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Obama’s Speech Was Too Much of a Humblebrag

Watching President Obama give his nomination speech last night, it occurred to me for the first time that he might actually lose.

Rereading the speech this morning, I find that (as Mark Twain once said about Wagner) it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. It lacked poetry, but it managed a reasonable balance between acknowledging that the economy stinks, asserting that we’re on the right track, and pointing out that the Romney presidency would make things worse for everyone but the rich. But the speech still possessed several glaring faults.

The biggest was the short shrift it gave Obamacare. In general commentators are marveling at how much Obamacare got talked up at the convention, given that it doesn’t poll well. But Obama didn’t do much of the talking. Rather than describe the health care law as an affirmative triumph, he talked about it as a part of the status quo—somebody pushed it through Congress, he can’t remember who exactly—that the GOP wants to take away: “If you can’t afford health insurance, hope that you don’t get sick.” That’s no way to talk about your single greatest accomplishment. Obama would have done better to follow the lead of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who said in his keynote speech, “Seven presidents before him—Democrats and Republicans—tried to expand health care to all Americans. President Obama got it done.” I was also mystified by Obama’s failure to boast about his second greatest accomplishment, the Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill. The law is far from perfect, but it marked what could be the start of an historic reversal of decades of regulatory indulgence that led to the 2008 crash. Even Republican rank-and-filers don’t much like Wall Street these days, and talking up Wall Street reform would have been an excellent way to underscore that Obama’s opponent is captive to Wall Street’s poisonous culture. But again, Obama talked about Wall Street regulation only as a part of the status quo that Romney wants to reverse (“I don’t believe that rolling back regulations on Wall Street will help the small businesswoman expand, or the laid-off construction worker keep his home”), and not as his own proud accomplishment.

Since the start of the financial crisis, I’ve been hungering for my president—first George W. Bush, then Obama—to demonstrate a little FDR-like ebullience, some reassurance that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Bush could offer nothing but the frozen stare of a deer caught in the headlights. Obama at least seemed to know what he was doing, but he’s never projected the necessary air of “we’re all going to be fine.” That sort of aristocratic confidence is not (to repeat the convention’s most popular rhetorical cliche) who he is, and I get that. But it wasn’t pleasant hearing Obama talk, in his nomination speech, about how hard it’s going to be:

I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy. I never have. You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades. It will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one. And by the way—those of us who carry on his party’s legacy should remember that not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington.

We’re dangerously close to Jimmy Carter territory here. First, there’s the boast (“You elected me to tell you the truth”) disguised as an expression of humility (“I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy”). Later, I actually winced when Obama humblebragged, “And while I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’” Just because our greatest president was a bit depressive, that doesn’t mean we want the present one to lacerate himself over his failures, and we certainly don’t want to hear him tell us about it. The mention of FDR only served to remind us of how different, temperamentally, Obama is from the Democratic party’s “happy warrior” tradition. Worst of all, though, was Obama’s statement that “not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington.” It combined an opportunistic (and probably insincere) echo of Bill Clintons irritating pronouncement in 1996 that “the era of big government is over” (which wasn’t even true) with a hint of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech assertion that the country’s crisis of confidence was too big a problem for a president to solve on his own. Even when it’s true that the fault lies in our selves, not in our stars, who wants to hear it from the country’s biggest star?

The malaise echo was also audible in Obama’s repetition of his 2008 theme, “You’re the change.” I don’t mind being the change if the change is the legislative triumph that was passage of the Affordable Care Act—and, to his credit, Obama did say, “You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can’t limit her coverage.” I’m also the reason, Obama said, that a young man can get his medical degree (I guess because of Obama’s student-loan policy, though he didn’t really make that clear) and that a young immigrant won’t be deported (thanks to a recent policy shift by the department of homeland security), and that there’s no more Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and that there’s no more Iraq war. I’m happy to share the credit for all that. But I don’t like being the change if that means I’m responsible for the continuing drop in median income, or persistent unemployment, or Obama’s own subdued state of mind.

“I’m hopeful because of you,” Obama said at the end of his speech. He then recited a litany of inspiring examples of people showing grit under various kinds of adversity. But yikes, who wants that responsibility? What if I’m feeling grumpy (as I became, for instance, while listening to this speech)? I need a president who can cheer me up, not a president who needs me to cheer him up. The president can’t afford to outsource his optimism.

Yes, it’s going to be hard. The economy is in a dire state, and relatively high unemployment is likely to persist for another whole decade no matter who gets elected president. But a lot of the choices before us are easy. We’ve got to make taxation fairer (not through the kind of tax-reform compromise—somewhat lower rates in exchange for somewhat fewer deductions—that Obama seemed to be signaling support for in his speech, but rather by raising marginal taxes on the rich so that when we also raise taxes on the middle class, as we’ll eventually have to to lower the deficit, it doesn’t further distort the income distribution). In the short term, some additional government stimulus will likely be necessary. An increase in the minimum wage, which hasn’t been discussed in this campaign at all, would be extremely helpful about now. Politically, we have to block the Republicans from implementing their disastrous plan to slash government spending and further cut taxes on the rich. That’s not exactly easy, but the evidence suggests that on taxes, at least, Obama has acquired an unexpected advantage over Romney. The Democrats actually said the word “tax” at their convention (149 times) significantly more often than the Republicans did at theirs (89), which may signal the start of an historic paradigm shift. Shouldn’t Obama demonstrate a little satisfaction about that?

Years ago, I took my daughter Alice to see a rope-tricks demonstration. The guy who did it was very good. But he came very near to spoiling it by telling us, as he performed the tricks, how very difficult they were. It was like hearing Fred Astaire say that his feet were killing him. I later explained to Alice that part of doing something well should be disguising, or at least minimizing, how difficult it is. The guy doing rope tricks should have made us feel as though this was so simple even we could probably do it, even though we’d know in our hearts that we can’t. Obama’s speech reminded me of that rope-trick guy. Don’t tell me how hard it is. I already know that. Make me feel that you have the confidence to get it done, and make that confidence contagious. That’s what Obama’s having trouble doing, and if he doesn’t get better at it soon the results could be catastrophic for him and for the entire country.