David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America’s Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever.
Wednesday night produced a subtle but significant alteration in the Democrats’ message. Instead of “change you can believe in,” Barack Obama now offers--in Joe Biden’s felicitous phrasing--”the change you need.”
Moving from belief to need reflects the Obama campaign’s shift from mobilizing a core of dedicated supporters in the primaries to persuading the decisive group of swing voters in the general election. Most of these voters are working class whites who know they need a change in the nation’s economic direction, but still aren’t sure that Obama represents the kind of change they want. As he woos this group, Obama isn’t seeking true believers. He’ll settle for comparison shoppers.
Wednesday night featured two speakers well qualified to close the sale with these economically anxious voters. Bill Clinton presided over a booming economy in the late 1990s--the only time in recent memory when middle class and low income Americans saw their purchasing power increase. For all the soap operas in which he starred, Clinton always seemed like someone most Americans knew and who knew something about most Americans. As for Joe Biden, during this convention, he’s acted much like he’s been presented: as a regular guy who grew up in Scranton and Wilmington, got elected to the Senate, suffered a terrible tragedy, rebuilt his life, and took the train home every night to be with his family. Whenever the camera panned in on him these last few days, he has had the appropriate facial expression--usually the look of a father whose son just hit a home run at a little league game. He has come across as relentlessly normal, and in a bit of a shock, relentlessly disciplined.
It was the disciplined Clinton--the good Clinton--who showed up Wednesday night. Just as Hillary had to begin her speech by saying she supports Obama, Bill had to begin by saying that Obama is qualified to be commander-in-chief from day one. Having begun with what were obviously prepared remarks about national security, Clinton moved on to themes he has sounded for almost 20 years on the national stage: In order to be strong abroad, America has to be strong at home, with a shared prosperity and less economic inequality and social conflict. In a world “troubled by terror; by trafficking in weapons, drugs and people; by human rights abuses,” America can only be secure when we lead the world in solving these problems. With remarkable generosity, Clinton situated Obama in his spiritual hometown--”the place called Hope.”
While Clinton, in effect, gave two speeches, Biden gave only one, with a unifying metaphor that he introduced at the beginning: getting up after you’re knocked down. He presented resilience as the great story of his own life, the great virtue of working Americans, and the great goal of an Obama-Biden administration. Biden introduced several litanies that Democratic stump speakers should repeat in the weeks ahead. The underlying theme is that McCain means “more of the same,” while Obama stands for “the change you need.”
Clinton, Biden, and the defeated 2004 nominee, John Kerry, all began by honoring McCain’s heroism and then homed in on his support for President Bush’s economic policies and his embrace of conservative Republican positions. Unable to counterpunch effectively in the last campaign, Kerry introduced an effective line of attack against McCain, comparing the moderate maverick “Senator McCain” of years ago to the reliably right-wing “Candidate McCain” of the past few years. As Clinton sometimes does, Kerry even made himself the foil for his own attacks, observing that McCain has engaged in the flip-flopping that Kerry was accused of--”Talk about being for it before you’re against it.”
A disciplined Clinton, a down-to-earth Biden, and a deadpan Kerry showed up on Wednesday night. Let’s see what kind of an Obama we get on Thursday.