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Given the Potential Pitfalls, It Was a Solid Speech

CHARLOTTE—Nicely done, Mr. President. 

A few days ago, a colleague attending his first convention asked me a simple question that was maddeningly difficult to answer: What should the president say? None of the options seemed promising: He couldn’t spend the speech ticking off first-term accomplishments because, whatever their substantive merits, Americans won’t be impressed so long as the economy is sputtering. He couldn’t spend the speech bashing the other guys because other-guy bashing isn’t becoming of a president facing a national audience. And he couldn’t spend the speech laying out a bold second-term agenda because, so far as I could tell, there isn’t a bold agenda to lay out. In any case, dropping one two months out from Election Day would be unorthodox to say the least. 

As it happened, though, the president had an elegant answer to this dilemma: Let’s build on what we’ve done. Or, as he put it: “Now you have a choice – between a strategy that reverses this progress, or one that builds on it.” 

The beauty of the “let’s build on this” frame is that it managed to accomplish all three objectives simultaneously, but without dwelling on any of them long enough to show the seams. It was a pithy way to take the proper amount of first-term credit—suggesting real but insufficient gains—without getting bogged down in a convoluted better-off-than-you-were-four-years-ago argument. It was a relatively civil way of tweaking Romney and Ryan—saying they would undo the modest work that had been done isn't especially harsh or ad hominem. And it was a way of projecting a second-term agenda without shiny new policies to unveil. We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing till we finish the job, the argument went—and, oh yeah, we won’t do any of those dodgy things my opponents are proposing. 

As rhetoric, it was somewhat pedestrian. When it came to innovation—substantive, strategic, whatever—it was clearly lacking. And emotionally, there were probably five more satisfying speeches this week. Clinton offered a more comprehensive critique of the GOP ticket; Biden and Michelle served up a more stirring testament to the first-term (among other things). But when you consider the degree of difficulty, it was a well-executed speech. If Americans come to the same conclusion about his time in office, Obama will be re-elected.

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber