtle decisions that Obama made over the past four years. But I’m continually disappointed by Obama’s inability to make the domestic policy decisions he’s made come alive to the American people, to show us what sort of country we’re going to be living in when we emerge from this mess, to show how we are going to be different — necessarily — when we come out the other side.

To be sure, he gave us more than Romney. Romney has given us practically nothing. And the expansive joy of the Democrats, in all their many wonderful hues, was far more bracing than the heavily narcotized and straitjacketed rage of the Republicans in tamped-down Tampa last week. The Republicans’ untoward anger, their illegitimate fantasies about Barack Obama, is an American disgrace. I like and admire the President; he’s smart and funny and exemplary. He’s made some very difficult decisions, correct decisions under impossible circumstances. He pulled us from the brink, from an economic disaster largely caused by the plutocrats now criticizing him so shamelessly and falsely. But I want more from him, more guidance, more leadership. Somehow — and this is still true for an electoral majority of Americans — we all do.

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