I have heard Barack Obama deliver speeches better, but in this acceptance speech, Obama did exactly what he needed to do to set the stage for the fall campaign.
He had to do three things for the fall, which he accomplished in his speech: first, he focused the campaign on the economy--and did so by personalizing the fear and anger that many Americans now feel. Secondly, he answered forcefully arguments about his ability as commander-in-chief. And third, he invoked his own biography to dispel fears that as a president he would favor one group over another.
And he did all these things thematically. There was a very subtle interweaving of Obama’s past themes with the new theme of the American promise. (I like to think that Obama has read Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life, which inspired Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive campaign in 1912 and the founding of The New Republic in 1914.) Here, in outline, is how the past and present themes came together:
Change: In this speech, “change” did not refer to the kind of sweeping good government notion that Obama evoked in the campaign to skewer Hillary Clinton. Rather, it referred specifically to change from the eight years of George W. Bush. Indeed, Obama drew a contrast between the Clinton and Bush years. With that simple modification, change became relevant to the fall campaign.
American promise: Obama used this idea to refer to the promise that each American, regardless of the circumstances of his or her birth, has an opportunity to get ahead. In that sense, it was intertwined with his own biography and with his appeal to a higher equality of Americans regardless of race, class, and region.
But it also fed two other arguments. First, it figured in the liberal or progressive (to use Croly’s term) argument that government has a responsibility to make good on the American promise: through regulating the market, and through providing health insurance and education for all citizens. Second, it figured in Bill Clinton’s “New Democrat” argument (that has goes back to the Puritans) that in order to achieve the promise of American life, Americans have to exercise mutual and individual responsibility. People have to be willing to work; parents have to look after their children; corporations cannot behave like brigands. So through this notion of the American promise, Obama united the two historic strands of American liberalism: the older New Deal argument of the 1930s and the “New Democrat” argument of the 1990s.
One America: Finally, Obama invoked his vision of a single America--and he used it not only to put forward the promise of racial reconciliation, but as an attempt to defuse the great social divisions of the last decades over immigration, abortion, gays and guns. And that, too, dovetailed back into the idea of the American promise, which could not be achieved, Obama suggested, if America continued to be rent by incivility and social discord. It was one of the most intellectually elegant speeches I’ve heard. Besides that, I expect that it will do Obama and the Democrats a lot of good in the weeks ahead.
--John B. Judis