Four years ago in Boston, I watched Barack Obama deliver perhaps the most perfect speech I’ll ever see. It was full of soaring imagery and lyrical prose. If offered up a searing, passionate indictment of modern politics. And it was delivered with an eloquence no politician in my lifetime had shown before.
Tonight, on television, I watched Barack Obama give a rather different piece of oratory. Although delivered with equal skill, its content struck me as more unwieldy and, at times, more pedestrian. Although not without poetic passages, particluarly towards the end, it was thick with policy proposals and tempered by a more naked agenda--namley, making swing voters believe Obama stands for them. I gather, based on the early reports, many people in Denver were literally moved to tears. I remember feeling that four years ago, but not so tonight. And I don't think it was simply because I saw this at a greater distance.
But if Denver's speech wasn't the rhetorical triumph Obama offered in Boston, substantively it was far more provocative--and, because of that, it may prove far more important.
The 2004 keynote address was about our common bond as Americans. Enough with the campaign tactics that divide us, Obama said--we are one, United States of America. It was a poignant plea, for sure, but not really that controversial. Who, after all, doesn’t believe in unity?
Unity was a central theme of tonight’s speech, as well. Obama actually reprised some of the one America passages almost word for word from 2004. But this time, Obama suggested, our responsibility to one another goes beyond an obligation to listen respectfully. That responsibility includes an obligation to help one another in times of crisis. “That's the promise of America,” Obama said, “the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper.”
It was after that line that Obama laid out, in necessarily pedantic detail, how that translated into a governing agenda: Shifting tax breaks away from corporations and onto poor and middle-class Americans; creating jobs and promoting energy independence by massive public investment in the development of green technology; raising teacher salaries while demanding more accountability from them, in order to make sure all children get high quality education; and, once and for all, creating a health insurance system that guarantees affordable medical care for all.
But sometimes the pedantic can be persuasive--and even powerful. Nobody listening to this speech can complain that Obama lacks substance (although, apparently, an early Associated Press dispatch suggested exactly that). And, make no mistake, the agenda Obama laid out tonight is bolder than anything Democrats have seriously proposed since the 1960s. As Obama said, "now is not the time for small plans." While Obama may be a pragmatist who shares with conservatives a profound belief in individual responsibility, the common theme in his policy ideas is the pooling together of common resources--in other words, the fundamentally liberal idea that, by discovering and addressing common vulnerability, we can develop an even greater common strength.
Is this risky? You bet. For at least a political generation, Republicans have managed to paint the advocates of such views as weak--weak of mind, weak of spirit, and weak of heart. With this speech, Obama was determined to show that Democrats--and, yes, liberals--were strong.
And I think he succeeded.
Obama tonight was as pugnacious as I’ve ever seen him. He took on the attacks Republicans have thrown at him personally, mocking the “celebrity” accusation by reminding Americans of his own humble roots--and of the financial struggles of everyday Americans that drive his agenda. And he was even more combative about McCain's Republican ideology:
For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy--give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is--you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps - even if you don't have boots. You're on your own.
Well it's time for them to own their failure. It's time for us to change America.
Most tellingly, Obama was spoiling for a fight on what’s been the Republicans greatest strength these past few years: national security. “If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next Commander-in-Chief,” Obama said, “that's a debate I'm ready to have.”
From there, Obama openly questioned McCain’s judgment, calling the focus on Iraq--and neglect of Afghanistan--a gross strategic error: “John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell--but he won't even go to the cave where he lives.” And then, after rehearsing the full litany of recent Republican foreign policy failures, Obama got downright indignant:
We are the party of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy. So don't tell me that Democrats won't defend this country. Don't tell me that Democrats won't keep us safe. The Bush-McCain foreign policy has squandered the legacy that generations of Americans -- Democrats and Republicans - have built, and we are here to restore that legacy.
Towards the end of the speech, Obama finally returned to his more lyrical style--and his theme of unity. But the jabs at McCain kept coming, paritcularly when it came to the issue of patriotism.
...let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. ...
So I've got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first.
How will this all play? The pundits love it, but they are not the target audience. Politically, this speech will succeed or fail based on the reaction of all the people Obama described--the downsized auto workers in Michigan, the impoverished elderly woman in Ohio, the soldiers shipping off and the soldiers returning home. Will the explict references to their problems win them over? Or will they continue to see Obama as alien--somebody who simply doesn't understand and speak for them? Will they find the policy ideas reassuring--or will they see it as empty rhetoric? Only the polls and, eventually, the election results can tell us.
But even if the public ultimately rejects tonight's speech, I will still cherish it--for this is the night that a Democratic presidential nominee stood before the nation, proclaimed his party's ideals in no uncertain terms, and served notice that he would fight for them.