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The Missed Opportunity In Obama's Fine Speech

With one glaring exception, Barack Obama delivered a concession speech that serves him well in the primaries ahead. For a candidate who has made a generational appeal against the baby-boomers, Obama’s rhetoric resonates because it echoes the eloquence of earlier leaders who shaped the way today’s Americans understand our country. Most of all, Obama’s antecedents are high-minded Illinoisans, from Abraham Lincoln to Adlai Stevenson and two other highbrow Democrats, Senators Paul Douglas and Paul Simon. “Something is happening in America,” Obama insisted, gently but emphatically, and those words sounded like they were spoken by Stevenson and his political heir, Eugene McCarthy. “No more using 9/11 as a way to scare up votes,” Obama intoned, recalling Stevenson addressing a stonily silent American Legion and Gene McCarthy debating his namesake Joe McCarthy. Let’s challenge “our real enemies”--terrorism, disease, and global warming--Obama declared, borrowing a formulation that John F. Kennedy used in his inaugural address.

Obama concluded with a litany, “Yes, we can.” He attributed that phrase to JFK, Martin Luther King, and generations of social reformers. As he spoke, I thought he would segue to Cesar Chavez’ slogan, Si Se Puede (literally, “Yes, it can be done,” but emotively, “Yes, we can”). It would have been a seamless way for Obama to reach out to Latino voters, as well as the Hispanic union members who are so influential in Nevada and California. But he blew it. Maybe this onetime organizer and brilliant rhetorician missed a beat, for once.

--David Kusnet